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
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.
Redbird Wildlife Area
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.
Finkbine 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
For more information visit the Indian Creek Nature Center website.