The city grew up around a station on the Des Moines & Central Iowa Railway, and was incorporated in 1969.
Around that time Saylorville Lake was constructed, and this giant reservoir is a major destination for camping, fishing and other outdoor activities.
To cater to a growing population Johnston has several projects in progress, including the Town Center, a growing commercial and cultural hub along Merle Hay Road.
The Des Moines River forms the city’s eastern boundary, and the undeveloped floodplain is a gorgeous green corridor leading all the way to Downtown Des Moines.
1. Saylorville Lake
Johnston is on the south shore of a 6,000-acre reservoir, built in the 1960s to alleviate flooding on the Des Moines River.
Saylorville Lake shines as a recreation magnet for the Des Moines area, and the shore is lined with campgrounds, beaches, boat ramps and a wealth of other recreation amenities.
Close to the dam you’ll find the lake’s Visitor Center, which has compelling interactive exhibits outlining native Iowan flora and fauna.
There are nature trails on the grounds, along with the Saylorville Lake Butterfly Garden, which is glorious in summer.
Near the spillway is the Bob Shetler Campground, with 67 electric sites complemented by modern showers and restrooms.
2. Iowa Gold Star Military Museum
On Camp Dodge in the north of Johnston you’ll find Iowa’s foremost veterans’ museum. Here you can learn what Iowans experienced in every conflict from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) to the present day.
The exhibits are endowed with firsthand accounts and masses of artifacts including weapons, uniforms, field equipment, flags, medals and badges, all with some connection to Iowa.
Outside you can browse a small fleet of tanks and artillery, while a standout exhibit is a genuine submarine periscope that you can use to look around Camp Dodge.
3. Beaver Creek Kayaking
Beaver Creek winds through Johnston in a southeast direction on the way to its mouth on the Des Moines River near the I-80.
Although Johnston is growing at speed, the banks of Beaver Creek remain untouched by development, and are a wonderful natural asset for the city.
A boat ramp has recently been built near the intersection of Northwest 86th Street and Northwest 70th Avenue.
Close to this is a location for Quarry Springs Outfitters, renting kayaks and canoes in summer for a paddle along four scenic miles of Beaver Creek.
Eventually Beaver Creek will be part of the Greater Des Moines Water Trails, a $117 million project opening the waterways of the metro area to paddlers, from as far north as Madrid, down to Knoxville.
4. Johnston Farmers’ Market
If you’d like to support local growers and makers there’s a summer farmers’ market at the Johnston Public Library parking lot.
Taking place on Tuesdays (3:30-6:30pm), May through October, the Johnston Farmers’ Market is sponsored by the Johnston Lions Club and typically has more than 30 vendors.
You can pick up farm-fresh seasonal produce, eggs, honey, jams, baked goods, all kinds of crafts, while there’s always a choice of food trucks.
The market often coincides with live music by the likes of the Urbandale Band, so you can bring a lawn chair and linger for an hour or two.
5. Johnston Town Center
At the time of writing, a bustling district was taking shape next to the City Hall. Eventually the intersection of Merle Hay Road and NW 62nd Avenue will be an inviting destination for dining, shopping and entertainment.
A key piece of the puzzle has already been laid, in the form of The Yards. This large green area, just west of the City Hall, is intended as a venue for outdoor concerts in summer, and an ice rink in winter.
When we compiled this list, there was already a stylish-looking splash pad, attracting families to The Yards from the summer of 2021.
6. Terra Park
This 200-acre park next to Beaver Creek is adding new facilities by the year. At the center of Terra Park is an eight-acre fishing lake, with a pier installed in 2017.
The lake has channel catfish, largemouth bass and bluegill. Around the lake is a large lawn, with an amphitheater, staging concerts and other outdoor events during the summer.
Also here is the open-air civic shelter and a series of smaller shelters for family reunions, together with dainty native plantings and a children’s playground for all abilities.
7. Trostel’s Greenbriar
A pillar of the local dining scene for more than 35 years, Trostel’s Greenbriar is up there with the best places to get a steak in the Des Moines area.
This is a quintessential white-cloth establishment, perfect for an intimate meal. Among the signature steaks are the Gunpowder Ribeye and Slow Roasted Prime Rib, while on the lighter side of things you’ve got a lineup of appetizing salads, as well as pizzas and sandwiches for casual diners.
There’s a wine list for all tastes, complemented by a wide selection of cocktails, dessert wines, ports, cognacs and sherries.
8. Sycamore Trail
For mountain bikers this riverside park in Johnston has some of the best terrain in the Des Moines area.
There are 6.5 miles of trails here, weaving along the river’s wooded west bank, with few amenities or signs of civilization.
Ideal for riders of all ages and abilities, the trails are relatively flat and beckon you through peaceful mature forest, left to flourish on this undeveloped piece of the river’s floodplain.
This park is also open to hikers, dog walkers (on leash) trailrunners and snowshoers in winter, which is important to keep in mind.
9. Kites on the Green
A city as young as Johnston doesn’t have too many traditions, but one that is starting to take hold already is this festival on the first Saturday in May.
Coming up for its first decade when we wrote this article, Kites on the Green is a charming family event on the breezy Johnston Commons.
There’s a day-long schedule of activities, with kite-flying displays of all shapes and sizes, free kite-building workshops, live music and quality outdoor time with friends and family.
10. Neal Smith Trail
Until Saylorville Lake was constructed, the Des Moines River was prone to devastating floods. For this reason the banks have mostly been left clear, creating a blissful green corridor and a long chain of parks that run right through the heart of Des Moines.
On the east bank of the river, right next to Johnston you can get onto the 26-mile Neal Smith Trail, starting in the north at Big Creek Lake, and taking you all the way to downtown Des Moines where it connects with the John Pat Dorrian Trail.
On your walk or bike ride, you’ll traverse a wide variety of landscapes, from prairie to water-rich bottomland and elevated oak forest.
11. Johnston Station Historical Society Museum
On the west side of Johnston Commons you’ll notice a cluster of historical buildings, all maintained by the Johnston Station Historical Society.
These are the six-bedroom Simpson House (1902), together with its barn (1936) and a windmill, all painstakingly relocated to the current spot in the 2000s.
The house museum opens to the public periodically, and contains exhibits recounting Johnston’s 100+ years of history, and period decor from the early 20th century.
The society has also created a “History Facts Scavenger Hunt”, leading to interesting sites and historical markers around the city.
12. Pole Position Raceway Des Moines
Part of a chain of three karting facilities, Pole Position Raceway Des Moines is a couple minutes away in Grimes. This is an indoor track, using high-end electric karts.
The adult karts produce 18 horsepower and can hit speeds of 45 mph. The most popular way to experience kart racing is via the Arrive & Drive program, allowing you and your friends to simply show up and race.
For a reserved time slot you could choose from a menu of party packages and group events. And while you wait for your race there’s an arcade, with a state-of-the-art Omni Arena VR machine.
13. Merle Hay Mall
Continue down Merle Hay Road from Johnston and you’ll soon come to a giant mail that opened in 1959.
A few of the brands at the mall include Old Navy, Foot Locker, Rue 21, Target, GameStop, and dining options like Panda Express at the food court.
Like all malls, this place is evolving to deal with people’s changing shopping habits, and now features a diversity of attractions, from a dine-in movie theater to a bowling alley.
When we wrote this article the mall was also about to add a 3,500-seat arena, home ice for the Des Moines Buccaneers playing in the United States Hockey League (UHSL).
14. Dewey Park
A couple of blocks from Johnston Town Center is a restful community park, perfect for picnics and for families with young and energetic children.
The main attraction at Dewey Park is the ADA-accessible play structure for kids aged 2 to 5 years, with slides, decks and climbing equipment, along with a play structure for 5 to 12 year olds.
Also here is a biking trail, soccer field, picnic shelter and plentiful open space if you want to make the most of the weather in summer.
15. Des Moines Driving Range
Opposite Sycamore Park on the east bank of the Des Moines River is a driving range, owned by the award-winning PGA golf instructor, Mark Egly.
Open since 1993, the Des Moines Driving Range is all grass, measuring 200 yards across and 330 yards in length, with a canopy for hot, sunny days.
There are five target greens to aim for, while you can work on your short game at one of three putting greens.
This facility uses high-quality TaylorMade and Tiltleist balls, but what’s remarkable is that the bucket prices haven’t changed since the range opened 30 years ago.