Nurture your child’s love of nature at these 10 great attractions that celebrate Iowa’s beautiful natural resources.
The Dickinson County Nature Center boasts year-round environmental programs, an osprey nest cam, live animals, nature displays, a butterfly house, native gardens and Nature Explorer playgrounds. Additionally, a recent $1.7 million addition is the first pollinator-centric educational building in Iowa. The facility includes a human-sized honeycomb for kids to crawl through to explore the life cycle of a honeybee, an indoor beehive, a pollen-collecting game and monarch-rearing enclosure.
The 45-foot-tall observation tower at Hitchcock Nature Center, located adjacent to the Loess Hills Lodge Interpretive Facility, provides a unique bird’s eye view of the Loess Hills and adjacent landforms. From September to December, bird watchers gather to observe and count thousands of eagles, hawks and other raptors. In 2003, the area was designated Iowa’s first important bird area. A 10-mile trail system offers plenty of opportunities for hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Because of the rugged Loess Hill terrain, trails range from easy ridgeline walks to difficult climbs.
The scale-like exterior of the Pony Creek Nature Center, which sheds water like fish and reptile scales, is used as an educational tool for visitors. More learning takes place inside, too, with a gallery of terrariums, aquariums and other natural displays featuring Iowa wildlife designed to spark an interest in the outdoors. Programs range from nighttime “owl prowls” to snake identification.
Located atop a limestone bluff above the Winnebago River, the Lime Creek Nature Center includes mounted animals on display, several aquariums of reptiles, amphibians and fish, plus a backyard wildlife area with wildlife viewing opportunities and a bird-feeding station. A series of loop trails stretches approximately nine miles and provides plenty of opportunities to explore the area’s scenery and wildlife. A handicap-accessible trail allows individuals with limited mobility an opportunity to enjoy a woodland hike.
The Jester Park Nature Center offers exhibits about the three major habitats at the park - wetlands, prairie and woodlands. The nearby Outdoor Recreation and Wellness Center offers canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, cross-country skis and snowshoes for rent. Be sure to venture into Jester Park to view the elk and bison (they’ve called the park home for nearly 40 years) and enjoy the natural playscape.
Pioneer Ridge Nature Center’s campus includes the two-story nature center with displays and a full-time naturalist, three stocked ponds for public fishing, a bird observation blind, 15 miles of trails open to hiking, biking and horseback riding, and a half-mile-long paved handicap-accessible trail. Make it a weekend and stay in one of the modern log cabins that sleep up to six people.
Hartman Reserve is a 340-acre wooded isle located in the heart of metro Black Hawk County. The nature center houses interactive displays and exhibits on the local natural environment. As a bonus, the reserve is connected to an extensive recreational trail system in the Cedar Valley.
The Sense of Wonder Trail at the Indian Creek Nature Center was designed specifically for children to play in nature and is a certified Nature Explore classroom. Adults will enjoy the restored wetland, prairie, woodlands and trails that cover 210 acres (and are open year-round). Everyone can come together to enjoy Indian Creek's "Amazing Space," one of the most environmentally stable buildings in the country. The building allows families to engage in activities indoors but feel like they are actually outside.
What’s unique about the Swiss Valley Nature Center & Preserve in Peosta? It used to be a dairy barn! This nature center is located on a 500-acre preserve that contains interactive displays about the wildlife, ecology and natural history of the Swiss Valley area. More than 10 miles of nature and hiking trails start at the nature center and wander through forest, prairie and wetland areas. Snowshoes are available for use free of charge in the winter.
You’ll be wowed by the scenic views that abound in this nearly 200-acre area of forest communities and massive limestone bluffs that rise above the creek in Burlington. The park and preserve provide a variety of recreational opportunities (including two man-made caves), while the nature center offers interactive environmental displays.