Des Moines River Water Trail - North Section

This 8.8 mile section of the entire 19 miles on the Des Moines River Water Trail is a scenic, historical and natural experience with multiple access points between the Saylorville Dam in Johnston and Birdland Park in Des Moines, IA.

photo: On the river trail in Des Moines

Length: 8.80 miles
Loop Trail? No
Type: Water Trail
Agency: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Entry Fee? No
Parking Fee? No

Allowed Uses:

Wildlife Observation

See more details.


Location: Cottonwood to Birdland Park Access In Polk County, IA, Follows Des Moines River south from Cottonwood Recreation Area
North Section (Cottonwood to through downtown to Birdland Park.
Birdland Park Access) IA

State(s): Iowa
Counties: Polk
Longitude: -93.61327
Latitude: 41.61081

Driving Directions

Trailhead located south of the Saylorville Dam in the Cottonwood Recreation Area just north of Des Moines. Off Interstate 80, take the Merle Hay Road exit and go north, turn east on NW 70th Avenue, and north on Toni Drive to Cottonwood entrance.


The entire stretch of the Des Moines River, which encompasses a length of 525 miles from Lake Shetek in Minnesota to the Mississippi River in southeast Iowa is an extremely scenic stream. The 20 mile, state designated Des Moines River Water Trail section in Polk County, Iowa provides a unique opportunity to connect a diverse group of trail users, including both rural and urban populations.

The northern-most access point can be found just below the Saylorville Dam, north of Des Moines in Cottonwood Recreation area, with the southern-most access point being at Yellow Banks County Park, which boasts new paddle-in campsites enabling a multi-day paddling experience with excellent camping amenities.

The trail spawned from partnerships among government agencies in addition to numerous clubs and organizations realizing an existing need for a growing population of water users. Beautifully constructed informational kiosks stand at each access point providing information, maps and safety messages pertinent to trail segments.

This unique trail not provides a critical healthy community promotion feature, it also connects with multiple other trails. The intertwining of many trail types can provide a unique opportunity and enable visitors to create their own special experience. Connections to the Neal Smith Multi-Use Trail, which was designated an NRT in the 1990's, can be accessed at two places along the trail. A mountain biking trail as well as the Trestle-To-Trestle paved biking trail can also be accessed easily from the water trail.

Additional Details

Primary Surface: Water, moving
Secondary Surface: None
Elevation Low Point: Not Available
Elevation High Point: Not Available
Elevation Gain (cumulative): Not Available

Year Designated:

Supporting Webpages and Documents

Website: American Trails Featured NRT

Contact Information

For more information and current conditions, contact the trail manager (listed below). For questions, suggestions, and corrections to information listed on the website, contact American Trails.

Trail Management:
United States Army Corps of Engineers
5600 NW 78th Avenue
Johnston, IA 50131
(515) 276-4656
[email protected]

Trail Management:
Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Wallace State Office Building, 502 E. 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319
(515) 281-8969

Trail Management:
City of Des Moines
405 SE 20th Street
Des Moines, IA 50317
(515) 248-6349



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