A northern suburb of Des Moines, Ankeny is growing at an amazing rate, but has a history reaching back to the late 19th century.
On this side of the state capital you’re within shouting distance of Adventureland Park, Iowa’s top theme park, with a world-class water park attached.
Ankeny is also minutes from some of central Iowa’s top recreation areas, at the massive Saylorville Lake and Big Creek State Park, where you can rent kayaks, paddleboards and more in summer.
Close to home, uptown Ankeny is a lovable central commercial district, with a smattering of restaurants and breweries and a popular farmers’ market on Saturday mornings.
1. Adventureland Park
The largest theme park in Iowa is a matter of minutes from Ankeny, featuring dozens of rides, shows and other attractions.
Adventureland opened in 1975 and has steadily added new themed areas and attractions over the last 45+ years.
If it’s thrills you want, look no further than The Monster, with five inversions and a top speed of 65mph, or Dragon Slayer, a 4D free spin roller coaster, opened in 2021.
There’s a huge choice of classic amusement park attractions, from a miniature train to a swinging ship, log fumes, a carousel, ferris wheel, bumper cars and a hatful of kiddie rides.
Adventureland also encompasses the Adventure Bay water park, with tube slides, a six-lane racing slide, a splash pad and the largest wave pool in Iowa.
2. High Trestle Trail
Uptown Ankeny is the southern trailhead for a 25-mile rail trail that leads all the way to the town of Woodward, crossing four counties.
On the course of the old Union Pacific Railroad, the High Trestle Trail is named for the bridge that crosses the Des Moines River just outside of Woodward.
Standing 13 stories high and spanning more than half a mile, this mammoth structure was built for the Milwaukee Road in the 1970s but was stripped of its bridge deck when the line closed down.
The piers remained intact and formed the foundation for a new crossing for pedestrians and bicycle traffic, offering a breathtaking view of the Des Moines River Valley.
Overhead is a spiraling steel structure resembling cribs in a mine shaft, and illuminated after dark by ethereal blue light.
3. Uptown Ankeny
Just where the High Trestle Trail sets off there’s a compact commercial district that merits a little exploration.
Uptown Ankeny has a clutch of locally-owned establishments, including two craft breweries, a much-loved pizzeria (Leaning Tower of Pizza), a bicycle shop and a full-service bar with great pub grub (Yankee Clipper).
This is also the setting for Ankeny’s Farmers’ Market, open Saturday mornings, late May through September.
The venue is the trailside Ankeny Market & Pavilion, which sits in three acres of grounds and hosts the Summerfest event every July.
4. Cascade Falls Aquatic Center
One way to escape the famous Iowa humidity in summer is at this excellent public water park, open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
Something out of the ordinary at Cascade Falls is a FlowRider surf machine, allowing you to ride waves more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
There’s a zero-depth entry pool for leisure, an eight-lane lap pool for exercise, along with a lazy river, diving well, a “Swirl Bowl” water slide and a splash area with water cannons and floor geysers.
The center has plenty of room for sunbathing, and ample shade, both in the water and out.
5. Firetrucker Brewery
While most craft breweries are found in industrial parks on the edge of town, the leading brewery in Ankeny has a great location, at the old Ankeny fire station uptown.
Among the beers on tap when we wrote this list were Burnout Brown, Iowa IPA, Pumpertruck Porter, 2 Alarm Red, Arson Oatmeal Stout and Tropical Burn (DIPA).
To continue the fire theme station’s old interiors have been preserved inside, while there’s local art on the walls, and a packed schedule of events including live music on weekends. On Wednesdays there’s a $1 discount on all beers for First Responders.
6. Iowa Culinary Institute
One of the country’s premier culinary arts programs is based at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) campus in Ankeny.
In 2016, the Iowa Culinary Institute’s home, the Albaugh Family Center, was given a state-of-the-art makeover, putting it among the top culinary facilities in the nation.
It’s all great news for anyone with a taste for French-style cuisine. September through May you can come to experience world-class dining.
This could be a five-course Gourmet Dinner or a lighter lunchtime Bistro experience, all prepared by the skilled culinary arts students at DMACC.
7. Ankeny Area Historical Society Museum
Although Ankeny is now a suburb of Des Moines the city has well over a century of history. If you’d like to find out more, there’s a fine local museum staffed by friendly and informative volunteers.
This attraction is in an historic house from the early 20th century and the neighboring replica barn with a traditional Iowan design.
Displays shine a light on topics like the WWII-era Des Moines Ordnance Plant, mining and farming, while period rooms bring to life settings like a country store.
One endearing exhibit is the puppet beagle, Floppy, a children’s TV star on the Des Moines NBC affiliate, WHO-TV, from 1957 to 1987.
8. Otter Creek Golf Course
There’s a host of superb golf courses in the Des Moines area, but Ankeny is home to one of the best public courses in the state.
Designed by respected architect Paul Miller, Otter Creek has a links-style layout, with multiple sets of tees accommodating players of all skill levels.
The greens are smooth and fast, there’s a host of bunkers and water hazards to keep you on your toes, while the fairways are bordered by tall grasses and landscaped mounds.
The carts are equipped with GPS, and there’s a comprehensive practice facility with a driving range, two putting greens and a pitching area with a bunker.
9. Big Creek State Park
If you want to escape to the outdoors, you have no shortage of options close to Ankeny. The 3,550-acre Big Creek State Park is less than ten miles away, and encloses the majestic Big Creek Lake, 866 acres in size.
This space is part of the same flood control project as Saylorville Lake (more next), and is a delightful place to spend a summer’s day.
There’s a 1,300-foot beach on the lake, while you can head for the 88-berth marina to rent a variety of vessels, from paddleboards to pontoon boats and sailboats. If you have your own boat, there are five boat ramps around the shore.
On dry land there’s an 18-hole disc golf course, 13 picnic shelters and a number of trails, including the 25-mile Neal Smith Trail, which starts at the park. In winter, one of the top snowmobile trails in Iowa encircles the lake for 11 miles.
10. Saylorville Lake
This scenic reservoir on the Des Moines River was built in the early 1960s as part of a vast flood control system. Saylorville Lake is a recreation hotspot for central Iowa, and lies just five miles west of uptown Ankeny.
The shoreline is dotted with boat launches, beaches, campgrounds and recreation areas for hiking, biking and wildlife watching.
Traveling from Ankeny, the most convenient is the Cherry Glen Campground, with 125 electrical sites on 13 acres, and access to the Cherry Glen Boat Launch, open all year round. The nearest spot for swimming is a little way north, at the sandy Oak Grove Beach.
11. Ankeny Miracle Park
Opposite Ankeny City Hall is a unique, all-access playground on more than 14,000 square feet. An estimated 3,500 children in the Des Moines metro area have special needs.
With that in mind, the Ankeny Miracle Park has been designed to allow children who may have challenges to play with their able-bodied friends.
This is divided into two spaces, for smaller and larger children. All of the equipment is at wheelchair height, sitting on a safe, rubberized surface. Among the many features there’s an Omni Spinner, a Sensory Play Center, Sway Fun Gliders and Roller Tables.
12. Prairie Ridge Sports Complex
On vast landscaped grounds, the Prairie Ridge Sports Complex is a sports destination for the Des Moines area, but also stands as a fine public park.
The facilities are world-class, featuring 15 baseball fields, 6 softball fields, 9 soccer fields and 5 football fields, many of which are lighted.
To accommodate the huge volume of visitors there are no fewer than four concession stands at the complex, and a parking lot that can accommodate more than 1,200 cars.
But in addition to all this, there’s a lot of open space, with walking trails, two fishing ponds and play equipment for the youngest members of the family.
13. Brass Armadillo Antique Mall
With six locations across the United Stations, Ankeny is the headquarters for a chain of antique malls that was founded in 1992. This 36,000-square-foot showroom features more than 450 dealers, on long, neatly organized aisles.
There’s enough to keep you occupied for hours, whether you have something specific in mind or are happy to wander these treasure-filled corridors aimlessly.
Some of the many specialties include primitive art, antique furniture, quilts, collectibles, sports memorabilia, glassware, china, lighting, toys and home appliances.
14. Ankeny Art Center
With humble origins as a local arts program in the early 1980s, the Ankeny Art Center was established as a full-fledged facility in 2002.
The center supports artists from across Iowa through exhibitions, art classes, receptions, camps, workshops and exciting annual events.
For visitors, this is a fine place to take the pulse of Ankeny’s arts scene, and all shows and artist receptions have free public admission.
A big date in the calendar is Santa’s North Pole Village Craft Show, one of the most attended craft shows in the state, with 300 vendors attracting some 5,000 shoppers.
15. Prairie Meadows
Sitting next to Adventureland Park is a giant racetrack, casino and hotel complex serving the Des Moines area.
April through October the track at Prairie Meadows stages quarter horse and thoroughbred racing. A couple of prestigious events are the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap ($300k purse) at the end of June and Iowa Oaks in early July ($225k).
Slot machines, gaming tables and the Caesars Sportsbook have been added in phases since the 1990s, while the spectacular 1,200-seat concert hall, The Meadows, opened in 2007. There’s also a choice of eateries, from quick bites to something classier at AJ’s Steakhouse.