15 Best Things to Do in Polk County, IA

Polk County, IA

One of the newest gems I recently discovered was Polk County, Iowa.

A brief background of this county, it's one of the state's leading contributors to politics and the economy.

It has progressive cattle and agricultural sectors which drive the county's economy.

Polk County spans over 1,533 square kilometers and has over 500,000 inhabitants.

Its county seat, Des Moines, is a gorgeous small city with attractions and history.

Besides its progressive economy, I've discovered that Polk County has more than meets the eye.

As I wandered through this unassuming county, I soon realized it has many wonderful outdoor attractions that few have known.

It's a destination that is fit for someone like me who can't live without journeying the outdoors.

I explored its unspoiled lush forests, state parks, charming small towns, and other attractions many have yet to learn.

So, during my short but worthwhile excursion there, I've listed the best things to do in Polk County, Iowa.

About this article: This article was written by a local contributor based on their own experiences and those around them. While this list showcases some remarkable places, it's important to note that this is an opinion piece, and there are many other exceptional places to visit that are not featured here.
Our aim is not just to guide you to popular places but to encourage you to venture out and experience the region for yourself.

Roam Inside the Iowa State Capitol

Exterior view of the Iowa State Capitol
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I stopped by the majestic Iowa State Capitol in Polk County.

It's in Des Moines, the state's political power and grandeur.

I can't help but be in awe seeing the gorgeous architecture of the capitol, especially realizing it has a 23-karat gold leaf gilding on its dome.

Historically, this capitol building was constructed in 1871.

It was completed in 1886 by architects Robert Spencer Finkbine, John Cochrane, and Alfred Piquenard.

Interior of the golden dome at Iowa State Capitol
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I asked some Des Moines locals about this capitol's backstory, and they say that the magnificent architecture resembles Iowa's progress.

Of course, I didn't waste time and joined one of its free tours along with fellow visitors.

The free tour took me inside the capitol building, which was a worthwhile and immersive experience.

The tour guide gamely provided fascinating history about Iowa's past and the capitol building's backstories.

After the tour, I wrapped up my visit to the Iowa State Capitol with a nice souvenir photo that I can brag to everyone on my social media.

Stunning library at Iowa State Capitol
Brett Welcher / Shutterstock.com

Have a Blast at the Adventureland Park

Adventureland Park in Altoona is an amazing place for family bonding but also groups of friends and solo travelers.

I head to this theme park for outdoor recreation, and there's no better way to describe this place than being awesome.

Although I didn't experience all of its hundred rides, I chose some of its iconic rides, such as its roller coaster, bump cars, and the classic carousel.

Those asking me, it's a recommended place to bring the family, especially kids, to this theme park.

Besides its signature thrilling and wholesome rides, this theme park opened its water park, which I checked out.

Another thing to take note, Adventureland Park has had plenty of upgrades to provide a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Knock Down Pins and Watch Movies at the B&B Theatres Ankeny 12 & B-Roll Bowling

The B&B Theatres Ankeny 12 & B-Roll Bowling in Polk City is one of the locals' go-to places for entertainment.

This establishment has been in business since 1924 as a movie theater after two business families joined.

Today, this establishment is one of the most prominent brands when it comes to entertainment.

So, I didn't waste time and spent one evening there to have wholesome fun.

At first, I was torn between watching a movie or playing bowling, but I did the two.

It was a splendid experience, especially for me, looking for a fun-filled activity to kill time.

Those who don't fancy a crowded and loud theme park environment can head to the B&B Theatres Ankeny 12 & B-Roll Bowling.

Trust me, it's worth a visit, especially if there is family or friends who come along.

Relax at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Top view of Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
cnetten / Shutterstock.com

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden offers visitors a gorgeous 12-acre public garden in Des Moines.

As a nature lover, I always yearn to connect with Mother Nature by visiting this place.

Upon my visit there, I came across an intimate wedding.

I later learned that this garden is also a popular setting for this occasion in Des Moines.

Botanical garden at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

As I dug deeper into its history, I learned that this garden opened in 1979, but the trees and most gorgeous plants were first planted in 1929.

As I wandered this Des Moines attraction, I came across gorgeous rare ornamental plants, flowers, and greenery.

I appreciate this garden's peaceful ambiance and gorgeous scenery, making it a perfect place to take a break.

So, those visiting Des Moines, remember to spend some time at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Beautiful water lily at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Caleb K / Shutterstock.com

Chug Down a Pint of Craft Beer at the Firetrucker Brewery

The Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny is a homegrown brewery known for its seasonal varieties.

I'm not a beer connoisseur, but I know how to identify good and average beer.

So, I checked out this local brewery to know what the locals rave about, and I wasn't disappointed.

I appreciate its wide range of seasonal and regular craft beer flavors brewed on-site.

I visited its taproom in Ankeny to try its craft beer on tap, proudly made from organic and local ingredients.

There's no better way to say this brewery's craft beer than excellent.

Besides its beer, its taproom adds charm to it because of its lively ambiance, which I adore.

Unfortunately, I didn't catch its nightly musical performance since I visited there in the afternoon.

Nonetheless, I would recommend happy hour at Firetruck Brewery in Polk County.

Engage in Outdoor Activities at the Big Creek State Park

The Big Creek State Park in Polk City is a massive outdoor recreation area.

It spans over 3,550 acres of outdoor recreation area equipped with various amenities.

It also boasts an 860-acre lake, another reason to avoid visiting it.

There's no better way to discover what this lake offers than to explore it.

So, I grabbed the chance to swim there, and the water was perfect.

I saw many locals swimming or boating during my visit to this lake.

Those who don't fancy getting wet can hike through its gorgeous trails leading to forested areas and vast green fields.

I also checked out its volleyball court and other sports facilities, including its 18-hole golf course, which are ideal for fitness enthusiasts to try out.

Overall, I had a great time visiting Big Creek State Park.

I highly recommend this place, especially for outdoor enthusiasts.

Shop and Dine at the Valley Junction

View of the Valley Junction
Qingchen Yu / Shutterstock.com

Head to the Valley Junction in West Des Moines for some quality leisure activity.

Locals say this portion of West Des Moines is popular throughout Polk County as a top-notch shopping and dining destination.

It also serves as the Historic Railroad District in West Des Moines.

Out of curiosity, I visited this place in West Des Moines.

As I strolled through its streets, I discovered the mixture of old and new businesses catering to everyone.

I passed through unique local and branded shops, walkable sidewalks, fancy and casual restaurants, cafes, and other establishments.

Of course, I stepped inside some shops and cafes, which was a satisfying experience.

I recommend strolling through Valley Junction from the afternoon until the evening and exploring over 160 specialty stores, restaurants, art galleries, and antique shops to enjoy what it offers best.

Meet the Animals of the Blank Park Zoo

Entrance to the Blank Park Zoo
Matt Fowler KC / Shutterstock.com

Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines is one of the best places I visited in Polk County for the dozens of animals I saw up close.

I came across lions, giraffes, and other majestic animals, which I only saw on television.

A brief background of this local zoo, it spans over 49 acres.

It's a proud Association of Zoos and Aquariums member, ensuring all animals in captivity are safe and well.

Rhino at Blank Park Zoo
Matt Fowler KC / Shutterstock.com

I asked the zookeepers, who told me they housed more than 2,100 animals from 200 species.

It opened in 1966 through the Federal Government's funding for the City of Des Moines.

The Blank Park Zoo was packed with visitors when I visited there, which indicates its popularity.

Giraffe at Blank Park Zoo
Matt Fowler KC / Shutterstock.com

Learn Important History at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum

The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum is the state's premier veteran's museum that I recommend checking out, especially for historical enthusiasts.

I toured the museum and came across a vast collection of artifacts.

At the same time, I was moved by the incredible backstories of the Iowa Veterans during the Mexican War in the mid-1800s to modern-day conflicts.

Besides the galleries storing historical artifacts, I also checked out the museum's reference library.

I read some information detailing fascinating military subjects and information on Iowa veterans.

It was an excellent experience visiting the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, even if I'm not a huge military enthusiast.

Level Up the Skills in Art at the Ankeny Art Center

The Ankeny Art Center, the City of Ankeny, lets me appreciate the wonderful local arts and the passionate artists behind it.

This place in Ankeny aims to support local artists by allowing them to showcase and share their talents.

At the same time, it also provides everyone an educational development through the arts.

As I explored this art center, I discovered that they offer art-related programs for diverse experiences for all ages.

It has various art classes and workshops handled by certified art teachers.

Unfortunately, time wasn't on my side, so I didn't join the art classes and workshops but observed them during my short visit there.

Still, I enjoyed browsing through its exhibits featuring the masterpieces of its in-house artists.

One of Ankeny Art Center's sought-after events is Santa's North Pole Village Craft Show, which I plan to join on my next visit.

It features over 300 vendors and artists, adding more reasons for me to return.

Bask in the Beauty of the Robert D. Ray Asian Garden

Beautiful view of the  Robert D. Ray Asian Garden
yosmoes815 / Shutterstock.com

The Robert D. Ray Asian Garden is arguably the most gorgeous place I discovered in Des Moines.

I can't help but appreciate the Oriental-themed designs, such as its Asian pavilion, koi-filled pond, stone pagodas, waterfalls, streams, and Asian ornamental plants and flowers.

I felt like I was transported to China while exploring the garden.

View of the  Robert D. Ray Asian Garden
yosmoes815 / Shutterstock.com

Besides its beauty, I also basked in the tranquil atmosphere of the garden.

With that in mind, I find this place ideal to meditate or take souvenir photos for social networks.

So, spend some time wandering in the Robert D. Ray Asian Garden for a relaxing experience.

Scenic view from the  Robert D. Ray Asian Garden
yosmoes815 / Shutterstock.com

Treat That Taste Buds at the Iowa Culinary Institute

It may be misleading, but the Iowa Culinary Institute in Ankeny is a unique place I visited to taste excellent food.

Although it's a culinary school, I was amazed that this place offers food lovers like me to taste its best dishes from its finest chefs and brightest students.

I joined its "Dine & Learn with the ICI," which lets me enjoy food and learn cooking techniques simultaneously.

I was treated to a top-notch gourmet dinner by its culinary students and my guests.

At the same time, they taught us valuable techniques for preparing and cooking the dish.

Besides the activity I joined, it has gourmet dinners and dinner series, a package for guests.

These packages offer various foreign, ethnic, and local dishes from culinary students and chefs, which I plan to join next time.

So, make reservations now with the Iowa Culinary Institute for a mouthwatering food experience.

Roll the Dice at the Prairie Meadows

The Prairie Meadows in Altoona is a premier casino and horse racing venue where I spend one evening.

I was curious to visit the casino since locals rave about it, and it's been considered one of the top entertainment destinations in the state since 1989.

Its best features include a 24/7 casino with live and simulcast horse racing and sports betting.

In addition, it has top-notch entertainment featuring regional and local artists.

It's the best place for a casino patron to visit in Polk County.

It has virtually everything I look for in an entertaining experience.

I can choose from a hundred machines, tables, and play areas, while it has a full-service dining amenity.

So, remember to drop by the Prairie Meadows when visiting Polk County.

Hike Through the High Trestle Trail

Stunning architecture of High Trestle Trail
Life Atlas Photography / Shutterstock.com

Lastly, I checked out the High Trestle Trail in Ankeny.

It was a worthwhile hike that followed an old rail system that connected Ankeny to Woodward.

I had an easy hike throughout my experience.

It has a paved surface that runs through Story, Boone, Polk, and Dallas Counties, stretching over 25 miles.

High Trestle Trail on a cloudy day
Trail and Photo / Shutterstock.com

I passed through several towns, and from what I heard, the entire trail passed through five counties.

Of course, it's too grueling to traverse the entire trail.

Still, it's a perfect destination for a wonderful trail to explore these places.

Along the trail are scenic overlooks, which have interpretive panels to detail the natural and cultural history of the area.

So, I recommend hiking through the High Trestle Trail like me.

High Trestle Trail lit up at night
schristinephoto / Shutterstock.com

Get Wet with the Raccoon River Excursions

The Raccoon River Excursions in Des Moines is one of the most fun-filled tubing experiences on the Des Moines River.

I didn't realize that Des Moines is also home to a thrilling and fun-filled river tubing adventure until I saw people floating on tubes while strolling through the city.

So, I seized the opportunity to experience tubing with this company and didn't regret it.

It also has personnel that assists everyone while enjoying tubing.

Established in 2009, this company takes visitors to Polk County's biggest and longest rivers, including the Raccoon River, for its tubing adventure.

Book the Raccoon River Excursions for those who fancy a water adventure closer to nature than being in a water park.

Final Thoughts

I noticed throughout my visit that Polk County's attractions and activities mostly happen outdoors.

I can only say that this small but populous county in Iowa is a haven for outdoor adventurers who hunger for quality outdoor activity with friends or family.

Besides outdoor attractions, I also appreciated the rich local history, arts, and culture of Polk County, which for me, added uniqueness to this place.

So, start choosing and curating the best travel adventure with this list of the best things to do in Polk County, Iowa.

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