Bounded on its south side by U.S. 6, Urbandale is a fast-growing suburban city in the northwest of the Des Moines metropolitan area.
You can reach downtown Des Moines, and its slew of attractions, in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, to the north and west are the big skies of rural Iowa, which you can traverse on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
There’s plenty to hold your interest right here in Urbandale, not least at Living History Farms, an outdoor museum on a mind-boggling scale.
One of the largest malls in the state, Merle Hay Mall, can be found in Urbandale and will soon be the home ice for the Des Moines Buccaneers, an elite junior hockey team.
1. Living History Farms
One of the premier attractions in the Des Moines Area is an affectionate celebration of Iowa’s agricultural heritage.
Populated with skilled interpreters, Living History Farms brings to life Iowan farming settlements from 1700, 1850 and 1900, presenting changing technology and customs starting with a pre-European farm worked by Ioway Native Americans.
You can observe plenty of demonstrations as you go, for tanning, pottery, plowing, canning and much more.
Walnut Hill is a replica town from 1875, comprising authentic 19th-century buildings including homes, a bank, law office, mansion, general store and schoolhouse.
2. Des Moines Buccaneers
If you want to see the next generation of hockey stars in action, Urbandale is the proud home of the Des Moines Buccaneers. This outfit plays in the United States Hockey League, which is the top junior league to be sanctioned by USA Hockey.
Since they were founded in 1980, the Buccaneers have taken four Anderson Cups (regular season titles) and four Clark Cups (playoff championships), the most recent in 1999 and 2006 respectively.
Home ice is the 3,461-seat Buccaneer Arena, predating the team and built in 1961. With this venue showing its age, the Buccaneers are scheduled to move to a new, state-of-the-art facility on the site of a former department store at Merle Hay Mall.
3. Des Moines
It’s worth remembering that Urbandale is little more than ten miles from downtown Des Moines, so there’s an abundance of attractions and sights within your grasp.
Particularly close are the Des Moines Art Center, with one of the Midwest’s great contemporary art collections, and Salisbury House & Gardens (1928), an exact replica of an historic English house, replete with paintings and decorative arts.
The Iowa State Capitol (1886) may well be the finest state capitol in the nation, and is noted for its gleaming central dome, clad with 23-carat gold.
Shoppers will be wowed by the energetic Downtown Farmers’ Market, while Valley Junction in nearby West Des Moines is a stylish shopping district with real history.
Both the Raccoon River and Des Moines River are lined with idyllic parks, as well as the famed Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
4. Merle Hay Mall
Until 2004 this large mall on the boundary with Des Moines was the largest in Iowa. Merle Hay Mall is also the oldest in the state, first opening in 1959 and coming through a string of redevelopments in the last 60+ years.
When we wrote this article, the mall was coping with the aftermath of the pandemic, but there was still a healthy lineup of well-known stores like Rue 21, Foot Locker, Old Navy, GameStop and Claire’s.
These stores are matched by some interesting entertainment concepts like the Flix Brewhouse, which is a combined first-run movie theater and brewery, and Gameday, a kind of sports bar with an arcade and kitchen. Merle Hay Mall is also the future home of the Des Moines Buccaneers.
5. Paragon Prairie Tower
A soaring landmark for Urbandale, this 120-foot tower was erected at the entrance to the Paragon Office Park in 2007.
Climbing above a plaza and reflecting pool, the Paragon Prairie Tower is clad with the largest glass mosaic mural in the United States.
This amazing work of art is made up of almost 1.8 million tiles, depicting a natural Iowan landscape of prairie and native grasses.
At the base and integrating with the mural is a sculpted relief made from terra cotta and glass fiber reinforced concrete. Be sure to come by at night when lighting effects bring out the iridescence of the glass tiles.
6. Raccoon River Valley Trail
In the southwest corner of Urbandale you can join one of Iowa’s great long-distance trails leading through farmland, woods, wetlands and huge sweeps of prairie.
Almost 90 miles long, the paved Raccoon River Valley Trail crosses four counties on the right-of-way of the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. In Urbandale the trail hugs U.S. 6 for several miles before dividing into two.
One fork cuts northwest in the direction of Dallas Center, and links a series of lovable Midwestern towns in the Iowa countryside.
Alternatively you could continue west towards Redfield. The two forks meet again near Jamaica, Iowa continuing on to the northern trailhead at the charming town of Jefferson.
7. Walker Johnston Park
In the heart of the city, next to Urbandale’s police department and public library buildings, is the main community park, brimming with amenities and things to do.
Walker Johnston Park is on a whole network of trails connecting to other parts of the town, and is a veritable wonderland for kids.
One great asset is the story trail encircling the park’s fishing pond. The playground is also one of the best in the Des Moines area, with a gigantic slide that is built into the side of a hill.
Other facilities include a skate park, Pickleball courts, baseball/softball fields, a soccer field, two rentable picnic shelters and numerous picnic tables.
8. Breakout Games
People from all over the Des Moines area come to Urbandale for this escape room attraction.
For the uninitiated, you and your team will have one hour to make it out of a room by discovering clues, cracking codes, solving riddles and completing puzzles.
At Breakout Games these rooms are totally immersive, with smart puzzle design, a gripping backstory and creative scenarios.
When we compiled this list there were six rooms: The Kidnapping, Undercover Alley, Mystery Mansion, Do Not Disturb, Island Escape and Operation: Casino.
9. Clive Aquatic Center
A big summer attraction for the western Des Moines Area, the Clive Aquatic Center sits opposite Living History Farms, off U.S. 6. This is essentially a mini water park, with two main pools.
The first is a zero-depth pool for leisure, with a large shallow area, perfect for smaller kids. The other pool is a six-lane lap pool, but with a diving well linked with one side and the splash zone for the park’s water slide on the other.
Another great feature is the lazy river, fed by a shallow ramp. The center has a lot of events on the calendar, and closes out the season in late August with a dog party.
10. Saylorville Lake
Urbandale is just a few miles from the south shore of a huge body of water, which becomes a recreation go-to in summer.
Covering almost 6,000 acres, Saylorville Lake is a reservoir that was dammed in the mid-1960s, and is one component in a vast flood defense system on the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers.
The lakeshore is ringed with campgrounds, recreation areas, boat launches and beaches. The nearest place to camp is the Bob Shetler Campground, with 67 electric sites, while the Lakeview Boat Ramp, open March through November is a mile or so around the southwest shore.
Head a little further up the lake’s west side and you’ll arrive at the Walnut Ridge Disc Golf Course, with 18 holes in a beautiful waterside setting.
11. Machine Shed Restaurant
This small, rural chain specializing in American comfort food has just six locations in Iowa and neighboring states.
The Machine Shed abides by a five-word motto: “Dedicated to the American Farmer”, and was born just outside of Davenport, Iowa in 1978.
The breakfast at the Urbandale location has been touted as the Best in America by the Travel Channel.
Among the menu items you simply have to try are the Shed’s famous oven-fresh cinnamon rolls, the Country Market Skillet and the Farmer’s Benedict, with a choice of ham or sausage patties.
And in keeping with the agricultural vibe you can even take a tractor ride while you wait for your table.
12. Iowa Gold Star Military Museum
Free to visit, this museum near the Saylorville Lakeshore is Iowa’s premier veterans museum, charting every conflict involving Iowans, from the Mexican War of 1846 to the present.
The name, “Gold Star” refers to a tradition that began after WWI, when the wives, mothers and sisters of men who had died in service would wear a black armband with a gold star.
The museum is packed with interesting artifacts from a catalog of wars, including vehicles, artillery, uniforms, medals, flags, weapons, field equipment, photographs and a submarine telescope.
13. Lions Park
Close to Merle Hay Mall in the east of Urbandale is a well-shaded park just across the road from Urbandale High School. Lions Park is really on the map during the city’s 4th of July festivities.
This is the largest celebration of its kind in the Des Moines area, with a two-mile parade, day-long carnival, live music and fireworks after sunset.
As for amenities, Lions Park has a baseball/softball field, tennis courts, a gazebo and grills for birthday parties and family reunions.
14. AMC Classic Cobblestone 9
One of a few shopping centers dotted around Urbandale, the Cobblestone Marketplace by U.S. 6 is on the map for its movie theater, acquired by the AMC chain in 2017.
This multiplex was opened in 1994 by the now defunct Carmike Cinemas chain, and is an affordable and convenient place to catch the latest blockbuster.
Check the website for all kinds of specials, like Discount Tuesdays, and lower ticket prices for movies on weekdays before 4pm.
15. Get Air Trampoline Park
Right next to Breakout Games is an indoor trampoline park, run by Get Air, which has locations across the country.
If you’re on the hunt for somewhere for kids to be active in any weather, this is a fine choice. There’s a range of games and activities to go with the huge Main Court, which has wall-to-wall trampolines.
There’s dodgeball, a foam pit, a hoop for slam dunks, a Ninja Warrior-style course, a Kiddie Court for smaller children, and more.