Writer: Beth Eslinger
Once a mainstay on the Great Plains, bison are making a comeback in the state in parks, nature preserves and farming operations. Here are a few of our favorite spots to see the animals from the safety of your vehicle, via a short hike, or through a quick tour.
Bare Bison: Located south of Van Meter, the 250-head operation provides up-close views of the animals on ATV tours as well as from the farm’s fence line (you can also see roadside). Count the calves—there are 50 this year—and learn the differences between males and females. The ladies have C-shape horns; males’ horns are straighter. Stop by their shop to learn the nutritional benefits of the meat and shop for a variety of cuts. You can also purchase hoodies, T-shirts, hats and more with the company’s hip logo. Read more about Bare Bison is this story in the current issue of dsm.
Fontana Park: North of Independence, this Buchanan County park displays animals native to Iowa in outdoor enclosures. You can see bison, deer, eagles and more. The nature center (call for hours; masks mandatory) provides interpretive experiences for families.
Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch: A 40-head herd roams the pastures and woods of the Fredericksburg farm in northeast Iowa. You can tour the 150-year-old farm via wagon to feed the bison and learn about species (available through Dec. 1). The farm will be stocked with bison meat for sale by Thanksgiving.
Jester Park: Operated by Polk County Conservation, this park features both bison and elk in a wildlife animal enclosure. Bundle up and view the animals from the observation deck; spotting scopes provide up-close views.
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: Take the 5-mile audio driving tour at the Prairie City preserve to see bison and elk roaming the prairie. Look for wallows—depressions devoid of vegetation—where the bison take dust baths. Birders get a chance to see short-ear owls now through April. Currently the visitors center is closed due to the pandemic.
Whiterock Conservancy: Get back to nature at the Garst family home south of Coon Rapids on Iowa Highway 141. Visit the Garst Farmhouse Historic District and be on the lookout for bison. Herds often graze in the pastures south and west of the Garst home and are often spotted from the Town Loop trail. You can take a self-guided tour of the historic district and even stay at one the farmhouse’s five bedrooms (the entire home is available for rent).