Road Trip: Your guide to summer adventures in Des Moines, Iowa
Summer is a great time to hit the road and explore the wonders of our Midwest neighbors to the north for food, drink, family fun and outdoor exploring.
A city of arts, an avenue of breeds, a bridge of women achievers, camel rides and much more await adventurers in Des Moines, Iowa. The capital city of the Hawkeye State, Des Moines is a mere three-hour drive north of Kansas City on I-35.
The city is home to Maid-Rite burgers, the Des Moines Arts Festival, Blank Park Zoo, the 25-mile High Trestle Trail and plenty of other attractions and activities. Plus, where else can you find a zombie burger, a Kansas City-themed sports bar outside our metro area, and a Caprese salad on a stick?
Get ready to explore the weird, wild and wonderful possibilities in Des Moines.
Des Moines is an impressive city that actively supports the arts from its public sculptures to the city’s famed arts festival. Des Moines Art Week, held June 18-25, packs a full slate of arts-focused events and exhibits into a rich cultural experience. Learn about the works of Claes Oldenburg, dive into a Juneteenth Black art exhibit and watch a demonstration of acrylic collage painting.
Cap off the week at the three-day Des Moines Art Festival, June 25-27, which includes a film festival, live music performances and original artwork from 160 artists on display in an urban street setting.
Arts lovers can also amble throughout the Des Moines Arts Center to view an exhibit of Goya’s works (through September 5), including the recently restored portrait of Don Mañuel Garcia de la Prada and selections of Latin American art.
Feel the need to stretch your legs and get some fresh air? The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, located at Western Gateway Park in downtown Des Moines, spans 4.4 acres. The park assembles “an international cross-section of 27 figurative, gestural and architectonic approaches to this dynamic genre.” This handy printable Sculpture Park Exploration Guide suggests ways to engage 11 works in the park.
Prefer to view landscapes rather than traverse them? Check out the annual landscape exhibition (through July 17) at the Olson-Larsen Gallery of contemporary art.
Explore The Wild Side
The Blank Park Zoo offers camel rides from Memorial Day through Labor Day and giraffe feeding as part of its visitor experiences. The zoo also hosts overnight adventures for adults and families, where guests can spend the night at the zoo. The nocturnal adventure includes presentations of animal programs and exhibits after hours, guided tours, evening snacks and more.
Daytrippers can still tour the zoo by train or on foot to view wild animals, such as a Siberian tiger, giraffe calf, Eastern black rhinoceros and birds from Australia and Africa.
All's Fair At The Iowa State Fair
If you’re a fan of state fairs, mark your calendar for August 12-22. Each year, the Iowa State Fair attracts more than a million people from all over the world.
Any state fair aficionado knows they can find just about any type of food on a stick at these gatherings — that’s part of the schtick. Those who want to live (and eat) high on the hog can venture to JR’s SouthPork Ranch,a new “pork-centric” restaurant, bar and food hall created by the co-founder of Baconfest.
Beyond food, the fair’s amusements range from carnival rides to live music by the likes of Blake Shelton, Boyz II Men and even Hairball, an arena rock tribute band. Don’t overlook the Avenue of Breeds, an exhibition of various animal breeds found on Iowa farms, and plenty of kid-friendly activities.
Measuring 434 feet long, the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge connects the east and west sides of Des Moines at the Principal Riverwalk loop. The bridge is a site designated to honor notable women from Iowa’s history.
Current honorees include attorney Theresa "Billee" Davis, who served as the first female Iowa County Bar president and as a major in the U.S. Army's Women's Army Corps during World War II; civil rights activist and leader Willie Stevenson Glanton; Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the American women's suffrage movement; and Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush, the first African American woman to practice law in the state of Iowa.
The bridge’s design provides separate pathways for cyclists and pedestrians as well as a walkway with a glass floor that reveals a view of the river below.
Eat, Drink, Repeat
Exploring works up an appetite. Fortunately, Des Moines contains plenty of interesting options to grab food and drink at memorable destinations.
Maid-Rite is known for its "loose meat" fresh ground beef sandwiches at locations throughout Iowa and the Midwest. A stop at Maid-Rite is a road trip rite of passage for those visiting Iowa for the first time. Visitors can opt for the famous Maid-Rite sandwich, or other offerings including a pulled pork sammie, tenderloin, healthy wraps and salads, and classic malts and shakes. The decor of Maid-Rite restaurants captures a yesteryear drive-in feel for a bit of nostalgia in a family-friendly setting.
Zombie Burger + Drink Lab serves up “goremet bashed” burgers, shakes and drinks in a “post-apocalyptic chic” setting replete with zombie movie posters and artwork. The eatery emulates classic 1970s roadside burger stands and produces quick-service food with premium ingredients. The "Dawn of the Dead" burger includes bacon, egg, American cheese, red onion and mayo. Other selections sport zombie references such as "They’re Coming to Get You Barbara," "Army of Darkness" and "Undead Elvis." Slay your thirst with a beer or themed cocktails such as "The Socket" and "Red Death," or satisfy your sweet tooth with one of Zombie Burger's creamy shakes.
Feel right at home at Truman’s KC Pizza Tavern, a Kansas City-themed sports bar and pizza parlor established by three owners who hail from Kansas City, Missouri. The venue’s name pays tribute to the Truman Sports Complex. Truman’s contains sports memorabilia from current and past franchises, such as the Kansas City Scouts, Monarchs and Kings. Diners can chow on pizza, sandwiches, funnel cake fries, salads, burgers and more.
Cheese Bar is a dream come true for cheese fanatics. The bar serves cheese boards, grilled cheese sandwiches, mac-and-cheese prepared in a cast iron pan, fondue, Raclette and other cheesy delights. Sip on Champagne, sparkling wine, cocktails, beer or wine while appeasing your dairy cravings.
Fong’s Pizza combines innovative pizzas with tiki cocktails inside the former home of King Ying Low, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the U.S. The menu is a fusion of Asian, Polynesian and Italian influences served in a truly unique Chinese restaurant setting. Where else will you find ramen pizza, crab rangoon pizza or General Tso’s Chicken pizza?
Hit The Trail
After noshing on food and drink, head to the High Trestle Trail for a walk, jog, bike ride or rollerblading. The 25-mile trail stretches through five cities along a decommissioned railroad line.
The highlight is the High Trestle Trail Bridge tucked between Woodward and Madrid, Iowa. The bridge stands 13 stories tall and extends a half-mile over the Des Moines River valley. Six interactive panels detail cultural and historic points of interest. The bridge is aglow with lights from sunset to midnight during April through October.
You'll find numerous cafes, breweries, wineries, the 128-acre Swede Point Park and other spots nestled along the way.
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