Tag Archives: hiking

Prairie Party at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Pick a blue sky day when the clouds are extra fluffy, pack a picnic and head to Prairie City, where the buffalo roam and butterflies flutter freely.



I can’t believe it’s taken me 8 years of living in Central Iowa to experience the beauty of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. We went to their Concert on the Prairie fundraiser on Friday night, and it was such a treat to explore the visitor center (after hours-ooh) and wander the paths nearby. (Joe, with local wine in hand, of course. Pretty picturesque happy hour.)


We learned about conservation efforts and there was a casual dinner and a concert by the Big Blue Sky project, and Emmett mostly entertained himself by touching plants and throwing clods of dirt into the air.

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The visitor center has lots of classroom space, interesting exhibits about prairie habitats and restoration, and a sweet little kids puppet theater, among other features.  DSC_0075  .





Emmett was too scared to go into the cave maze area, but I was all honey badger don’t care.



We also drove through part of the 700-acre enclosure that is home to bison and elk, which felt like being on a special little safari. I definitely poked my head out of the sun roof to get a few more photos.




As part of his job at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Joe is learning more about ecosystems like the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna that are native to Iowa, but now rare after European settlement. I’m glad he’s teaching us, in turn, and that Emmett is getting opportunities to be in nature.


I kind of wanted to wear a Laura Ingalls Wilder bonnet and sing the Dixie Chicks “Wide Open Spaces” at the same time. There’s enough land out here I could probably do this without anyone seeing, but a nice lady offered to take a quick family photo, so I kept in the crazy this time.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge features miles of trails, and I can’t wait to go back when we’re able to do some more ambitious hiking. Also, we’ll need to work in a stop at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is owned by a friend-of-friends and is supposed to be pretty amazing.

P.S. In further evidence that I’m turning into my mother, I picked up a flier for the NSNWR’s 1st Annual Pollinator Fest happening Saturday, June 20 2015 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.. It’s a free, family friendly event that will feature some special kid-oriented activities (bug hunts! storytellers! crafts! pollinator seed packet giveaway!) 

Find the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook.


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Omaha adventure: Fontenelle Forest frolic

And suddenly, fall was upon us.


Friday night, we headed to Council Bluffs for a surprise 30th birthday party for one of Joe’s best friends. We decided to stay the weekend to hang out with family, and I really wanted to check out the Fontenelle Forest after reading a blurb about it in Midwest Living. I love going places with my little nieces and nephews because they have such creative spirits.



My hometown (Lisle, IL) is also home to the famed Morton Arboretum, and the Fontenelle Forest had a similar outdoor education feel to it. There’s a visitor welcome center and the main feature is a mile-long wooden boardwalk that loops through the forest.


When we arrived, they were bringing out birds of prey for a demonstration. This kind of falcon apparently swoops down on small birds from above, punches them and then follows the stunned creatures to the ground to finish them off. Intense!


We strolled along the boardwalk, but the forest encompasses 2,000 acres and features a number of different walking trails totaling 26 miles. I could imagine members who return regularly would have plenty of places to hike, and with each changing season the experience would feel different. When we went, they also had an eco exhibit running throughout the welcome center and along the boardwalk, with little huts and sculptures made from recycled materials.




I especially loved “Acorn Acres,” which had a wooden xylophone that made the most beautiful sounds.




fam walk

Admission to Fontenelle Forest, which celebrates it’s centennial this year, is $8.

After our forest frolic, we met up with a friend and her boyfriend at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe, a vegeterian/vegan restaurant. I got the veggie enchiladas, which were delicious.

Natural Kind Cafe

veggie enchiladas

Any suggestions for other Western Iowa/Omaha spots to explore? This Nebraska Passport is a neat idea.

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Winter walk in Brown’s Woods

We headed to Brown’s Woods for a sweet 2-mile hike to test out our new camera and get some exercise. We’ll have to practice getting the lighting right, and focus. It’s a Nikon D5100; we got it for each other for Christmas and had to take turns behind the lens. Wilbur is almost impossible to capture when he’s busy exploring the trail.

winter boots




shiba den


Hikes are best when followed by Wendy’s frosties and fries, right?

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Filed under I love Des Moines

Madison County winter hike

Three cheers for this mild Iowa winter!

(Although a little snow on the trail could have looked lovely and this would be an excellent place to snowshoe/cross-country ski.) We headed south of Des Moines on Saturday to explore the Clanton Creek Natural Resource Area and get a little hiking in. We tried to do this hike about three years ago, but were thwarted when our car died on the side of the highway. I’m glad we finally made it!

We parked at the East Trail Head and followed the out-and-back main trail for a total of about eight miles. It felt much longer on the way out (isn’t that always the case?) but made for a good total distance. There’s also a two-mile loop you can access from the east side, but if you’re driving down from Des Moines I feel like you’d want to go the distance, right? The West Trail Head is very close to the 6-acre pond, if you’re into fishing. Here’s a map, although it doesn’t have miles marked and I have no idea what the purple dots represent. There are a few hike-in campsites, which I find exciting. I get super cranky-pants at campsites where we wind up next to teenagers whose idea of spending QT in nature is throwing beer cans into the fire. We will return for an overnight adventure, perhaps when the Madison County Winery tasting room is open!

The main trail makes for a hilly hike, past prairie grasses, through the forest and under some pine trees. It’s easy to follow, although we did not see any mile markers along the East-West route, and there are no maps at either trailhead. The trail crosses the creek in two or three places.

We thought we'd see a map at the west trail head. No such luck!

The creatively named 6-acre pond

Sky blue sky.

A winter walk.

I would love to see a Boy Scout Troop take on this trail and outfit it with some maps, better mile markers and perhaps a trash bin at the parking areas, because we did see a small amount of litter around there.

Wilbur was loving the nature smells.

It’s hard to believe that next week is February. This felt like a lucky November afternoon instead of late January! P.S. Did you know you can rent snowshoes at Active Endeavors? Last I checked, they were about $12 or so for the day.


Filed under Iowa adventures

Remembering the Camino

A few months ago, “The Way” was playing at our neighborhood indie theater, The Varsity. (It’s the kind of place that doesn’t even show previews.) Joe and I went to see it partially because, after I studied abroad in London in 2006, I went to Spain and hiked the section of the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail between Leon and Santiago de Compostela, and partially because we love “The West Wing” and Martin Sheen. Although I hiked about 180 miles, my portion of the trip only made a brief cameo in the movie, which should be out on DVD soon.

My high school friend Greg and his mom are planning on hiking el Camino this summer, and so I had the occasion to pull out my travel journal from the trip more than once these past few weeks and retrace my steps in my memory.

I must remember to always write a travel journal – although the things I recorded from this trip (silly dogs I saw in towns, funny conversations) aren’t very practical when it comes to sharing tips with others. I remember having wanted to hike the Camino since I was a young teenager, after I read wacky Shirley MacLaine’s book in which she makes the pilgrimage and (if I recall correctly) has several out-of-body experiences. I was very much embodied on my journey (as heel blisters reminded me), but there’s definitely something magical about pursuing a path that was established many centuries before. Peregrinos (pilgrims/hikers) get stamps in a passport along the way, meet people from all over the world, travel until you’re too tired and experience the Celtic Galician culture, which is different than what comes to mind when most people think of Spain.

I’m at my happiest when I’m just walking, plain and simple, seeing the world at a plodding pace. I’m not a skilled map-reader, so the more well-worn the path, the better. I walked to work today, in this spring-feeling weather, and even that simple little trek set my day on a more pleasant trajectory. In a way, walking is an art. It’s a meditation. It’s getting comfortable with the way your body and your mind move together. Now I sound like Shirley MacLaine!

I need to discover more favorite walks in Des Moines. I think perhaps Joe and I will go for a little hometown hike this weekend!

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Filed under BS outside the Midwest