Amie Takes A Hike: Iowa State Fair Offers A Little Taste Of Nature

We all know the Iowa State Fair: Corn dogs, Ferris wheel, teenagers persuading ornery animals to walk around a ring in pursuit of an FFA championship.

But it turns out that those in pursuit of natural places can find those among the hundred-thousand fairgoers as well!

Thus, my somewhat tongue-in-cheek Amie Takes a Hike: State Fair Edition became a surprisingly robust hike this week, with various terrain, little niches with plants and animals to explore, and even a vertical climb! (for $5 on a Thrill Parks pass)

The park

The Iowa State Fairgrounds have been located in Des Moines since 1886. Before that, the fair moved around, with the first held in eastern Iowa’s Fairfield (going with the obvious name I see) in 1854.

It’s expanded since that time and now encompasses 445 acres, which includes 160 acres of wooded campgrounds. It’s also officially on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction it received in 1987.

Though the fairgrounds hosts events year-round, the big one, of course, is the Iowa State Fair. The two-week mid-August extravaganza can bring more than a million people through its gates annually.

No fair cheating on your hike with the Sky Glider!

The hike

It’s far easier to hike the fairgrounds when the State Fair is NOT happening, I am certain.

But fair time is also when everything is spiffed up and activities are plentiful. It’s also where you can’t go more than 10 feet without finding something fried or on a stick to eat.

Even though I definitely got distracted by all the State Fair bells and whistles—including eating a few things on sticks, saying hello to cattle, losing at Bingo, marveling at the intricate model railroad club’s skills and more—I still walked more than 6 miles, according to my watch. That’s a pretty long hike in my book!

The map.

The sights and sounds

The State Fair is busy, to be sure. But there are pockets of nature to be found.

I started off on the north end of the grounds where The Garden and Little Hands on the Garden showcase edible gardens you can grow in Iowa’s climate. The vegetation ranges from tall stalks of corn to low, spreading pumpkin vines to fruit trees. The day I went, the fair was showcasing this area as part of its Sensory Friendly Morning, designed to appeal to those needing a break from overstimulation, such as those who have autism.

Perfectly tended hostas at the Earl May pass through.

Given The Garden’s spot near the fence line, it was indeed a quieter area to take in some nature. Ditto the little Earl May stand of trees and plants near the Anne and Bill Riley stage, a shady pass-through that provides a nice break off the main paths.

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

But my favorite one turned out to be the Discovery Garden. One of three gardens tended to by the Master Gardeners of Polk County, it includes beautiful blooming plants, 5,000 square feet of winding pathways, and a pond with fish. Iowa Public Television called it a “serene oasis” in the middle of the hustle-bustle of the Fair, and I couldn’t have said it better.

Big, beautiful bloomers at the Discovery Garden.

Not much wildlife at the fair, though farm animals are plentiful, of course, and spread throughout. If you’ve only got time for one building, check out the Avenue of Breeds for a good cross-section (and some interesting breeds of common livestock!).

Miniature cattle!

And though the fairgrounds are relatively flat, I made sure to get my elevation in with the climbing wall in the southwestern Thrill Town. (I failed at the “hard” side, then somewhat redeemed myself on the “easy” wall instead.)

Intimidating! (and yes, the middle schoolers before me scaled this with ease)

The verdict

It’s not your traditional hike, to be sure. And unlike others, this one has an admission price.

But for the marks of a nice, long walk, seeing some well-tended and domesticated nature, and plenty of activities, the Iowa State Fair ranks right up there. Plus, at the end of it, you can reward yourself with a beverage at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. (Take that, Wildcat Den.)



By Amie Rivers

Have a story idea for me? Email amie at I’m also available by text, WhatsApp and Signal at (319) 239-0350, or find me on TwitterTikTokInstagram and Facebook.

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1 Comment on "Amie Takes A Hike: Iowa State Fair Offers A Little Taste Of Nature"

  • Thanks for this nice column. I also look for nature at the State Fair every time I go, and the Discovery Garden is one of my favorite places. The wildlife there is tiny, but I’ve seen some beautiful butterflies, moths, flower-loving wasps and flies, and large fuzzy bumblebees enjoying the flowers, especially the native prairie flowers that are included in parts of the garden.

    Years ago, there was a pollinator garden on a small slope in the Fairgrounds, and I still miss it. There also used to be a small planting of prairie flowers and grasses next to the Iowa Farm Bureau pavilion — not sure it still exists. Some of the big trees on the Fairgrounds are gorgeous, and I’m glad more trees are being planted. The Fairgrounds would benefit from more trees, and will really need them as more of the big trees are lost to age and storms.

    And one more very good place to see nature at the Fair is the area behind the DNR building. There’s a pond with various kinds of native waterfowl, prairie wildflowers and grasses, and nice trees and shrubs. The DNR building itself has displays of many kinds of Iowa fish and sometimes other small animals, plus information about state parks and other nature-related topics. And there are nature-related talks a few times a day in the corner of the DNR grounds, covering a variety of topics.

    Thank you, Iowa DNR. You deserve much more funding and support than you get.

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