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Part of an expansive trail network in the Greater Des Moines region, the 26-mile Neal Smith Trail rolls along the banks of the Des Moines River through the Ding Darling Greenway conservation area and makes its way through a variety of landscapes, including riverbanks, wildflower meadows, lakeshores, and dense forests. Plenty of benches offer ample opportunities for trail users to rest and enjoy the deer, rabbits, butterflies, and other critters active along the route.
The trail travels near several campsites and recreation areas with water fountains and restrooms, and parking is available at several points along the way. The trail also connects with several other trails, including the Oralabor Gateway Trail, the Trestle to Trestle Trail, and the Inter-Urban Trail. Portions of the trail are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the City of Des Moines for year-round access, but note that only the city-maintained portion is plowed during the winter.
From the southern endpoint at East University Avenue—also the northern endpoint for the 3.4-mile John Pat Dorrian Trail—the Neal Smith Trail flows into Birdland Park along the Des Moines River. Portions of this section of the trail are prone to flooding, and trail users are advised to check the trail’s website for closures and detours.
Just outside Birdland Park, the trail enters Riverview Park, where it intersects with the short Kiwanis Nature Island Trail and the McHenry Park Trail. At the north end of the park, you’ll come to the eastern endpoint of the 1.3-mile Inter-Urban Trail, which cuts right and then makes a U to cross the Des Moines River, where you can also pick up the 3.7-mile Trestle to Trestle Trail to your right. The Neal Smith Trail continues through wildlife-rich forest and wetlands habitat following the contours of the Des Moines River.
About halfway along the route, you’ll reach Saylorville Dam, holding back the eponymous lake on the Des Moines River. Saylorville Lake is host to a diverse range of recreational opportunities—including boating, fishing, camping, and more. The trail also passes a visitor center that offers public educational events, including guided rides along the Neal Smith Trail.
The trail continues along the lake’s eastern shore through neighboring forests and some incredible wildflower prairie meadows, after which it shares a roadway through the Cherry Glen Picnic Area. Parking is available here during park hours, and the facility has restrooms and water access. The trail continues off-road at the north end of the picnic area on the far side of a large parking lot. A short distance farther, the pathway continues through the Prairie Flower Recreation Area campgrounds on a shared roadway; here, you’ll have access to several restrooms and water fountains.
Nearing the end of your route, you’ll enter Big Creek State Park, which has several picnic and recreational areas with parking, restrooms, docks, and lake access points. The trail ends at Big Creek Marina, which boasts a large playground, a sandy beach along the lakeshore, and ample parking.
To reach parking at Birdland Park and Marina (near the southern endpoint of the trail) from I-235, take Exit 8B (E. Sixth St./Pennsylvania Ave.). Head north on Pennsylvania Ave. (left turn from northbound I-235, right turn from southbound I-235). In about 1.25 miles, the parking lot will be on your left. Enter from Pennsylvania Ave. or Birdland Drive. The endpoint is about 0.9 mile south along the trail at E. University Ave. Another parking lot is located by going 0.4 mile south on Pennsylvania Ave. and turning right (just before the intersection with Cleveland Ave.).
To reach the Big Creek Marina trailhead from downtown Des Moines, take I-235/I-35 northbound to Exit 96 (Elkhart/Polk City). Turn left onto NE 126th Ave., and follow for 1.6 miles. Turn right onto Ankeny Blvd., and go 2 miles. Turn left onto NE 142nd Ave. After around 7 miles, turn left onto NW Big Creek Drive, and then turn left at the intersection. The marina parking lot will be on your left.
Packerbacker's description of the Big Creek State Park trail was right on--bumpy (uncountable "cross-cuts") and desperately in need of repair or resurfacing. This morning (9/24/17) my wife and I started out on the trail expecting to experience the same bumpy, irritating ride when much to our amazement all the significant cross-cuts had been repaired--a combination of grinding and tar, I would guess. The ride is not perfect, but much improved! ...and the views of the lake are spectacular.
GORGEOUS trail! Did this with my buddy in June to prep for RAGBRAI. Started at Birdland Marina, went down to Court Ave, then took the Johnston Greenbelt trail back up, met up with the trail again, then went over to Ankeny to take the HTT back up to Birdland Marina.
Some of the hills would make AMAZING training routes. The trail in general was pretty quiet when we went at 8 on a Sunday morning. Would definitely do it again!
very good morning ride to see wildlife. Love the hills on this trail especially the good up hill climb just past the visitors center. the only down part is the trail going into the Big Creek park is about shot and very bumpy. This part of the trail is going to need to be resurfaced in the very near future. (this is why the 3 stars). Overall a very nice ride with some good moderate climbs. You do need to pay attention as on some down hill sections there are blind curves at the bottom of the hills.
We started our ride at the Prairie Flower Campground near Polk City and cycled to Big Creek State Park which was approximately 16 miles RT. We enjoyed this section of the trail. The trail does not run along the lake but it is a pretty trail - tree-lined, scenic and curvy for most of the way. The trail was in good condition until you reached Big Creek State Park. Then, it turned to asphalt with huge cracks every few feet. It was ca-thunk-ca-thunk-ca-thunk for the few miles through the State Park where the trail ended. Except for a few benches along the way, there were no amenities until you reached Big Creek State Park so bring water and snacks. This is not a rails-to-trail so it was not as flat as some might expect.
Awesome trail from Sycamore north. We started at the trailhead of the Dorrain Trail and it was in terrible shape. Once we arrived at Birdland and the NST, things improved but the trail remained cracked, uneven and overall rough until we hit Sycamore. From Saylorville north...what a great trail with nice hills and curves and plenty of scenery! Can't wait until the on-water bar opens back up at Big Creek. Needs more resturaunts and food stops. Caseys just doesnt cut it. Lots of strollers and walkers to dodge. And whats up with people on bikes cranking "We will rock you" so loud they can't hear other voices from behind? And these poeple look professional with super expensive bikes and gear....but little commen sense. C'mon, man.
FINALLY a DSM trail worth applauding! I've done many trails with "rave" reviews and have been continuously disappointed. Their description of "scenery" turned out to be cornfields. The Neal Smith Trail is a must do! There were TREES and LAKES and HILLS and CURVES! The first and last few miles could use some trail maintenance, but other than that it was great. Did the whole trail, out and back, for an enjoyable 52 mile ride.
My wife and I rode this trail in its entirety. We started at Birdland Park in Des Moines, which is about 2 miles north of 235E. The first 8 miles were fairly flat; unfortunately, the surface was pretty rough in spots. You really needed to pay attention. At the 8 mile mark, the surface improved considerably and the trail became quite hilly (which we enjoyed). The trail offers beautiful scenery throughout. There are numerous rest stops, including restrooms. The main negative to this trail, in our opinion, is the absence of restaurants. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks!
We started our ride at the northern most end near Big Creek and rode 10 miles. This is a very pretty trail. There are hills and curves which makes it more interesting than a flat rail trail but it was not a difficult ride. The trail is very well marked.
We rode the trail from the north end at Big Creek Lake to the parking area along I-80 on Morningstar Drive. I agree with one of the other reviewers – this is one of the prettiest trails I’ve ridden. It isn’t a rail-trail but that makes it really fun and interesting. There are numerous rolling hills and swooping curves. The hills aren’t too challenging, just enough to get a workout going up and build some speed coming down. It is all beautiful but the section around the perimeter of Red Feather Prairie was exceptional. The wooded area south of Saylorville Damn contains some of the largest oak and cottonwood trees I’ve seen in the Midwest. We tent-camped in Acorn Valley which was also very nice.
The Neal Smith trail was a huge disappointment. From the map, it appears to run along the edge of Saylorville Lake. Yet while biking the trail, there are no views of Saylorville Lake due to the thick underbrush and forest. The trail is well marked, but you have to carefully watch for the little brown signs. The trail has mile markers every 1/4 mile, but we could not locate a trail map that shows these mile markers, so you never know where you actually are. At one point the trail runs through the middle of a very very busy Marina parking lot where I almost got hit by a car. At many points you share the road with trucks and big campers at the many busy campgrounds along the lake. The steep climbs and descents are very grueling (up) and dangerous (down). The trail is not suited for children, as they could easly lose control down a steep descent and reach speeds exceeding 20 mph. On the positive side, the asphalt surface is in good condition, and the trail is in the shade a good portion.
April 20, 2012
This is one of the prettiest trail rides I’ve ever ridden, going through wooded areas and along a 24 mile-long lake. Definitely not a rails-to-trails, lots of hills, curves and elevation! We parked about 9 miles north of Des Moines and rode almost to the north end of the trail in Big Creek Park.
The trail is in great condition and well marked. Though there was a strong wind the day we rode, the trail provided good protection. For those who like to camp, this would be a perfect location, with sites right on the trail. There is a beach with swimming allowed.
We biked a few miles south of Rt 6, going under I-80. That section of trail is older and not in as good condition but has nice views of the river which runs along side it. You can connect to many other area trails.
This trail runs through Des Moines though some parts in the city are closed due to flood damage and construction once you get outside of Des Moines and head to Saylorville Lake it gets better it has recently been repaved. Pedaling by the dam is a bit steep. Some hills around the lake.
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