Northeast of Des Moines, Altoona is on the map for a few attractions that bring millions of people to the city every year.
One is Adventureland, Iowa’s top theme park, with an exciting arsenal of thrill rides and a water park included with admission.
The enormous gaming complex, Prairie Meadows combines a one-mile racetrack with a modern casino boasting almost 2,000 slot machines.
Sitting on the edge of the metro area, Altoona can also be the first step on a hike or bike ride in rural Iowa, while downtown Des Moines is little more than 20 minutes away.
1. Adventureland Park
Iowa’s top theme park is open late April through September. Adventureland’s first season took place in 1974, and since then the park has unveiled new attractions by the season
When we compiled this list the 4D free spin ride, Dragon Slayer had just opened to bolster a first-class lineup of roller coasters. Also on the roster is The Monster (2016), an infinity coaster with 5 inversions.
Adventureland has more than 100 rides, attractions and shows, guaranteeing something for all comers. There’s nostalgic fun too, at the dozens of old-time carnival games, and a magic show that has thrilled spectators for years.
2. Prairie Meadows
Since 1989, Altoona has been home to a prestigious thoroughbred and quarter horse racetrack.
Prairie Meadows added a casino in 2004, and this now has some 1,900 slot machines and a slew of table games, from roulette to black jack.
The complex has also become a key entertainment venue, staging concerts by the likes of ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon in recent years.
The racing season runs from mid-May through September, and the date to mark in the calendar is the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap. Run in late June, this Grade III thoroughbred race has a purse of $300,000.
3. Adventure Bay
As opposed to many theme parks these days, Adventureland includes its water park, Adventure Bay, in admission.
This attraction arrived in 2010 and can compete with any water park around, packing a lazy river, gigantic wave pool, water play equipment for kids and some thrilling slides.
In that vein you’ve got Bermuda Quadrangle, a 4-plex of inter-tube slides for single or double tube riders. And not to be taken lightly is Gang Plank & Pirates’ Plummet, two high-speed body slides dropping you 60 feet.
For pure relaxation, Pirates’ Port Pool is 6,000 square feet, with a swim-up bar.
4. Des Moines
Iowa’s cosmopolitan and ever-evolving capital is never far away, demanding your time for its landmarks, headline entertainment, culture and ample inspiration for family outings.
The Des Moines River may be a surprising place to start, but the floodplain is a peaceful green corridor for hiking and bicycling.
Near the riverbank is the Wells Fargo Arena, hosting major touring artists, and home court for the Iowa Wolves of the NBA G League.
For cutting-edge contemporary culture there’s the Des Moines Center, which maintains one of the Midwest’s great collections, and is responsible for the otherworldly Pappajohn’s Sculpture Park downtown.
No sightseeing trip would be complete without the Iowa State Capitol (1886), towering over downtown from a hilltop and crowned with a golden dome.
5. Gay Lea Wilson Trail
Named for its passionate founder, Gay Lea Wilson, this trail has been expanding through the suburbs east of Des Moines since 1989.
Altoona is one of the two completed sections, along a converted railway corridor. You can walk, jog, bicycle, skate or ski for 5.9 miles, west from 8th St. SW and 7th Ave. SW to Pleasant Hill.
From there you can pick up the main trail, heading north for more than 7 miles through tranquil parks and residential neighborhoods. The northern trailhead is Ankeny, where you can continue your journey on the High Trestle or Neal Smith Trails.
6. Outlets of Des Moines
At the time of writing, this premium outlet mall had only recently opened, and was eventually expected to reach 300,000 square feet.
A few of the famous names in the directory include Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Michael Kors, Le Creuset, Nike, Old Navy, Polo Ralph Lauren and Levi’s, to name just a handful of favorites.
If walking around an outdoor mall in the Des Moines winter sounds daunting, there is a big fireplace here so you can warm up before hitting the stores again.
Among the food options there’s Teriyaki Boyz, Auntie Anne’s and Charleys Philly Steaks.
7. Brightside Aleworks
Established in 2017, Brightside Aleworks is a family business run by a couple with more than a decade of brewing experience and a background in food science and environmental engineering.
This is just the recipe for a menu of brews that walks the line between traditional and creative. Think ice cream Stout or a Wheat Beer with a burst of cranberry and orange.
But you can also rely on a more familiar, hoppy IPA or a classic Irish Red Ale, while several beers on tap are suitable for vegans.
Brightside Alehouse teams up with local food truck vendors to ensure exciting bites are available as often as possible to accompany these brews.
8. Chichaqua Valley Trail
A National Recreational Trail, this pathway passes by the north side of Altoona on its 26-mile route from Baxter to Berwick.
For much of this journey the Chichaqua Valley Trail sticks to the wooded banks and Bluffs of the Skunk River. These long sections of hardwood forest are punctuated by open fields and pastures, on an adventure through rural Central Iowa so close to Des Moines.
There are several other trailheads along the route, at Ira, Mingo, Northeast 88th Street and Bondurant, just a couple of miles north of Altoona.
East of Bondurant the trail gets wild at the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt, made up of thousands of acres of unspoiled nature, primed for outdoor recreation.
9. Cinemark Altoona and XD
Off Adventureland Dr. and within shouting distance of the theme park is one of the best places in the Des Moines area to catch a movie.
This Cinemark theater has luxury reclining chairs at all of its screens. You may need to watch something exciting as it’s easy to drift off to sleep in these seats.
Concession prices are reasonable too for modern multiplexes, and the kettle corn is of course a highlight.
As ever, Tuesdays are discount days, but there are also specials for early birds (before 1pm), families, seniors, military and students.
10. Ironwood Park
Cherished by families with younger children, this park in Altoona is commonly known as Pirate Ship Park.
The reason becomes clear when you glimpse the playground, which has a South Pacific theme and is commanded by a giant climbing structure in the form of an old-fashioned sailboat.
Standing sentinel a few steps away is a replica Easter Island head, while a sea serpent rises from the playground’s soft paving.
To the rear, behind the “palm trees” is a set of rounded hills, with slopes that are perfect for sledding when winter comes.
11. Terrace Hills Golf Course
Family owned and operated since 1964, this 18-hole golf course is understandably a source of pride for golfers in Altoona.
Terrace Hills has a championship layout and caters to all skill levels, with multiple tee boxes to choose from.
If speed of play is important to you, the course guarantees you will complete your round within 4 ½ hours, or your next green fee is free (applies to rounds before 2pm weekdays, and noon on weekends).
The practice facility is worthy of mention, for its modern driving range and putting green. A much-loved addition for families is the superb 18-hole miniature golf course here.
12. Haines Park
This park along 8th St. in the east of Altoona combines recreation amenities with cute formal gardens.
These plantings are in a chain of circular beds, each around a fountain and linked by a path that concludes at a white gazebo at the north end.
If you’re here to be active you’ve got basketball and tennis facilities, while there’s a playground for children.
In summer Haines Park is the backdrop for the Music in the Park series, with outdoor concerts once a month on Sundays, June through September. Check the Facebook page for full details.
13. Village Park
There’s another excellent public park for families, embedded in a quiet neighborhood not far east of Prairie Meadows.
Village Park stands out for its playground, which has a three-story tower with a slide and swings, along with an age-specific play area for toddlers.
The park has multiple picnic tables and a shelter with electricity if you’re planning a family get-together.
Among the sports amenities there’s a basketball court, tennis courts, a sand volleyball court and a mixed-use trail running along the park’s north and east boundaries.
14. Sleepy Hollow Sports Park
A stone’s throw east of the Iowa State Fairgrounds is a year-round attraction with something different going on in every season.
This is the setting for Iowa’s only permanent renaissance village, comprising more than 40 buildings and hosting events every few months.
There are also haunts, at Halloween of course, but also in the summer, while the park becomes a campground with a free shuttle service during the state fair in August.
Finally, in winter there’s a snow park with hills for tubing and Stiga and Zipfy sledding.
15. Iowa State Fair
Every August, Iowa’s largest annual event takes place just 15 minutes from Altoona. The Iowa State Fair is an 11-day extravaganza, attracting more than a million visitors and with a history reaching back to 1854.
The fair moved to its current location in 1886, and is a diverse celebration featuring the best of Iowan agriculture, industry and entertainment.
It would be impossible to list everything happening here, but for a taste you’ve got some of the largest livestock, food and craft shows in the country, three different carnival areas, a blockbuster Grandstand Concert Series, tons of free entertainment, innumerable food vendors and a kids’ zone full of activities.
This being Iowa, corn dogs are the food of choice, while another icon for more than half a century is the Giant Slide, fondly remembered by generations of fairgoers.