Nature Programs

Des Moines Parks and Recreation has incredible parks where visitors can enjoy different types of recreation including connecting with nature and wildlife. Park users of all ages have the ability to explore and learn more about their environment when they attend nature-based programs. Studies have shown that children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied chances to play in the out-of doors.  Seniors enjoy the ability to be active and social while they continue their lifetime of learning and new experiences. Everyone can enjoy the hands on learning and experience new activities during every season of the year. 

Des Moines Parks and Recreation offers many popular seasonal programs such as Birding Basics (spring), Stand Up Paddleboarding (summer), Monarch Tagging (fall), and Snowshoeing (winter). Fishing events and Bald Eagle nest watching are great family activities along with many other programs for you to enjoy.

2021 Return to Play Nature Programs

Celebrate Earth Day at Home

Nature Programs

Pop Up Programs
When conditions are right,
join us for pop-up programs
such as snowshoeing, bird migrations and more!  pop up
To receive the pop up program notices on your cell phone text
DSMPOPUP to 84483
Information will also be on social media
(Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)
Star Viewing Program

Parks and Recreation partners with the Science Center of Iowa and the Des Moines Astronomical Society to bring stargazing to Ewing Park during the warmer parts of the season and at Birdland Shelter for the winter events. Telescopes and information about what you are viewing in the sky are provided. Everyone is welcome and if you have a telescope of your own, feel free to bring it along.

Due to Covid the Star Party Schedule is in Flux.
Look back here for more information about a possible October 2021 event.

STAR party
STAR Party happens during the annual Perseid Meteor Showers, the most active meteor shower of the year for more than 2,000 years. 

2021 was a beautiful night for the STAR Party! Great Weather and there were Meteors moving across the night sky.  Look back here for the 2022 date as it gets closer to party - Copy

Activities based on space happen in the evening while there is still light and then when it
 gets darker, the big screen goes up for a movie in the park and watching for meteors.  The Science Center of Iowa along with the Des Moines Astronomical Society DMAS will have telescopes on site for viewing the stars.
The activities and movie are free to the public. 

Primitive Camping onsite will be available by reservation for a fee.

Birding Basics

March 2nd, 2022 will be the first walk of the season, weather pending. Participants will  meet on Wednesdays at Gray’s Lake in the terrace area, starting at 11 a.m.  and together, take a casual walk in search of migrating and residential birds. During the first half of the season, waterfowl are the main focus. Pelicans, Coots, Mergansers and various ducks are common visitors at Gray's Lake. As spring progresses the smaller songbirds arrive to Iowa on their migration and Gray's Lake is a good place to see them as they pass through. Yellow-rumped warblers, Baltimore Orioles and an occasional Scarlet Tanager are bright and beautiful species that can be found as the group walks along the trail. John Bisell plans to be back in 2022 and will lead the group, pointing out birds, talking about their habits and answering questions. This program is great for beginners or people with some birding experience. 

Bring your own spotting scopes and binoculars or you may borrow some of ours.

The 2022 session will begin on March 2nd and run through May 25th.
The group will meet at the Gray's Lake Terrace area in South West Corner until further notice.


Bluebird Boxes

bbR no BCKA series of Bluebird boxes have been installed in some of our parks. Volunteers monitor the activities in boxes March - August and then record the information they gather on nesting and hatchlings.  The boxes create nesting cavities for Bluebirds to utilize in locations that park visitors can easily enjoy their beautiful colors and cheerful singing.

To watch a video about the Bluebird Boxes that we have in the Des Moines City parks  click Here.

Four Bluebird eggs spring 2019.
Bluebird eggs

Tree Swallows
 Single chick
Single chick 5 days later
 Single chick last check
Buggin' Out in Ashby Park
Don't be afraid of the critters crawling around - take a closer look and see what makes them incredible creatures.  In July, we will explore Ashby Park looking for the insects that call the park home. 
July 7, 14 and 21 starting at 1:00 we will look for bugs in the yard, under the trees and in the stream.  We will supply nets and any other necessary supplies. These events are free and open to the public.

This activity is geared for ages 5 - 12 years old.
Monarch Butterfly Tagging

Monarch tag 4    monarch tag 6    monarch tag 5

Monarch tagging is a great way to get the public involved and excited about monarch butterflies and what conservation practices Des Moines Parks and Recreation is taking to help the monarch butterfly . Most people know what a monarch butterfly is but they do not always know that the number of monarch butterflies in the wild has been dropping drastically since the mid 1990’s. The tagging programs are a local part of a larger citizen science project that has been going on since 1992 to better understand the dynamics of the monarch’s spectacular fall migration. Each year more than a quarter of a million tags are used by volunteers across North America who tag monarchs as they migrate through their area on their way to Mexico.

These are free programs open to the public. 
* The Sept. 11th event at the Zoo will require regular zoo fees.
2021 Program Dates
Sept. 9 at Union Park, 10:30 a.m.
Sept. 11 at Blank Park Zoo, The Monarch Festival. I will have the Monarch Migration Obstacle Course set up *
Sept. 14 at Pete Crivaro Park, 10:30 a.m.
Sept. 16 at Franklin Community Gardens, 10:30 a.m.
Sept. 18 at Gray's Lake Terrace Area, 10 a.m.
Sept. 18 at Ashby Park, 1 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Greenwood Park, Sylvan Amphitheater, 10:30 a.m.
Sept. 27 at South Side Library, 6 p.m.

A Walk in the Park Monarch Caterpillar


To watch our Monarch Butterfly video click Here.

           Monarch Tag 3       Monarch tag1
Bald Eagle Day
Eagles on log in riverDue to COVID restrictions Bald Eagle Day for 2021 has been cancelled.  Look for the event again in  2022.

Check our this short video about Bald Eagles in Des Moines.

The City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation is teaming up with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Fellowship Baptist Church in February to host Bald Eagle Day on the SE 6th Street Bridge. Between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. there will be spotting scopes and people on the bridge to assist with viewing some of the wild Bald Eagles in Des Moines. Inside Fellowship Baptist Church, you will be able to warm up, relax, have a snack and listen to presentations. SOAR - Saving Our Avian Resources will be present with a live education ambassador bald eagle.  All ages are welcome, there will be children's activities and the event is free and open to the public.

2020 offered some great presentations and viewing of Bald Eagles from the bridge.
Bald Eagle Flying in snow
Bald Eagle Nest Watching

Gray’s Lake Park has hosted a nesting pair of Bald Eagles for many years.  The eagles did not nest for the 2020 spring season but the nest is still visible from the bike trail.

The 2019 nest had three eaglets in the nest. Currently they are out of the nest, but you may be lucky enough to see one of them still in the area.


Plant Grow Fly Garden Planting

Des Moines Parks and Recreation is helping Monarch butterflies and other pollinators in our city parks and you can help too. Each Plant.Grow.Fly program is broken down into three parts:Monarch

  • Learn about what pollinators need to survive and why they are important.
  • Decorate and fill a flower pot to help support pollinators to take home
  • Plant native Iowa species of plants in a butterfly garden.

Be prepared to get your hands dirty and do a little work to help Monarchs and pollinators. Registration for these events is required.

May 8, 2021 Location TBA

We are growing milkweed plants in the greenhouse getting ready for two planting dates.
May 14, 2021
May 21, 2021

Milkweed for Monarchs
 was a new program started in 2019. Volunteers worked with staff to help plant over 800 Milkweed plants at Ewing Park and the James W. Cownie Baseball Park to help provide habitat for Monarch Butterflies in Des Moines. In 2020 plantings had to be cancelled but we are back for 2021.

milkweed for monarchsContact Joel at if you have more questions.

iEarth Camps

iEARTH day camps, presented in partnership with Des Moines Parks and Recreation and Science Center of Iowa, are for kids in grades 1-8. These weeklong camps get kids into our parks, enjoying the outdoors while learning about the environment through art, recreation, team and hands-on activities.

Contact Science Center of Iowa for more details and registration.

Fishing Events

DSCF1218 - Copy
The 2020 Parks and Recreation Free Fishing Friday Program is cancelled.  Look for this event to be back in early June 2021.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources still has proclaimed  June 5, 6 and 7 as Free Fishing Weekend.  On those days you are permitted to fish in Iowa without purchasing a fishing license.

Free Fishing Friday is held annually in June for beginners to try their hand at fishing without needing to purchase a license. If you are interested in giving fishing a try for the first time, come on over and don’t worry, we will be there to help you.  Bait and supplies will be on hand to use at no cost. All ages are welcome. This is a Vamos a Pescar event so there will be translators available to make it even easier to catch that first fish.

Des Moines Parks and Recreation teams together with the Iowa DNR, Des Moines Ikes and the Latino Center of Iowa to make this program a success for everyone in the community. 
shore fishing Copy (2)


Carp Fishing GirlThe 2020 CarpFEST program has been cancelled.  Look for this program to be back early June 2021.

Parks and Recreation partners with the Des Moines Izaak Walton League and the Iowa DNR to bring you CarpFEST.  Join us at Gray’s Lake Park in June, try your hand at Carp fishing and you could win a prize! Gear, bait and instructions are available. Carp caught may be kept by the fisherman or donated onsite to the wildlife rehabilitation organization S.O.A.R. All ages are welcome.

Carp Fishing ManEnter the park from Fleur at the North West Entrance to the park.
Onsite Registration begins at 8:00 am 
Fishing begins at 9:00 am and stops at 11:30. 
Awards will be given out after all the fish have been recorded.

Saving Our Avian Resources is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1999 dedicated to saving our avian resources through raptor rehabilitation, education, and research. SOAR maintains all necessary US Fish & Wildlife Service and Iowa DNR permits to provide the rehabilitation and education.


snowshoe left - CopyStomps can occur down the trail, at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and even under the full moon. All ages are welcome.  Pop-up programs will occur when snow conditions are good. Registration is required and includes snowshoes, instructions and even a cup of hot chocolate!  

2022 Program Dates will be posted here as the snow season gets closer.  For now, enjoy the warm weather.

You can also enjoy the winter on your own when you rent a pair of snowshoes. Contact our office for more information at 515 248 6369.


Owls of Iowa
December 13, 2014-1D4_0506 - Copy - Copy
Owls live right here in Des Moines but you do not get to see them easily. We will learn about the different kinds of owls that live here in Iowa and meet a live screech owl. Dress for the weather so that we can take a short hike in search of wild live owls in the park.  Pre-registration is required.

This event usually takes place in January or February, watch for a new date to be posted.

Owl with Joel
GPS Activities
GPS PumpkinJoin us as we explore the parks using a little bit of technology to guide us along the way. For these programs, temporary geocaches have been hidden in the park for you to try and find.  Participants will be taught how to navigate to the locations using a hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. After some basic instructions you will be sent into the park to look for the
geocaches at your own pace.  Each geocache will have a small prize for you to collect and some natural history information about the location.  It is not a race, go at your own pace and enjoy. Registration is required to make sure that there is equipment and prizes for everyone.  Only register the person that will be collecting the prizes.  Everyone can join in, smaller kids will need some help from the adults and teens have really enjoyed these events.

Look back here for new dates to be posted.
GPS Great Pumpkin Hunt
GPS Pot of Gold Hunt

GPS Egg Hunt

A Walk in the Park 2020 Videos
Take a quick walk in the park with the Environmental Education staff. Joel highlights nature items that can be found in our Des Moines city parks.
 Skunk Cabbage
Siberian Squill
Freezing Rain
Red-Tailed Hawk
Early May Apples
Chorus Frogs
Dutchman's Breeches
Jack in the Pulpit
Deer skull
Gray Tree Frog
Poison Ivy
Fungus with Ella
MacRae Savanna
Rose Mallow
 Compass Plant
Water Strider
 Monarch Caterpillar
 Monarch Butterfly Tagging
Bagworm Moths
Carolina Praying Mantis
Take a Closer Look
Aster in the Prairie
Fall Hike with Veterans
Milkweed Seeds
Pond:  Diving Beetle
Pond:  Water Scorpion
Pond:  Dragonfly
Take A Hike Day
Praying Mantis Egg Case
Canada Geese
Cottonwood Stars
Smooth Penstemon Seeds
Winter Views at MacRae Park

A Walk In the Park 2021 Videos
Take a quick look at our parks with Joel.
   Winter Squirrel
   Ring-billed Gull
Groundhog Day!
  Bald Eagle
Beaver Signs

  Almost a Full Moon Snowshoe
  Spring Cleaning
Ice at Gray's Lake
  Bald Eagle Nest: Incubating Eggs
  Downy Woodpecker
Snow Trillium
  Red-winged Blackbird
  Turkey Vultures
American Toad

  American Toad Tadpoles
  Mourning Dove Nest
Wild Bergamot
  Wild Ginger
  Japanese Beetle
Cup Plant
  Brown Pelicans
Stand Up Paddleboarding
We have all the gear and instructions, you come prepared to get wet and enjoy the experience.  

sup - Copy2021 Dates
Introduction to Stand Up Paddleboarding

June 6, 1 p.m.-4 p.m.               Register Here
July 10, 9 a.m. - Noon            Register Here
Aug. 10, 5:30-8:30 p.m.        Register Here

Stand Up Paddleboard with the Naturalist
All start times are 5:30pm except  Aug. 28

June 17            Register Here
June 29            Register Here
July 13             Register Here
July 22             Register Here
Aug. 19            Register Here
Aug 28, 10 a.m. start time     Register Here
Paddle and Pick Up

Registration for this event is going to be done by CANOE. You may have more than one person in the canoe with you. Reserve one canoe for your group to use.

This event combines canoeing on Gray's Lake with cleaning up trash at Gray's Lake. We have all the gear and supplies needed for you to Paddle and Pick Up. If you have never canoed before, don't worry, we will start with a basic canoe lesson for beginners, then spend some time paddling the Gray's Lake shoreline collecting trash and making our park clean and beautiful.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, canoes will be reserved as a unit and social distancing guidelines will be observed. When you make a reservation for this event you are reserving ONE CANOE. In each canoe, there may be either Two adults, Two adults with one child or One adult with up to 2 children. There is a limited number of canoes, so reservations are required.

June 26, 10:00 am
Gray Lake Peninsula
Fee $5.00

For more information contact Joel at (515) 681 2027 or

Click here to REGISTER.