Outdoor Activities in Greater Des Moines: Bike Trails, Hiking and More

image of an individual running on a wooded trail

Alright, let’s get this out of the way: Greater Des Moines (DSM) is smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest and (spoiler alert) there are no oceans or mountains here. Yet, locals aren’t apologetic about this and there are several incredible reasons why:  

  1. DSM has 800+ miles of connected recreational trails that are perfect for biking, walking and running, and picturesque, too!  
  2. DSM is currently investing $125 million to connect 150 miles of rivers and streams to create the Iowa Confluence Water Trails (ICON) and will also lead to enhancements like surfing and white water rafting on the waterways. (Surfing in the Midwest? You better believe it.) 
  3. Oh, and the largest skatepark in the U.S.? It’s located here, too.

Walking, Running and Biking Trails in Des Moines

Iowa is home to RAGBRAI, an eight-day bicycle ride where nearly 10,000 bikers trek across the state. This, combined with the 800+ miles of connected trails across the region, has elevated DSM as a mecca for cyclists, whether you want to bike across the whole state or do a few leisurely miles near your home. 

The bike trails in Des Moines also serve as a destination for local activities beyond biking, including walking, running, rollerblading and more — and connect the robust park systems found throughout the region with the trail network. If exercise isn’t your primary motivation, fun stops along the trails like breweries, coffee shops, public art installations and other small businesses (even goats!) make it a major recreational draw for residents with any interest. 

Hiking Spots Near Des Moines

Spending time outdoors is good for your health and heart, and these hiking spots in and around DSM are just a few great places to find beautiful, unpaved trails: 

Nature and Wildlife in Des Moines 

image three individuals  walking in nature

DSM is both a vibrant metropolitan area and a true-to-its-roots prairie with agricultural ties and outdoor recreation. Adair County alone is home to nearly 800 acres of public woodlands, prairie and wildlife areas, with several locations providing public hunting access. The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County is an 6,000-acre federal national wildlife refuge, home to nearly 70 bison and 20 elk. Just outside of Mingo is the Ashton Observatory where visitors can experience two telescopes offering wide-field views of the night sky. 

Brenton Arboretum is a near-hidden gem with 140 acres housing 2,500 trees and shrubs in its collection. Water Works Park features 1,500 acres of riverside woodlands including the Arie Den Boer Arboretum with one of the world’s largest collections of beautiful spring flowering crab apple trees. Jester Park is a 1,600-acre area with bison and elk herds, fishing, boating, camping, Nature Center and more. Each of these — Brenton Arboretum, Water Works Park and Jester Park — offer their own trail network and natural playscapes. 

Des Moines Winter Activities

Another perk about living in DSM is the joy of all four seasons — yep, that includes winter, too! With fresh snow comes fresh chances to enjoy outdoor recreation: 

  • Jester Park has trails for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (including rentals of skis and snowshoes on-site). Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt also offers groomed, flat cross-country skiing trails and rentals are available through Polk County Conservation and other local outdoors equipment retailers. 
  • You’ll find ample ice skating options: Located with iconic views of the Downtown DSM skyline is the outdoor rink at Brenton Skating Plaza, try the year-round indoor rink at the MidAmerican Energy Company RecPlex or sprinkled throughout the region are free, open to the public community ice rinks in partnership with the Iowa Wild hockey team. 
  • Sledding hills can be found at parks and golf courses all around DSM.  

Des Moines Aquatic Centers and Water Recreation 

Rivers, lakes, water parks, splash pads and everything in between — there are tons of places for splish-splash fun and watersports around DSM. 

Lakes and Waterways

  • Lake Red Rock — you’ll find sailboats, beaches, fishing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding and more 
  • Saylorville Lake — 26,000 acres ideal for sailing, boating, jet skiing, tubing, fishing, swimming and beach gatherings 
  • DMACC Pond and Terra Lake — great for a quick suburban fishing trip with the family (when getting a fish on the line in a hurry is necessary to keep those short attention spans engaged!) 
  • Raccoon River Park — swimming beach, boathouse rentals and fishing pier are found here 
  • Big Creek State Park — a hotspot for crappie, walleye and bluegill fishing 
  • Gray’s Lake — on the edge of Downtown Des Moines, find a nice sandy beach, swimming and watercraft rentals 
  • Badger CreekLake AhquabiMaffitt Reservoir… the list goes on and on (and on)! 

Family Fun

image of two children playing in a children's garden

Campgrounds in Des Moines

Across the DSM region, you’ll find plenty of places to pitch a tent or park an RV and enjoy nights in the great outdoors. A few highlights: 

  • Jester Park — This amenity-packed park just north of Des Moines includes cabins for rent, for those not inclined to tent camp 
  • Lake Red Rock — Enjoy water sports and nature hikes on your camping trip along this lake near Pella 
  • Pammel Park — Experience one of the original state parks in Iowa, located near Winterset 
  • Prairie Flower Campground — One of several camping options available around Saylorville Lake  
  • Rock Creek State Park — Camp along a lake shore year-round in this park between Newton and Grinnell 
  • Walnut Woods State Park — Nestled between Des Moines and West Des Moines, it’s a slice of nature minutes from the metro 
  • Yellow Banks Park — Keep your eyes peeled for hawks and bald eagles that are often spotted along the Yellow River 

Des Moines Golf Courses

Des Moines ranks fourth in the country for most golf courses per capita. From clubs like the 100 year-plus Hyperion Club to Glen Oaks Country Club and numerous municipal and public courses, golfers have their pick of options for a round of 18 holes. (And golf fans won’t want to miss the annual PGA Tour Champions event, the Principal Charity Classic, which raises millions every year for Iowa children’s charities in addition to bringing pros to town for a tournament at the Wakonda Club