A town of 16,000 not far south of Des Moines, Indianola punches well above its weight.
First off, the big skies over Indianola are the venue for the National Balloon Classic, a summer hot air ballooning festival drawing 25,000 people to the city.
There’s a museum dedicated to the art and history of ballooning, and this is one of only two attractions of its kind in the country.
For some high culture of a different kind, the Blank Performing Arts Center at the picturesque Simpson College campus hosts the Des Moines Metro Opera’s celebrated summer festival.
1. National Balloon Classic
For nine days at the height of summer more than 100 hot air balloons from across the world take to the skies over Indianola.
At the National Balloon Classic the most skilled balloon pilots vie for points and prizes, wowing the crowds below in the process.
To go with this unforgettable spectacle there’s live music, great food and drink, a vintage balloon inflate and fireworks shows.
If you book early you can also take part in a morning or evening balloon ride, making a memory that will last a lifetime. These rides are provided by Galena on the Fly, and take place every day of the event.
2. National Balloon Museum & Hall of Fame
In honor of that prestigious event, Indianola is home to one of only two ballooning museums in the United States.
The National Balloon Museum was founded in 1975, five years after the first championships were held in the city, and the attraction found a permanent home in 1988.
In a building designed to resemble two inverted balloons, the museum’s artifact-laden galleries tell you all you could want to know about this unique mode of transport.
You’ll find out about ballooning’s 18th-century pioneers and the amazing feats that have pushed the envelope over the past 250 years. There are galleries for past champions of the National Balloon Classic, and for prominent female pilots.
3. Lake Ahquabi State Park
This spectacular park, on the shores of a 115-acre reservoir, is just moments south of downtown Indianola.
Lake Ahquabi State Park opened in 1936 and was a Civilian Conservations Corps (CCC) project, with several Rustic-style structures preserved on the National Register of Historic Places.
Come summer the park is a hive of activity, whether you want to hike on 6.5 miles of trails, swim at the beach, go fishing for channel catfish and largemouth bass or go on a little paddling trip.
Kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and paddle boats can be rented from the concessionaire, while there’s also a campground by the lakeshore with 141 sites (85 with electrical hookup).
4. Indianola Downtown Square
In many ways Indianola is the epitome of a Midwestern small town, but if you assume the downtown area is sleepy, you may be in for a shock.
Squeezed into a few blocks around the Warren County Justice Center is a rare diversity of stores, services, restaurants and bars, including a craft brewery (West Hill Brewing Co.).
You’ve got a deli, an antique store, a pizzeria, a jeweler, an outdoors outfitter, a gourmet coffee shop, the list goes on.
The recent demolition of the old courthouse has brought about a transformation to the streetscape, with wider sidewalks, extra space for outdoor dining, newly planted trees and ample room for community events and activities.
5. Blank Performing Arts Center
Seating 467, this modern auditorium is on the Simpson College Campus in Indianola. The Blank Performing Arts Center takes the limelight in summer, becoming a cultural destination for the Midwest, when it hosts the Des Moines Metro Opera’s annual festival in June and July.
In a rolling repertory there are three mainstage operas during the festival. The year we wrote this article, which happened to be the company’s 50th anniversary, these were The Magic Flute, Porgy and Bess and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
The Blank Center is an intimate venue for opera, with an unusual format, featuring a proscenium stage and another semicircular stage in front of the orchestra pit.
6. Warren County Historical Society
At the County Fairgrounds, the Warren County Historical Society maintains a museum, genealogical library and an outdoor Historical Village that is open in the summer.
The main museum building has two floors of exhibits, a couple of standouts being rare collections of Winchester tools and a McCoy pottery.
There’s also a model train exhibit that is sure to delight enthusiasts and younger visitors.
The Historical Village is made up of several relocated buildings including a Quaker meeting house, a general store, a log cabin, a pioneer church and a museum for famous Simpson College alum, George Washington Carver (1864-1943).
7. Buxton Park Arboretum
Indianola’s oldest park was donated to the city in 1906 and lies on the north side of the Simpson College Campus.
Ideal for an easy stroll, Buxton Park Arboretum has serene formal gardens, an ornamental fountain, butterfly garden, a gazebo and plentiful public art.
One fantastic recent arrival is the children’s garden, both multisensory and interactive, with outdoor musical instruments, a hands-on game (Natureland), a play tunnel and planter boxes growing tactile plants and vegetables.
If you’re curious about the arboretum’s many species you can grab a tree-tour pamphlet from the display case by the gazebo.
8. Summerset Trail
Indianola is the southern terminus for an 11-mile multi-use trail through the rural idyll southwest of Des Moines.
On the course of an abandoned railroad, the Summerset Trail runs all the way to the town of Carlisle, crossing the Middle River on the way.
The portion closest to Indianola is definitely the most scenic. Here on the south bank of the Middle River there are glorious prairie remnants and subtle but panoramic elevation changes.
The Indianola Trailhead has restroom facilities with running water. Here you can continue your journey southeast on the McVay Trail, or west on the Jerry Kelley Trail, onto the Simpson College Campus.
9. Summerset Winery
Minutes out of town, one of Iowa’s largest-producing wineries sits by the south bank of the Middle River.
Summerset Winery hosts tours and all kinds of private and corporate events, while the tasting room is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday all year round.
There’s a 12-acre vineyard on the property, first planted in 1989 and now growing nine different hybrid varieties that flourish in the extremes of the Central Iowa climate.
A few varietal wines to look out for are the semi-sweet white Edelweiss, the dry Vidal Blanc, the dry red Frontenac and the sweet red Concord.
10. Paramount 7 Theatre
Something else to love about downtown Indianola is that there’s a seven-screen multiplex just down from the Justice Center.
Part of the Iowa-wide Fridley Theatres chain, the Paramount 7 opened in 1990 and is still an affordable place to watch the latest Hollywood releases.
As ever, Tuesday is the cheapest day, but there are also daily discounts for matinees, seniors, students and military.
As you’d expect at a Fridley theater, the popcorn is always perfect, and every screen has up-to-date sound and projection systems.
11. Pickard Park
Indianola’s largest park is on the city’s eastern edge, at the terminus for the McVay/Summerset Trail.
Once a farm, this idyllic rolling landscape was purchased from the Clarence Pickard family in the mid-1970s and is significant for some of Warren County’s first water diversion and terrace projects by the Soil Conservation Service.
Pickard Park is a place to be active, with an exceptional disc golf course, a bike trail, several ballfields and an ADA accessible playground.
The shelter has a far-reaching view over the Central Iowa countryside, and the park is a popular place to see the National Balloon Classic in all its glory.
12. Annett Nature Center and Park
This 160-acre park is near the northeast shore of Lake Ahquabi, and contains the Annett Nature Center, a three-story facility that opened in 1997.
This is the HQ for the Warren County Conservation Board (WCCB), serving as a hub for conservation education in the county, from summer nature day camps to school field trips.
There are absorbing interpretive exhibits to peruse, as well as classrooms and the WCCB’s administrative offices.
Outside you’ve got miles of trails to explore, as well as a butterfly garden, a fishing pond, prairie plantings, a wetland area and a 30-foot observation tower.
13. West Hill Brewing Company
A few steps from the new Justice Center in downtown Indianola is a brewery for those who want something more exciting and sophisticated than mass produced beer.
There are usually ten craft beers and two hard ciders on tap at West Hill Brewing Company. A few standouts at the time of writing were Little Bomber (Blonde Ale), Citra SMaSH IPA, Sticky New Ed Beech (Kölsch) and Off the Square (Pale Ale).
Most weekends there will be a great local food truck outside, and you can check the calendar for upcoming events, from trivia nights to live music.
14. Otter Creek Park
Another outdoor escape in the very south of Indianola, Otter Creek Park was acquired by the Warren County Conservation Board in 1976.
On 80 beautiful acres, the park has a network of trails winding through prairie and oak-hickory forest.
The pond here is a delightful haven for wildlife, from waterfowl to amphibians, and there’s a section of boardwalk on one side. Also at the park is a shaded picnic area with grills, tables and play equipment, along with five secluded primitive campsites.
15. Warren County Fair
Iowa had only been a state for ten years when, in 1855, Warren County put on its first state fair. A six-day event, the fair still goes down in the same location, in the southeast of Indianola, even if the fairgrounds have changed a bit in the last 170 years.
Center stage is a big program of livestock and agriculture exhibits, in youth and open categories. This is combined with live music at the free stage, everyone’s favorite fair food, and major grandstand events, from destruction derbies to concerts.
Check the schedule for all kinds of crazy contests, like milk mustaches and rooster crowing, as well as a slew of activities to keep children entertained.