The Des Moines Botanical and Environmental Center is one of the most popular cultural attractions in Iowa, providing educational, recreational, and community resources to thousands.
By Michael Ream, Special to Tribune Newspapers
9:24 p.m. CDT, April 16, 2011
Iowa and Nebraska may bring visions of endless farm fields stretching to the horizon, but there also are excellent opportunities for hikes and nature walks around their capital cities of Des Moines and Lincoln.
Here are some trails that will take you through stretches of woods, past lakes and, yes, among long rows of corn.
Iowa's capital has undergone a renaissance in the last decade, with downtown transformed into a hip, popular place to eat, drink and play. New additions include an excellent outdoor sculpture park in the section of downtown known as Western Gateway. Walking and cycling paths radiate from downtown, and there are plenty of well-tended city and county parks with lots of hiking options.
Brown's Woods Nature Trail: The largest urban forest preserve in Iowa at nearly 500 acres, this stretch of woods on the southern outskirts of the city is a perfect quick escape. Setting out on the 2-mile figure-eight trail, you soon leave behind the noise of jets from the nearby airport and follow the winding path through lush scenery, crossing a bridge over a lazy creek. Keep an eye out for deer as well as birds Ñ the woods are a stop on the Makoke birding trail of central Iowa and are home to numerous species. Stop for a moment, and listen for the sound of woodpeckers hammering away in the thick tree cover.
Other paved trails are nearby, including the Great Western Trail, popular with cyclists. The woods actually are in the city of West Des Moines, a sprawling suburb formerly known as the railroad town of Valley Junction. Just a short drive north is the old railroad section, now home to many charming shops and antique malls. It also hosts a popular farmers market, with live entertainment, on Thursday evenings beginning in May and running through the summer months.
Jester Park: Stretching along the shores of Saylorville Lake north of Des Moines, this large county park offers numerous hikes that aren't too long and are perfect for families with kids. The park's Hickory Ridge Trail is marked with lots of acorns and wild mushrooms. It culminates in a view of the lake, a large children's play area and corrals for buffalo and elk.
If you can make it in late August or early September, you're in for a treat: The park is a major stopover for the migrating American white pelican, and thousands of the birds pass through here, with their numbers peaking about Labor Day.
Golf and camping are other popular activities here. The headquarters of the county park system, just inside the main entrance to the park, can supply you with information and literature on other parks and attractions in the area.
Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt: A true natural treasure, this 10 square miles of reclaimed river bottom has shorter trails moving over marshy terrain (bring your mosquito repellent) and past a landscape of wetlands, prairie and savanna. There's a plethora of wildlife; wild turkey, bobwhite quail and box turtle are just some of the species that are at home here. There are more than 200 species of birds, including the rose-breasted grosbeak, common yellowthroat and 17 types of sparrows. A nearby area is devoted to sandhill cranes.
You may prefer to explore the landscape via water: Canoes are available for rent to paddle the oxbow lakes that meander off into the surrounding wetlands. Keep your eyes peeled for muskrat and otter, as well as the occasional heron taking flight out of the thick grasses
Knock the mud off your boots after your visit, and make the short drive back to Des Moines for a first-class meal in one of downtown's many restaurants. The more stylish places are found in Western Gateway or the East Village, at the foot of Iowa's gold-domed capitol, while the Court Avenue Entertainment District, just west of the Des Moines River and adjacent to the Iowa Cubs' baseball stadium, has lots of fun eating and drinking spots. The Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, seedesmoines.com, has information for visitors.