Visit Us

National wildlife refuges offer us all a chance to unplug from the stresses of daily life and reconnect with our natural surroundings. At Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can participate in a variety of wildlife-dependent recreational and education opportunities to experience their native tallgrass prairie heritage. The visitor center offers hands on educational exhibits, a 15 minute award winning educational film and indoor and outdoor eating areas. Outdoor activities include 5 walking trails, a 4.5 mile bike trail and a 5 mile auto tour. Additionally, visitors and students can participate in scheduled programs, special events and get involved with volunteer projects.

Driving Directions

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is located 20 miles east of Des Moines and 9 miles south of Interstate 80. From Des Moines, take Highway 163 to the Prairie City exit. Go straight from the off-ramp and follow the paved 4.5-mile entry road to the visitor center.

From I-80, take the Colfax exit and turn south on Hwy 117. Drive 6 miles following Hwy 117; turn right in Prairie City to continue on Hwy 117. Cross Hwy 163, and turn right on the paved entry road.

Please note that GPS units and online mapping services do not always give accurate directions to the refuge. If you have questions about how to get here from a specific location, please give us a call.

For more information, contact us at: 

P.O. Box 399 
9981 Pacific St.
Prairie City, IA 50228 
515-994-3400 
nealsmith@fws.gov

Fees

There is no charge to visit.

Restrooms

Restrooms are available inside the visitor center, outside the visitor center parking lot and at the Oak Savanna Trail parking lot.

Points of Interest

Let our staff and volunteers at the visitor center help you plan your visit! This is a great starting point for visitors to become more familiar with the refuge and the wildlife that live here. Visitors can watch a 15 minute refuge orientation video, browse nature and wildlife exhibits and obtain maps and brochures. While there, visit the Friends of Neal Smith Nature Store for field guides, t-shirts and other educational items.

What To Do

Not sure what to do during your visit? Here are a few must-sees depending on your available time.

If you have 15 minutes

  • Drive through the bison and elk enclosure (part of the auto tour)

If you have one hour

  • Drive the 5 mile auto tour which includes the bison and elk enclosure
  • Hike the 1/2 mile overlook trail loop or browse the visitor center exhibits

If you have half a day or more

  • Drive the 5 mile auto tour which includes the bison and elk enclosure
  • Hike the 1/2 mile Overlook Trail Loop
  • Browse the visitor center exhibits
  • Visit the 1/2 mile Oak Savanna Trail Loop
  • Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy in our outdoor eating area

Know Before You Go

Review the rules and regulations and be aware of trail closures. Refuge lands are open from dawn to dusk daily. Restrooms are available at our visitor center during open hours, or at the Oak Savanna Trail parking lot dawn to dusk. Please plan on packing out what you bring in, including your recycling, trash, pet waste and any other items you bring along; trash receptacles are located only at our visitor center and trailheads.

Offices and the visitor center are closed for all federal holidays except Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Hours are subject to change due to weather-related or other periodic closures. Weather-related closures are listed on our Facebook page.

Visitor Tips

Frequently Asked Questions

When can I see the most animals?

There is no best time to see the animals, as it varies greatly by species and season. Dawn and dusk are active periods for many species. The bison and elk may be spotted any hour. Inquire at the visitor center desk for the latest sightings.

Which days of the week are best to visit?

Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest days for visitors. If you’re interested in social recreation like public programs and special events, weekends are best. If you prefer laid-back, solo activities, weekdays are a good option. Keep in mind that weekday mornings in spring and fall are popular field trip days.

Do you rent equipment?

Yes! During open hours, you can check-out binoculars, activity backpacks and other equipment to use during your visit. Snowshoes can also be checked-out with 4 or more inches of snow. All rentals are free.

Activities

Visitors are welcome year round at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. There's something for everyone here, from a rainy-day trip through the exhibits to a hike along the trails and from deer hunting to photographing native Iowa wildlife. Each season brings new things to discover!

Trails

Tallgrass Trail

Open season: Year round
Length: 2 miles
Location of trail: Begins at visitor center
Surface: Paved
Difficulty: Moderate
Information: Loop travels through reconstructed and remnant tallgrass prairie (includes benches)

Overlook Trail

Open season: Year round    
Length: 0.5 mile
Location of trail: Begins at visitor center
Surface: Paved: Accessible
Difficulty: Easy
Information: Loop offers wonderful views of the prairie and the bison/elk enclosure (includes benches)

Oak Savanna Trail

Open season: Year round
Length: 0.5 mile
Location of trail: Oak Savanna parking lot east of visitor center
Surface: Gravel
Difficulty: Easy
Information: Loop explores the endangered oak savanna ecosystem (includes benches and vault toilet)

Basswood Trail

Open season: Year round
Length: 0.5 mile
Location of trail: Basswood parking lot southeast of visitor center
Surface: Mowed grass
Difficulty: Moderate
Information: Loop through wooded area

Volksport Trail

Open season: Year round
Length: 6.2 miles
Location of trail: Throughout southern half of refuge; begins at visitor center
Surface: Mowed grass, paved, gravel
Difficulty: Moderate
Information: Loops connect the Tallgrass Trail and Oak Savanna Trail before leading back to the visitor center

Prairie Parkway Bike Trail

Open season: Year round
Length: 4.5 miles
Location of trail: Begins at visitor center
Surface: Paved
Difficulty: Moderate

Auto Tour (vehicles only)

Open season: Year round
Length: 5 miles
Location of trail: Begins at visitor center
Surface: Paved and gravel
Difficulty: Easy
Information: Driving tour gives an overview of the refuge. Watch for bison, elk, deer, snakes, ground squirrels, birds and other native wildlife species as you drive. The tour is open dawn to dusk year-round. For your safety, you are required to stay on the road and in your vehicle while driving in the enclosure.
 

Related Documents

Rules and Policies

To ensure your safety and protect wildlife and habitat, please be aware of refuge rules and regulations. Please consult the refuge manager at 515-994-3400 if you have specific rules and regulations questions.

Locations

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge
9981 Pacific Street Prairie City, IA 50228
Driving Directions

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is located 20 miles east of Des Moines and 9 miles south of Interstate 80. From Des Moines, take Highway 163 to the Prairie City exit. Go straight from the off-ramp and follow the paved 4.5-mile entry road to the visitor center.

From I-80, take the Colfax exit and turn south on Hwy 117. Drive 6 miles following Hwy 117; turn right in Prairie City to continue on Hwy 117. Cross Hwy 163, and turn right on the paved entry road.

Please note that GPS units and online mapping services do not always give accurate directions to the refuge. If you have questions about how to get here from a specific location, please give us a call at 515-994-3400.

Hours
Visitor Center Hours
Tuesday through Saturday
9:00 am. - 4:00 p.m.
The visitor center is open on federal holidays from Memorial Day through Labor Day
The center will be closed on Saturday, December 24 and all federal holidays scheduled from October through April.
Refuge lands, roads, trails, and auto tour hours
Daily, year round including all federal holidays
Dawn - dusk