Neal Smith Trail


Neal Smith Trail Facts

States: Iowa
Counties: Polk
Length: 26 miles
Trail end points: Big Creek State Park Beach and Marina (Polk City) and Birdland Marina at Birdland Park Dr. and Saylor Rd. (Des Moines)
Trail surfaces: Asphalt
Trail category: Greenway/Non-RT
ID: 6428994
Trail activites: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking

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Neal Smith Trail Description

The Neal Smith Trail, which connects to the John Pat Dorrian Trail in downtown Des Moines, runs through a portion of Des Moines itself before leaving the city limits and ending in the north at Big Creek State Park. An aquaphile's paradise, the Neal Smith Trail traces the Des Moines River for most of its route before it skirts massive Saylorville Lake and finally ends at the beach at Big Creek Lake.

While the trail is a popular scenic route for bikers and joggers, it is also home to abundant wildlife, including beaver, muskrat, and deer. The Saylorville Lake Visitor Center on NW Horseshoe Road includes an outdoor butterfly garden and is a popular rest stop on the trail. Unfortunately, the Neal Smith Trail is prone to flooding due to its proximity to two large lakes and the Des Moines River; be sure to check the Des Moines Trails website for information on possible closures.

Despite the beautiful scenery, the Neal Smith Trail is not only used for recreation. In fact, the trail connects to many trails in central Iowa, making it a great route for commuting. In the south, the trail connects to the John Pat Dorrian Trail, allowing for travel deeper into the heart of downtown Des Moines. Farther north, the Neal Smith Trail directly connects to both the Inter-Urban Trail and the Trestle to Trestle Trail. These trails provide off-road routes to the beautiful Beaverdale neighborhood of Des Moines and the northern suburb of Johnston on the opposite side of the Des Moines River. Just north of NW 66th Avenue, the Neal Smith Trail links with the Oralabor Gateway Trail, granting easy access to the city of Ankeny in the east.

Parking and Trail Access

Parking for the Neal Smith Trail is available at many dedicated parking lots. At the southern endpoint, park at Birdland Park and Marina on Saylor Road. Farther north, there is a parking lot on NW 66th Avenue at the Des Moines River. The Saylorville Lake Visitor Center also has available parking on NW Horseshoe Road. In Polk City, there are parking lots where the trail meets NW 90th Avenue and just north of NW 94th Avenue. Additional parking can be found at the Saylorville Lake Marina on NW Polk City Drive and at another lot to the west. North of the marina, there is a dedicated parking lot on NW Madrid Drive. There is a large parking lot at the Neal Smith Trail's northern endpoint at Big Creek State Park and several lots farther south. Be sure to take a look at the TrailLink map for the trail to view all of your many parking options.

Neal Smith Trail Reviews

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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