Late-summer walks

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This is a fantastic time of year for enjoying a walk — especially an evening walk. The days are still long, but the nights are getting cooler. Here are two unique places to take a walk in central Iowa:

NEAL SMITH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

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Sure, you can stroll around your neighborhood or hike on a bike path, but why not take a walk through grasses and wildflowers at one of Iowa’s hidden gems: The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge is a tallgrass prairie near Prairie City, about 20 miles east of Des Moines. I wrote about this unique Iowa destination back in 2011.

The paved Tallgrass Trail is a two-mile loop through lush wildflowers and grasses up to 10 feet tall. Tallgrass prairie once covered about 80% of Iowa! Today, less than .1% remains, so this is a very special place.

Your walk will take you through a variety of blooming plants and grasses. I wish I could tell you all the names, but I haven’t a clue. I just know that there are yellow and purple and white and pink and orange and gold flowers in every imaginable size and shape, framed by grasses in shades of green and brown and purple. Working hard the day I was visiting were hundreds of bumblebees and butterflies.

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If you don’t mind stopping along the way and reading informational plaques, you can learn a lot from this walk. Here’s what I found out about the insects in the prairie:

“The interrelationships among the plants and animals make prairies very complex and resilient. Insects are the most numerous of the prairie animals. Butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps are attracted to showy prairie flowers, which they pollinate. The great mass of grasses, leaves, and stems provide an abundance of habitat for ants, grasshoppers, and other insects.” (Oh, yeah, there were grasshoppers there, too.) “Without insects, the prairie ecosystem would collapse, and the circle of life would be broken. Insects pollinate many plants, allowing new plants to grow.”

I won’t bore you with more facts. Here, just take a look at some of the things I saw on my walk. Some of these flowers were a bit past their peak, but they are still beautiful in their own way.

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While you’re at the wildlife refuge, be sure to drive around to see if you can spot the resident bison herd.

ADA HAYDEN HERITAGE PARK

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Another truly beautiful place to walk in central Iowa is Ada Hayden Heritage Park just north of Ames. I also wrote about this place in 2011.

I guess you could say that Ada Hayden is Ames’ version of Des Moines’ Gray’s Lake. The path around the lake is very popular with walkers, runners, cyclists, in-line skaters, and dog walkers. If you walk the whole thing, including the bridge that bisects the lake, it’s a 3.2-mile paved loop around the water. The park also features a 1.2-mile upland trail. But it’s the lake that draws the traffic, the lake that glistens with the sun and glows in the evening light, the lake that makes this a really memorable walk.

Here are some scenes from a few nights ago:

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