Where to Enjoy Nature Indoors around Des Moines, Iowa

10 Places to enjoy nature and stay indoors, in the Des Moines, central Iowa area.

While we aim to get outside for a chunk of the day no matter how cold it is, I completely understand that it isn’t an option for everyone and that there are plenty of hours in the day to fill! (See what we’ve been wearing to stay warm this past fall, in this post, for winter we add balaclavas and thicker down jackets!) I try to keep a few places in rotation that allow us to experience nature without wearing a million layers. I’ve rounded up a list of places that you can experience some element of nature while still staying inside, please let me know if I missed any that you can think of! Scroll to the bottom for a map of where all these places are located around the city.

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“Hiking” in the Downtown Des Moines Skywalks

walking the downtown des moines skywalks

In the thick of winter, many of my favorite “indoor nature’ spots feel a little cramped. One of the few places to really let loose and run like you might on a hiking trail is the downtown skywalk system! If you drive downtown, you can see the glass walkways above the road that connect all of the buildings. During the week, they are filled with downtown residents and business people walking to and fro. On the weekends, they are much quieter (and colder!). Also keep in mind that most restaurants in the skywalk are closed on the weekends.

I’d recommend going on the weekends if you’re nervous about getting dirty looks or rolled eyes when your kids are giggling loudly or taking up half the walkway! There were just as many people who chatted my kids up or smiled at their rambunctiousness, and one skywalk vendor even had a little treasure chest of goodies for them to pick through. (I don’t want to misrepresent our dynamic; I definitely try to be respectful of other peoples’ time and space and corral the kids out of the way as quickly as possible if they’re blocking traffic, but I’m of the mind that it is a public space and we are welcome there too.)

It can be a bit intimidating to go check it out for the first time, there are a ton of places to park and enter, so I wanted to share some introductory info all in one post. I’m no expert though – please chime in if you have a route or a note that you think would help other people!

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Hands on History – new exhibit at State Historical Museum of Iowa

new exhibit at state historical museum

I’ve been taking my kids to the free and wonderful State Historical Museum of Iowa for a few years (my husband and I were married there, too!) but always shared about it with the caveat that it isn’t exactly designed for younger kids. Well, that’s totally changed with their brand new exhibit, “Hands on History”. It is geared towards younger kids with tons of things to touch, play, and explore- all in a relatively enclosed space that makes talking with other adults easy. We had such a great time and will definitely be back again soon! They also have regularly planned programming in this new space, read more about it here.

You can see more specific details on the State Historical Museum of Iowa page or check out its location on the interactive map.

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Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center

neal smith national wildlife refuge and prairie learning center - great indoor place to go explore with kids in des moines

If you’ve driven on I-80, you’ve probably seen the big brown sign for the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center. This is a little bit out of the way, technically I think the address is Prairie City, but it’s worth the drive! There are several miles of paved trails amidst the prairie and alongside the buffalo/elk enclosure, in addition to a drive-through buffalo/elk area, and a large, indoor Prairie Learning Center. We opted to go and check out the PLC on a cold January day – it’s free, has lots of open room to run, and some really cool, interactive displays for kids to check out. My son is 4 and my daughter is almost 2 – but I think any walking toddler would be amused!

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