DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is about 30 miles north of Omaha in Missouri Valley, Iowa. It’s one of those nearby nature centers you forget about until a niece tells you about her field trip there or someone mentions crane migration.
If you’re really into birds, this is the place to visit. If you’re not, it’s still worth a visit if only to immerse yourself in the great outdoors, take some great photos and spot some wildlife.
Since it’s spring and we’ve had ridiculously fine weather, I thought we’d go to check out the waterfowl migration situation there. That’s what the place is known for. Mid-March was apparently too early to catch birds and geese on their way back north – they were there, just not in hordes.
But, it was not a wasted trip. Here’s what my family enjoyed about DeSoto:
Do not miss a stop here, especially if you have children. The wildlife exhibits drew my kids in, as did the interactive ones.
History buffs will enjoy the historical displays, and especially the Steamboat Bertrand exhibit.
(The Steamboat Bertrand was thought to be lost after it sunk until it was rediscovered nearly a century later within the boundaries of the DeSoto. Over 250,000 artifacts were uncovered, including many in amazing condition. You’ll see a ton of those artifacts at the visitor center.)
My kids aren’t history buffs quite yet; dates mean nothing to them since everything happened “just the other day.” They still indulged me a little and walked through the exhibit, letting me look closely at a couple interesting items before moving on.
The visitor center also has a small theater for viewing short films.
Go a little further into the visitor center for a great view of the river.
Let’s Go Outside Backpacks
You can check out children’s backpacks at the visitors center for FREE – and I highly suggest you do it since it added a lot to our visit.
Each one is equipped with binoculars, wildlife and cloud ID cards, suggest activities like a scavenger hunt and journaling, and my kids’ favorite, a small cup to collect bugs with a magnifying lid.
The binoculars alone are worth taking the 30 seconds to check out a bag, but really everything in there was useful.
Who knew my kids were such curious naturalists?
This place isn’t really a destination for hikers, though there are a couple flat trails, particularly the Cottonwood/Grassland trails. which are ¾-mile trails. They’re very manageable for small kids.
Other trails include the Bertrand Trail (⅖ mile), Wood Duck Pond Trail (¾ mile) and the Missouri Meander Trail near the visitor center (an accessible 7/8 mile looped trail). Many portions of DeSoto, including some trails, are closed during the winter to minimize disturbance of wintering eagles, waterfowl and some game.
Word of advice: There are a ton of bugs in the thick of summer – you’re along a river. Mr. Wonderful and I last visited DeSoto when Farley was a baby. We made it about 10 feet onto one of the trails near the river before being swarmed by mosquitoes. Swarmed. Like out of a movie.
What else can you do
March 1 through April 14 is a good time to visit and enjoy:
Waterfowl migration observation
April 15 through October 14 is a good time to visit and enjoy:
Mushroom collecting (April 15-May 31)
October 15 through November
Migrating waterfowl observation (prime time)
December and February is a good time to visit and enjoy:
If you go
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Where: 1434 316th Lane, Missouri Valley
Hours: Open daily sunrise to sunset; the visitor center is open daily (except for certain federal holidays) 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
150th anniversary of the sinking of the Steamboat Bertrand
When: March 27-29 (actual date it sank was April 1, 1865)
Friday afternoon: Special tours of the Bertrand excavation site and steamboat museum from 2 to 4 p.m.; formal reception starts at 4 p.m. with a social hour followed by formal presentations starting at 5. Keynote speaker is archaeologist and retired National Park Service Superintendent Ronald R. Switzer who will speak about the early preservation of the Bertrand artifacts.
Saturday and Sunday: Show-and-tell with select artifacts, a steamboat photo station, 1860s period play time for kids, waterfowl viewing stations and more. Special talks on Saturday include an encore presentation by Ronald Switzer at 10 a.m. and a presentation on metal artifact conservation by a Gerald R. Ford Center Conservation Technician Megan Griffiths at 1 p.m. Tours of the museum collection and special archeologist-led tours of the Bertrand excavation site will happen on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: FREE (no vehicle admission fee!)