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I love road trips but sometimes I don’t have the time or the money to dedicate to endless days on the road. That doesn’t mean I can’t start to spread the road trip love to my three little travel partners! We spent today doing something we love – exploring Iowa nature – and visited 3 awesome garden related nature destinations in Central Iowa.
Our trip map at the bottom of this post starts in Newton because we are from that general area. Newton has a great mid-sized Arboretum and Botanical Garden full of Iowa nature that I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t been there. The added bonus is that there is a playground nearby too if you find yourself wanting one!
That being said, our focus today was on three other destinations and you can certainly start your trip at either of them and really flex this day to fit you! That’s the true joy of road tripping!
Our first destination was..
The Brenton Arboretum – 25141 260th St, Dallas Center, IA 50063
Hours: 9 am to Sunset
When you drive into The Brenton Arboretum you are greeted by a small wooden kiosk. This is where you can park your car, sign the guest book, and grab a well written map of the Arboretum and its trails along with several tree and bird guides. The nice thing about this arboretum is that the looping road through the entire space is car friendly with multiple places to stop, park, and get out to explore. We drove down the path and soon found ourselves amid wildflowers and grass paths – though the driving road is rock.
We knew we wanted to see the natural play area, so with aid of the map we headed to the parking lot nearest the play space. This parking area does have a porta-potty if kiddos need to go. You will park your car, then cross the gravel road and walk down a grassy path past a picnic pavilion to the natural play area. My kids were very intrigued by the picnic pavilion as it has a grass roof and they were making up all kinds of stories about what animals might live there and why. Clearly, it was so that they could hide from wolves…or at least that was the story my kids settled on.
The Main Attraction: The Natural Play Area
As a parent my favorite thing about this play area was that it truly was built from natural items with the exception of the frame for a tunnel created by plants. The frame is wire to allow the plants to grow up and over while leaving an opening for the kids to walk and crawl all the way through. My girls loved the rope swing and took many turns on it. They also used long sticks propped against a larger log to build a “lion den” for my four year old. This little spot promotes climbing, digging, and open ended imaginative play. I’m sure my kids could have come and played here for an extended time and thought the day was fantastic. Eventually I did round them up to move on with our explorations.
Added Bonus: Beautiful Weeping Willows
A Weeping Willow section is labeled on the arboretum map and we could spot the cluster of willows from the road. We simply pulled to the side of the road and parked near them and then approached on foot. My kids and I were all amazed at these beautiful trees. We spent time underneath them, feeling them, smelling them, and debating how old they were. A little creek is nearby and my kids walked over to toss in a few rocks. It was a great little surprise!
Why We Will Return: Prairie Trails!
We didn’t really come today prepared for long hikes – nice strolls but not serious foot hikes and therefore didn’t scratch the surface of all the great well mowed paths and trails they have looping through the area. We all agreed we wanted to come back in the fall as the trees changed color and do some trekking in the beautiful Iowa nature.
This park is dog friendly – for a fee. If you have a well behaved dog and a leash this place could be your new walking wonderland. They do ask that you pay $5 for your dog or buy a year long pass. This is run on an honor system at the front kiosk and I would say its a worthwhile donation for both you and the arboretum.
We stayed here for around an hour to an hour and a half and definitely could have stayed longer! Then it was on the road to our next stop …and our stomachs were grumbling..
The Nineteen14 – 210 4th St, Minburn, IA 50167
Normally when my kids and I head out for the day we pack a picnic lunch from home to save money. That would definitely be a great option for this road trip that is full of amazing picnic spots at every stop. However, today we had the money to spend on lunch and when we drove past The Nineteen14 I saw a bunch of people on bicycles outside. That was it, I was curious and I turned back for a visit and lunch.
Atmosphere: Casual and Unique
The Nineteen14 is located inside the restored Minburn train depot. It is small with limited seating but we were able to snag a booth around 11:30 without difficulty. That being said, it is clearly popular to those riding their bikes down the Raccoon River Valley Bike Trail and could fill up quickly as bikers pass through. They have a small bar area but I was able to sit with my kids in a separate more standard seating section. The building is really quite pretty and created a fun atmosphere.
Menu: American Classics and a few unique Items! The drinks looked great too!
We settled for lemonades and a soda given the theme of our day but there were several people in grabbing afternoon bloody mary’s, mules, and signature drinks that looked delicious when we were there. One thing I love about this place is that it is clear the food is fresh and sourced as locally as possible. To me that is always a perk when eating in small town Iowa. This does put the price point of the food higher than a trip through your local fast food chain, but the quality was worth it. It is important to note they did not have a kids menu that I saw. That being said, my two older girls were able to split a cheeseburger and kettle chips and both seemed to love it. My youngest and I split an “Adult Grilled Cheese” that had some great cheese selections, tomato, and bacon on it.
As stated, this stop will cost you more than a swing through McDonalds but the atmosphere, great staff, fresh and locally sourced food is worth it!
Why I Will Return: Date Night Drinks!
I would love to return here with my husband and try a few signature cocktails out on the patio!
With lunch quickly wrapped up it was time to hit up our next bit of outdoor fun!
The Iowa Arboretum – 1875 Peach Ave, Madrid, IA 50156
Hours: Sunrise to Sunset. The Main parking lot is gate protected – If you arrive before before 8:30 am or after 4:30 pm you can park in the auxiliary parking right across the street and enter via the pedestrian gate.
Cost: $5 per adult, Kids 12 and under Free. Accepts Cards.
I’ve been wanting to go to the Iowa Arboretum since last summer but hadn’t made it yet. I’m so glad we went today because we will certainly go again! When you arrive there is a big parking lot to park in. You must walk in the Iowa Arboretum as cars at not allowed beyond the parking lot. There is a visitor center with a neat little gift shop, some displays, maps of the grounds, published plans for future projects at the Arboretum, and a place to pay. The girl who worked the desk was great on showing us where on the map we would definitely want to see. If you come before or after office hours of 8:30 – 4:30 payment is on the honor system at a drop box. It’s worth the $5 so please pay to help keep this place beautiful.
This Arboretum had more established gardens than what we saw at Brenton. Brenton seemed to have a lot of beautiful natural prairie restoration where as this destination had definite set garden spaces. The Iowa Arboretum also had a ton of beautiful gazebos and structures that the kids found to be impressive.
The Main Attraction: The Children’s Garden and School House Replica
The Iowa Arboretum has the cutest children’s garden! A nice fenced in area features low seasonal beds growing a variety of things that the kids liked checking out. There was also a little free library right as you walked into the children’s area that had a great selection of nature books and guides in it. Bring a nature related book and leave it, then take a new one home or do what we did and borrow one for your visit and return it before you leave.
That’s one thing I will do differently next time. I will definitely bring along one of our nature books so we can look up some things we have loved seeing in books. If you would like to bring some nature books along, I personally suggest these ones!
At the back of the children’s garden there is a miniature butterfly garden and then a small one-room school house replica. The kids LOVED it. My oldest played the teacher of course and the others checked out the desks and listened to her mini-lesson. We talked about how students used to actually have to learn all in one room with kids from every grade taught by one person. It sort of blew the mind of my oldest who couldn’t really imagine that scenario!
Added Bonus: Great Natural Butterfly Garden
Along the path we came across the most beautiful pollinator/butterfly garden. The colors were just brilliant and my girls were captivated by it. The number of butterflies, dragon flies, and other pollinators flying around was an open indicator of the health of this garden.
Why We Will Return: Wooded Hiking Trails and The Little Free Library
My girls are dying to go back with a few nature books and make some swaps! Also, there are some great opportunities across the street from the garden portion of the arboretum for hiking on well maintained wooded trails to scenic view points. A great adventure for the future.
This is another dog friendly option for those with pets who like to travel!
When we finished we hopped in the car and the girls took a quick nap as we headed to our last big stop of the day!
Reiman Gardens – 1407 S University Blvd, Ames, IA 50011
Hours: 9:00 am – 4:30 pm (Garden portion stays open until 6:00 pm in Summer but Butterfly Wing closes at 4:30 all year)
Cost: Adults $9, Kids 2 and Older $4.50, Kids 2 and Under Free – Discounted Admission Days available throughout year!
My husband and I are both Iowa State Alumni, so it only makes sense we would bring the girls to the wonderful city of Ames, Iowa whenever we can! Reiman Gardens is located right next to Jack Trice Football Stadium and it is important to know that on home football game days there is no public parking available for the gardens! Otherwise there is plenty of free public parking right near the entrance. Once inside you will find a spot to pay your entrance fees, get a map, ask questions, use the restroom, grab a coffee at the small coffee shop, or browse the souvenir shop.
The Main Attraction: The Butterfly Wing!
This was definitely the highlight of our visit and we walked through the butterfly wing more than once. Inside the butterfly wing butterflies flutter everywhere around you in a rainbow of blues, reds, oranges, blacks, and whites. There are benches where you can sit and observe and hope a butterfly lands nearby. They have an electronic kiosk that gives pictures and information on different butterflies in the wing. I knew this would be a smash hit with my girls who “oohed” and “ahhed” their way through. Another neat feature is an area in the main entrance where you can view butterflies and moths emerging from their cocoons – my girls could have stared at the wriggling cocoons for ages.
Added Bonus: The World’s Largest Gnome, Tons Of Water Features, and A Children’s Garden With Spray Pad
I could go on and on about Reiman Gardens but you can’t appreciate it until you see it. My girls enjoyed checking out the world’s largest garden gnome, rolling down hills built just for that purpose, observing all the water features, and playing in the children’s section. There IS a spray pad in the children’s area so you may want a change of clothes if your children plan on visiting that section. I didn’t have a change for my four year old but that didn’t stop her from getting soaked – that’s my little fish!
Why We Will Return: Rotating Garden Themes!
The Garden cycles through different displays and themes throughout the year. In other words, it is always changing and adapting so no two visits are exactly the same. Plus, the butterfly wing will definitely call us back again!
Reiman Gardens is NOT dog friendly.
On home football game days for Iowa State there is no public parking for the gardens.
By the time we wrapped up at Reiman Gardens we could all agree it had been a great day. I had enough gas to get home with a quarter tank left over and in time for dinner. This day was a great ‘get us out of this house’ day for the girls and I and I hope you will enjoy it too!
If you are looking for even more outdoor fun be sure to check out my 3 Favorite Hidden Outdoor Gems in Iowa. For ideas of what to listen to as you drive make sure you check out these 5 Family Friendly Podcasts!
If you would like more information about the places listed in this post you can visit their websites by clicking the following links:
Below you will find a map of our route to help with your own planning!
Do you and your kids have a favorite garden? Fill me in!
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