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 have 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 has 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!

You can see more specific details on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge page below or check out its location on the interactive map.

Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge – Prairie City, Iowa

neal smith wildlife refuge

My GPS takes me the back way from the west side, it feels like you’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere until you finally turn on to a paved road and then see this sign. As you drive further, you’ll see another sign that shows the PLC is straight ahead and the auto-tour is to the left.


When you park and pull up, the PLC is impossible to miss, and then there are some informative signs to your right, where the trails all start. You can see a covered kiosk-y type building off to the far right of the top picture, that is where the below trail map is.

neal smith trail map des moines

I have walked the Tallgrass Trail on a Hike It Baby hike before, and I think it is a *long* two miles. There is no wind or sun cover – so keep that in mind if you’re visiting. It was pretty icy on the day that we went, so we didn’t get far, but I appreciate that it’s paved and accessible for everyone. At the middle of the far side on the Tallgrass Trail, you can often see the buffalo up close through the fence.

indoor nature place in des moines

When you walk into the PLC, there are nice bathrooms, a guest desk with maps and lots of information, a gift shop, and lots of places to explore. I didn’t take pictures of everything, but above you can see some of the learning opportunities – scavenger hunts for different age groups, explorer backpacks with different topics, and some of the exhibits. I know they rent out snowshoes (free!) for hikes when there is enough snow, too.


This little puppet theater and felt board area are so cute, my kids loved playing in the puppet booth.

des moines buffalo

This large room with a stuffed buffalo is a big draw, there are lots of pictures, facts, bones, and skins to investigate alongside a huge picture window overlooking some of the prairies.

des moines indoor nature museum

You can see the bones better there, along with one of the other taxidermy displays, and other exhibits. There are several little spots with mini videos, and then there is the main theater that plays a 15-minute video talking about the importance of reintroducing prairie to the environment, the refuge’s past and goals, etc.

indoor cave

My kids are both intimidated by the kids maze (there is a HUGE badger statue/head right inside the door), so we haven’t explored it too much but it looks cute!

nature science des moines

Another neat opportunity is being able to peek into their research lab. Last spring we volunteered to help spread seed – my kids loved throwing all this stuff around in the fields!


This is a shot of the drive-through enclosure – there are cattle gates on either end. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any buffalo! They must have been hunkered down somewhere, hiding from the wind. We’ll come back once it’s warmer and try again for sure.

I bought some super fun Iowa pocket guides to birds, mushrooms, snakes, and plants in the gift shop; they had some cool nature toys, lots of tshirts and stuffed animals, and tons of books.

1 thought on “Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Learning Center

  1. Alayna Kester says:

    Upon arrival, we learned the PLC is closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis (late June 2021). Their website does clearly state the closure, so you may want to check before you come out as my kids were so disappointed.


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