City Park is a lovely, diverse space, with manicured lawns, ballfields, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and shady pseudo-savanna, along with patches of bristly woods, mossy, tadpole-filled ponds, and soggy riverbank.
Hickory Hill Park
Hickory Hill Park is a jewel of Iowa City. It consists of over 200 acres of old and new-growth forest, prairie, and mown fields. There are several picnic shelters, and miles of trails. Popular activities include walking and hiking, birdwatching, identifying the abundant wildflowers, cross-county skiing, sledding, kite flying, picnicking, mushrooming, enjoying solitude in the park, and much more. Beautiful Ralston Creek winds its way through the park. Go to the Hickory Hill Park website.
South Sycamore Wetlands
Designed by Professor Lon Drake, the SSOW serve a multitude of functions. The wetland’s system of channels and basins effectively clean the stormwater runoff from hundreds of houses in the Grant Wood Elementary School area. It is home to many species of plants and animals. It is a great place for children to wade, get muddy, see waterfowl, catch frogs, and enjoy themselves.
Devonian Fossil Gorge
Uncovered by the Great Flood of 1993, the Fossil Gorge holds fossils of life on the Iowa sea floor from hundreds of millions of years ago. The fossils are just one attraction, however. The cracks, creeks, waterfalls, caves, and crevices in the limestone bedrock make for fantastic imaginary homes for small people. Mats of algae, cattail stalks, and slabs of bark become shelters, accoutrements, and tools for the little “Six Incher” tribes. Frogs, snakes, crayfish, and tadpoles are quarry for kids and "Six Inchers" alike.
Woodpecker Nature Trail and Linder Point Trails
Mature, beautiful hardwood forest along the Coralville Reservoir with miles of trails and lots of stuff to explore. Taproot Kids here have enjoyed building shelters, leaping the “ravine,” collecting oyster mushrooms, climbing trees, and skipping stones on the lake.
Sand Lake Dunes
Sand Lake is a new park created at the site of an old sand quarry. A shallow, reed-circled lagoon, swimming with hungry bluegill, and surrounded by a group of high sand dunes makes for a wonderful spot to catch a fish, enjoy a campfire, and play in the sand.
A few hundred acres of forest, wetland, and prairie with miles of trails, Redbird Farm is home to many birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, and a great place to hike and explore. It is also fun to hunt for the clues of the land’s past lives as farm and prairie savanna.
Mormon Trek / Coralville Strip Nature Trail
A surprisingly diverse and wild bit of nature tucked between the Coralville Strip and the Finkbine Golf Course, this nature trail has been the site of several great Taproot trips. It consists of remnant wetland, prairie, and savanna ecosystems, along with planted pine woods and athletic fields. We’ve had some great sledding here, as well as animal and human tracking adventures. Wildlife tracks or animals spotted have included deer, turkeys, pheasants, rabbits, red foxes, owls, cooper’s hawks, and squirrels.
University of Iowa Medical Campus
The many interesting buildings with their curious designs, sweeping vistas, and beckoning hallways, the mysterious and labyrinthine subterranean tunnels that connect the buildings, and the outdoor spaces with wide grassy lawns, trails, and trees of diverse size and species, provide a wonderful setting for exploring, active games, and exciting treasure hunts. This destination is especially good on unpleasant weather days when we need some indoor time.
Iowa River Beach (a.k.a. Clamshellica)
A beautiful wood-and-iron footbridge across a roaring, lowhead dam on the Iowa River transports children from the hectic and noisy Coralville 1st Avenue to the magical land of Clamshellica. A couple hundred yards of sand, rocks, driftwood, fossils, and mussel shells, this beach is many Taproot Kids’ favorite destination. Over the years, a community has grown here, made up of shelters and houses both kid-size and fairy-size, and shops, where kids buy and sell goods and services using the Clamshellica currency – little red rocks. Children direct themselves in Clamshellica – sitting by the campfire, bargaining with their group mates, leaning driftwood sticks into a tepee, skipping stones on the water, constructing tiny, beautiful furniture of mud, rocks, and soft mullein leaves, or gathering great stacks of pearly mussel shells. Many kids find themselves just relaxing, absorbing the late-afternoon sunshine sparkling on the river, the calls of seagulls and geese, and the far-off roar of water over the dam and traffic on 1st Avenue.
Scattergood Friends School Farm
When kids pile out of the van at Scattergood Farm, they are greeted by friendly cows, gobbling turkeys, super-cute piglets and majestic mama sows, Skeezy the sleepy boar, Katadhin sheep lambs, rows of large, round haybales to play on, and expansive gardens full of delicious organic kale, tomatoes, sweetcorn, green beans, broccoli, carrots, radishes, and other nutritious edibles that kids happily munch. Farm managers and teachers Mark Quee and Dana Foster welcome the children for a beautiful farm experience and teach them about food choices, soil health, caring for animals, and the challenges and joys of growing food for the school’s 50 hungry teenagers and 25 staff.
Harvest Farm and Preserve
Nestled in the corner of Scott Boulevard and Rochester Avenue, in prime Iowa City development land, Harvest Farm and Preserve is over 400 acres of oak woods, pastures, creeks, and prairie, woven with trails and peppered throughout with whimsical and thought-provoking sculptures and delightful and comfortable spots for reading, birdwatching, or meditating. There is a little jewel of a pond, where Taproot kids have caught many scrappy bluegills and shiny crappies. Harvest Farm is private and access is by permission only. Visit their website for details.
Hawkins Road Savanna
Behind Carver Hawkeye Arena and surrounded by busy streets, there is a lovely area of remnant oak savanna, characterized by the huge trunks and massive, outstretched limbs of bur oak and white oak trees. In the absence of natural, periodic fires, the savanna has become clogged with smaller maple, basswood, black cherry, locust, dogwood, boxelder, mulberry, and hackberry trees, but there is a several-acre section that has been restored to it’s historic state with brush-clearing and controlled burning. When the smaller trees have been cleared away, the stately oaks are majestic as they spread their arms over the park-like atmosphere. Taproot kids have staged many exciting November “deer drives” to herd the resident bucks and does past groups of hidden children.
Turkey Creek Preserve
Along the banks of beautiful Turkey Creek north of Iowa City, the Turkey Creek Preserve is over 100 acres of oak upland, rocky outcrops, wooded creekbottom, and restored prairie. The creek itself is often the main attraction, with it’s shallow, rocky riffles, climbable log jams, steep cut banks, and “quicksand” beaches where kids wade, splash, climb, jump, slog, search for fossils and Native American artifacts, and build with mud, sticks, and rocks. The preserve is one of several natural areas owned and maintained by the Johnson County Heritage Trust.
University of Iowa Museum of Natural History
The Museum is a well-known and beloved destination for most Iowa City-area children, and a great place to come on a rainy afternoon. It offers a sheltered but outdoor spot to eat our snack beneath the majestic columns and interesting carvings of the front entrance, and unlimited learning opportunities in Iowa Hall, Bird Hall, Mammal Hall, and the many other exhibits throughout the building. Kids look forward to seeing favorite exhibits such as Rusty the Giant Sloth, the spear-wielding Paleo-Indian who follows you with his eyes, and the gigantic skeleton of a right whale that hangs overhead. Scavenger hunts, read-aloud sessions, and imagination games are all options on a trip to the Museum.
University of Iowa Greenhouse Facility
It is obvious that UI Greenhouse supervisor Ken Snyder loves his job and has a passion for plants. The Taproot tours of the expansive and impressive greenhouse complex on top of the Biology Building have been excellent. As cold rain or snow falls outside, we breathe warm, moist, air scented with tropical flowers, see the ancestor of corn, touch the weird liverwort plant, and watch a venus flytrap catch a meal.
Wilson’s Apple Orchard
Wilson’s Orchard is a place with many opportunities for children to interact with nature. Floating leaf boats in Rapid Creek, exploring the forest edge, and catching and tagging monarchs in “Butterfly Corner” are a few examples of time spent here. The orchard is also a great example of a local food producer, and the Taproot kids have been known to sample the famous Wilson’s apple turnovers.
Sand Road Orchard
Row upon row of mature blueberry bushes at this pick-your-own farm make it a fantastic morning or afternoon destination during the summer. It is surprising, even with a “one for the bucket, two for me” approach, how quickly a Taproot group can pick several pounds of blueberries.
Lon Drake’s Place
Forty years ago, Professor Lon Drake, of the UI Geoscience Dept., bought a tired, washed-out, degraded piece of farmland west of Iowa City. In the time since, he has nurtured this land and brought forth a lush environment of prairie, woodlands, marshes, and ponds, teeming with wildlife. The beautiful property, coupled with Dr. Drake’s gentle and insightful teaching, make this a favorite Taproot destination.
The prairies, wetlands and ponds that surround Iowa City’s drinking water purification facility on North Dubuque Street are a fun place to play “coyote tag” in the tall grass, chase grasshoppers along the path, catch snakes, find grassland bird nests, and observe waterfowl. Hard surface trails offer easy walking for those who need it.
The Woods behind Mormon Handcart Park
Tucked behind Hawkeye Court and the UI Rec Fields, flanking Clear Creek, is a swath of woods that has provided several great outings of creek exploration, tree climbing, easy hiking and challenging bluff ascents, shelter-building, and owl calling.
A pocket of mature hickory and oak forest, winding trails, wildflowers, and deep ravines on the south edge of Iowa City, Ryerson’s Wood is great for a gentle hike or a more rigorous expedition.
Sugar Bottom Recreation Area
More widely known for it’s excellent mountain biking trails, Sugar Bottom also makes a great place for kids to explore, especially on muddy early spring days when there are no bikers about. A maze of trails winds and twists through a mix of mature hardwood forest, abandoned pastures grown up in scrubby new-growth trees, and long, straight rows of white pines. Old, overgrown farm roads and the ruins of several farmsteads (along with their dumps) provide a rich pallet of investigative opportunities.
Bob Braverman’s beautiful hilltop vegetable farm on the south side of Iowa City grows wholesome, organic food for various local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as selling produce directly to the public. The Taproot kids have enjoyed visiting and making lemon basil pesto with Bob, whose joy and exuberance in working the earth were contagious.
Bob died unexpectedly in the summer of 2011, leaving all of us shocked and saddened. No one will ever fill the vacancy left by his passing, but many people are working together to carry on his good work. Go to the Friendly Farm website.
Dick Schwab’s Place
Taproot Kids have had wonderfully interesting times exploring around Dick Schwab's beautiful round stone barns and woodshop. Among myriad other things, Dick is a Wood Man, with an amazing collection of lumber he has sawn from his own timber, salvaged from old buildings, and sawn from trees cut in and around Iowa City. He also has old trucks, tractors, and an extensive woodshop. The round stone barns themselves are an attraction, but by far the strongest attraction for the kids has been the long, snowy hill nearby.
Galen Bontrager Farm
Galen is among a new generation of farmers, raising beef, chickens, turkeys, lamb, and sometimes hogs in a way that respects the animals and keeps them happy by allowing them to live in the way that nature designed them. His method of bio-integrated, rotational grazing allows the animals to work together in a way that mimics nature, respects the land, and actually improves biodiversity. Galen’s farm is a wonderful place for children and adults. It is very fun to see how all the animals on the farm do their “jobs” and go about a happy existence. Galen markets his meat locally and is a member of the Johnson County Local Food Producers. Go to the Bontrager Farm website.
Highland Vista Farm
Similar in style and practice to Galen Bontrager, Steve and Colleen Rogers of Highland Vista Farm raise cattle, chickens, and hogs in a humane, environmentally sound manner. Go to the Highland Vista Farm website.
Derek Roller’s Urban Farm
Using intensive planting and well-managed hoop houses, Farmer Derek Roller grows a farm’s worth of organic vegetables and herbs on a double lot inside Iowa City.
Mark Muller/Val Cool Farm
Mark and Val have nurtured their five-acre “farmlet” into a lovely little slice of peace and nature. A tiny jewel of a pond (with large fish to catch), a charming chicken house, a diverse swath of prairie, and lots of natural nooks and hideaways make their place a fun destination.
Yoderville Biodiesel Collective Facility
Ten miles west of Iowa City, on the farm of Iowa Biofuel Expert Steve Fugate, is the headquarters of the Yoderville Biodiesel Collective. The YBDC mission is to educate the public about the possibilities, practicalities, and benefits of making automobile fuel from recycled vegetable oil. Not only is Steve a wealth of knowledge about biofuel, he is also a gifted and passionate teacher, and his presentation is accessible and understandable to adults and children alike.
Drinking Water Purification Facility and Wastewater Treatment Facility
It is a fascinating tour to see how our water is drawn from deep wells along the Iowa River, purified, and sent out to our taps and toilets. The amount of concrete, steel, and energy required to give us clean water to drink is striking.
At the other end of our water use in Iowa City is the Wastewater Treatment Facility. Again, a tremendous amount of energy and resources are put into taking out the impurities we put into the water before sending that water back out into the Iowa River. This tour is a little smellier, but no less interesting.
Fae Ridge Farm
Farmer Janette Ryan Busch grows organic herbs, vegetables, flowers, and eggs, and raises sheep, angora goats, and llamas for fiber at her farm on Rapid Creek Road. Our visits to Fae Ridge have been full and rich -- meeting the animals, cutting sapling trees from Janette’s prairie, learning how to spin wool, and having fantastic conversations about organic farming, care for the soil and water, voting with our dollars, and supporting local economies.
New Pioneer Food Co-op
Iowa City’s source for local and organic produce, where we’ve had great tours with Grocery Manager Scott Koepke. Scott shows the kids how to determine whether the food they’re buying is local or organic, and tells them that through their purchasing choices, they have power to increase the amount of such food available in grocery stores. Go to the New Pioneer website.
Indian Creek Nature Center
Indian Creek Nature Center is a private, non-profit nature center providing environmental education for all ages that is funded by memberships, income from programs, donations, and grants. The 210 acres with four miles of trails provide woodlands, prairies, wetlands and riparian forests for a unique outdoor classroom. The Nature Center staff and volunteers provide leadership for a variety of learning experiences.
The interpretive center, a remodeled 1932 dairy barn, houses exhibits, an auditorium, offices, gift shop and restrooms. The grounds near the barn contain a butterfly garden, Vermont-style maple sugar house, herb garden, frog pond, bee hives, bat houses, bluebird trail, sugarbush and prairie. Picnic tables are available for your use. Go to the Indian Creek Nature Center website.