When most people think of Iowa, they might not know anything at all – after all, Iowa is one of the common “flyover” states. For those of us who know better and have been to the Hawkeye State, we can think fondly of Iowa’s verdant rolling hills, passionate sports fans, and dark starry skies.
Okay, maybe not everyone thinks of that last one, but as a gal who spent four years at college in Iowa, I know that there are some incredible spots for stargazing in Iowa – including within reasonable distance from the most populous city of Des Moines.
If you’re planning a trip – or just call it home – and curious about stargazing in Des Moines, it helps to know what the conditions are like. As you’ll see, Des Moines’ city lights aren’t ideal for stargazing, but there are some spots within the city you can visit – and plenty more within a short drive. Iowa’s relatively flat geography makes for unobstructed skies, and here are some great places to discover them.
In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Báxoje Máyaⁿ (Ioway), oθaakiiwaki‧hina‧ki (Sauk) & Meškwahki·aša·hina (Fox), and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples, among many others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Stargazing Spots in Des Moines
Finding good places to go stargazing in Des Moines is no easy task. However, not everyone has time to drive to less light-polluted areas. So here are two urban stargazing spots with decent conditions where you explore the cosmos.
Drake Municipal Observatory
Located in the heart of Des Moines, Drake Municipal Observatory is your best option in Des Moines when you need a dose of stargazing. The building sits on the highest ground in the city and is operated jointly by the City of Des Moines and Drake University. Inside, there’s an eight-and-a-half-inch refracting telescope.
If you’re a newbie or want to introduce your kids to the world of astronomy, the observatory offers fabulous programming, ranging from lectures to viewing sessions throughout the year.
4898 Observatory Rd, Des Moines, drake.edu/observatory
Greenwood-Ashworth Park is another spot worth visiting for a night of stargazing. Locals love to call this park the hidden gem of Des Moines. There’s plenty of nature, trails for exercise, and lovely scenery wherever you look. Feel free to explore the area and find a suitable stop to set up your telescope. Although you’ll have better luck sticking to the rose garden and the pond.
4500 Grand Ave, Des Moines, dsm.city
Stargazing Spots within 1 hour of Des Moines
It may not seem like a lot, but driving a few miles outside the city can greatly impact your stargazing session. Here are five great spots for stargazing within 1 hour of Des Moines.
Annett Nature Center
Located in Warren County, the Annett Nature Center is 23 miles away from Des Moines. The park sits on a hillside above a six-acre pond and a ten-acre wetland and is adjacent to Lake Ahquabi State Park. This means light pollution considerably diminishes in this area. There’s no shortage of stargazing spots, that’s for sure. However, the 30′ observation tower is a top location and a favorite among local stargazers.
15565 118th Ave, Indianola, warrenccb.org
For a guided stargazing adventure, head to the Ashton Observatory. Built in 1983, the observatory houses two domes with a 16-inch aperture telescope each. The observatory presents public programs on Saturday evenings in the months of April through October.
All programs include a lecture on an astronomy-related topic, followed by a stargazing session where you’ll enjoy close-up views of the Moon, planets, and bright nebulae through the telescopes in the observatory domes.
8717 W 122nd St N, Mingo, dmastronomy.com/our-observatory
It takes you 30 minutes to drive from Des Moines to the Brenton Arboretum. This 141-acre-acre public garden is set in the middle of the natural Iowa prairie. You will see nothing but a large variety of trees and some bushes and some flowers. It is a popular place among landscape photographers.
However, the low light pollution and isolation of the arboretum offer excellent conditions for stargazers as well. Brenton Arboretum used to host Full Moon Hikes until 2019. It’s worth checking their Facebook page and website to see if they’ll do it in 2023.
25141 260th St, Dallas Center, thebrentonarboretum.org
Located in Polk City, Jester Park is an amazing green space just north of Des Moines. Whether you’re looking for a place to hike, camp, or just sit and enjoy nature, you can do it all here.
For stargazers, the best asset of the park is that it is nestled in the woods surrounding Saylorville Lake. The towering trees mitigate the light pollution quite well, meaning you won’t be bothered by the pesky lights from urban areas. You can spend the night in the park as it has 148 campsites along the lakeshore and wooded hills.
11121 NW Jester Park Dr, Granger, polkcountyiowa.gov
Saylorville Reservoir is a 25-minute drive away from Des Moines. At 4970 acres, this stunning property comprises the namesake lake and dam. Locals come here often to engage in watersports and all sorts of outdoor activities.
There are campsites, hiking trails, playgrounds, picnic areas, and more. Moreover, Saylorville Reservoir has some of the best Des Moines stargazing places. There are a lot of parking areas at boat ramps where you can find a nice dark spot. The spillway below the dam is also a secluded spot with low light pollution you can explore.
Stargazing Spots within 2.5 hours of Des Moines
If you’re willing to drive a little bit further, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views of Iowa’s magical dark skies. Here are three spots to carry out your stargazing sessions.
Preparation Canyon State Park
Preparation Canyon State Park is a 344-acre area located in the middle of Loess Hills. The complete isolation and lack of urban areas surrounding the park allow the stars to shine as brightly as ever. There are only eight walk-in campsites, which means this park rarely gets crowded.
If you can, try to come and spend the day at the park, too. Preparation Canyon State Park is an untouched area with a marked trail that takes through steep hills, dense woods, and a small creek.
Southeast Iowa is home to Lake Sugema, one of the local’s favorite spots for stargazing in Des Moines. Lake Sugema sits near Keosauqua, which is one of the darkest places in the Midwest outside of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
There’s no shortage of dark spots here. However, local stargazers recommend the northwest side of the lake. You’ll find two parking lots around the lake that offer the best views and clear skies. Try to avoid the two large parking lots on the east side (they’re too close to the campground and lights).
Nine Eagles State Park
Nine Eagles State Park is by far one of the best Des Moines stargazing spots. Located in southern Iowa, the park sits under some of the darkest skies in the state. Despite the park’s pristine beauty, it’s one of the least visited parks in Iowa.
Stargazers will find tons of dark sites near the lake. Don’t confine yourself to stargazing only in this area, though. With over 1,100 acres, there are tons of spots where you can set up your telescope. You can spend the night at one of the campsites or go for the day, although the park closes at 10:30 pm.
Another gem for stargazers, Whiterock Conservancy claims to have the “darkest skies in Iowa.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the property takes light pollution seriously and tries to reduce it to a minimum. Whiterock Conservancy’s excellent conditions allow you to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Find a good spot in the Star Field campground and take in the beauty of the night in all its glory.
1436 IA-141, Coon Rapids, whiterockconservancy.org
Planetariums in Des Moines
While the magic of stargazing is impossible to reproduce on a screen, planetariums are always an excellent alternative for learning more about the cosmos and getting a sense of what it’s like to look at the stars.
Science Center of Iowa
Located in Des Moines, the Science Center of Iowa hosts numerous exhibits and shows to bring the universe closer to the people.
If you’re an avid astrophotographer, you’ll especially enjoy the IMAX dome theater with a presentation of the night sky. The property also holds free Star Parties, where SCI staff and members of the Des Moines Astronomical Society set up telescopes and invite people to marvel at the moon and stars.
Check SCI’s Facebook page for updates on their events.
Best Time of Year to Go Stargazing in Des Moines
As you probably know if you’ve ever tried to go stargazing, a lot of factors affect how good your prospects will be. Light pollution is a big factor – which is why I’ve spent most of this post focusing on helping you find dark enough locations for stargazing.
Other factors matter too, including cloud cover, precipitation, humidity, and even air temperature. For that reason, it’s also important to consider these meteorological conditions when you’re planning a trip to go stargazing in Des Moines – or, more likely, nearby.
Looking at the historic data, the best time of year to go stargazing in the Des Moines area is September and October, when the humidity and heat of the summer begin to decrease but the weather is still generally clear and there’s little rain. For a back-up window, November is decent too, but it starts to get considerably colder as winter comes on, so bundle up!
Can You See the Milky Way in Des Moines?
This is a tricky question. You can’t see the Milky Way in the Des Moines metropolitan area, specifically; there’s just too much light pollution in most cities of the U.S. to see the faint milky shape of our galaxy, including Des Moines.
However, as we just saw, there are places like Whiterock Conservancy, which are just a couple of hours away from Des Moines and where you can get excellent views of the Milky Way.
Have any other questions about stargazing in Des Moines? Let me know in the comments below!