Known as Valley Junction until 1938, the largest suburb of Des Moines is growing at a staggering rate, more than doubling in population since 1990.
West Des Moines has humble origins, taking shape around a railroad depot at the turn of the 20th century.
Decades before, the abolitionist and first settler, James C. Jordan had established a station on the Underground Railroad here.
Today the city is Des Moines’ go-to shopping destination, whether you want to shop local at the stylish Valley Junction downtown area, or want to hit the largest mall in Iowa at Jordan Creek Town Center.
1. Historic Valley Junction
This revitalized railroad district in West Des Moines is everything you could want from a hip downtown commercial area.
Growing up around a depot for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, Valley Junction harks back to the 1890s and is the soul of West Des Moines.
This is the setting for the summer farmers’ market, and there’s a super choice of independent boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and restaurants for all comers.
At the last count there were more than 160 independent stores, mostly centered on 5th Street and its cross streets.
In the space of three blocks the historic district has more than 50 contributing buildings. Look out for No. 137, the old Engine House, dating back to 1901. The first floor was West Des Moines’ fire station, while the City Hall was on the second floor until 1952.
2. Raccoon River Park
The star of the West Des Moines Parks system is this marvelous 630-acre park on the Raccoon River.
And the crowning glory has to be Blue Heron Lake, which has a boat launch, beach and a modern boathouse open during the summer for canoe, kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals.
Also worthy of mention is the 225-foot fishing pier, offering superb access for fishing enthusiasts of all abilities and ages.
The playground at Raccoon River Park is touted as one of the most unique in the metropolitan area, while there’s a seasonal ice rink, a 3.2-mile multi-use trail, four picnic shelters, an archery range, a nature center and complexes for softball and soccer.
3. Jordan House
The West Des Moines Historical Society has an apt home, at the residence of the city’s first settler.
This was James C. Jordan (1813-1891), who arrived here from Virginia in 1846. The Jordan House was built a few years later and has a lot of stories to tell. Jordan was a diehard abolitionist, and up to the Civil War, his house was a station on the Underground Railroad.
The abolitionist leader John Brown is known to have stayed here at least twice, and on one occasion in 1858 he was helping a party of 12 former slaves escape to freedom.
The Jordan House’s current appearance dates from an Italianate extension in 1870. On a self-guided tour you can peruse 16 period rooms, adorned with interesting pieces from past times.
Take in the detailed exhibit on the Underground Railroad, but also the regular railroad, which was crucial to the city’s development.
4. Jordan Creek Town Center
Leading West Des Moines’ assortment of shopping destinations is the largest mall in Iowa, and the fourth-largest shopping complex in the entire Midwest.
Jordan Creek Town Center had been in the pipeline for a decade before it opened in 2004 with 160+ shops and services across three districts.
Even for jaded shoppers, the mall’s enormous food court is a thing to behold, and has a branch of the beloved Des Moines fast food restaurant, Zombie Burger.
Outside, a cluster of restaurants with patios (P.F. Chang’s, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse), sit around a large ornamental pond.
5. West Glen Town Center
This huge mixed-use development just off I-35 feels like a trendy city district in its own right. Centered on a plaza, West Glen Town Center blends residential units, offices, stores, bars and entertainment venues.
Aside from the Super Target department store, pretty much all the businesses here are independent or belong to fresh new chains, like the Hurts Donut Company.
For an idea of what to expect, there are boutiques, home design stores, a spa, nail salon, yoga studio, a pinball arcade, escape room, wine tasting station, as well as restaurants for a spectrum of cuisines and bars from a gastropub to a hookah lounge.
6. Brown’s Woods
Iowa’s largest urban forest area is in West Des Moines, across the water from Raccoon River Park. This is a fine place to be at any time of year, but especially in summer when you can hike under a mantle of hardwood forest.
This is made up of hickories and oaks, on a gently rolling landscape laced with little streams. The woods are named for the wealthy Des Moines lawyer, Tallmadge E Brown (1830-1891), who owned this and other big chunks of land edging the city.
There’s a restroom area at the entrance and a network of easy-to-follow trails for walks and cross-country skiing in winter.
7. Des Moines
You’re never more than a few minutes from the state capital, which comes under the political microscope at the start of the presidential campaign cycle every four years.
On the political theme, a tour of the Iowa State Capitol building is a must. Completed in 1886, it’s the only five-domed capitol in the country, with a central towering dome clad with 23-carat gold.
Also essential is the Governor’s residence, Terrace Hill, dating back to 1866, along with the vibrant Downtown Farmers’ Market, the informative State Historical Museum, Blank Park Zoo, Gray’s Lake Park and the Science Center of Iowa.
The Iowa State Fairgrounds are just east of downtown, and the eleven-day State Fair in August is officially the largest annual event in Iowa, attracting more than 1,100,000 people. Below, we’ll list a couple of other Des Moines highlights that are especially close.
8. Des Moines Art Center
Minutes away is one of the region’s preeminent art museums, founded in 1948. In its extensive collection the Des Moines Art Center has works by the likes of Matisse, Rodin, Monet, Gauguin, Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, and many more than we can list here.
Among the museum’s most important pieces are Edward Hopper’s Automat (1927) and Portrait of Pope Innocent (1953) by Francis Bacon.
This world-class collection has a striking home, in an Art Deco building from 1948, with a Modernist wing added in 1968 and another by Richard Meier from 1985.
The spacious main gallery hosts several shows a year, for themed group displays, traveling exhibitions and solo shows by world-renowned artists.
9. Salisbury House & Gardens
Close to the Des Moines Art Center is another cultural attraction to keep on your radar. Salisbury House was built in the mid-1920s for the cosmetics magnate Carl Weeks and his wife, Edith Van Slyke Weeks.
The mansion is a near-replica of The King’s House, in Salisbury, England, which was built in stages from the 13th to the 16th century. The Des Moines version faithfully reproduces that blend of styles, incorporating Gothic, Tudor and Jacobean architecture.
In 1922 the architects even purchased authentic period fittings and furnishings from properties in Salisbury for the project.
You can visit Salisbury House for a guided or self-guided tour to appreciate the interiors and a large art collection boasting works by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), George Romney (1734-1802) and Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), to name a handful.
10. Valley Junction Farmers’ Market
Valley Junction is exactly the kind of place where you would expect to find a bustling farmers’ market.
Taking place every Thursday, 4-8pm May through September, the market offers a range of Iowa-grown fresh produce, as well as specialty ingredients, flowers, baked goods, plants, street food and all manner of cute arts and crafts.
The market coincides with the Music in the Junction, a summer concert series. These shows are free to the public and are accompanied by a beverage garden that opens at 5:30pm.
11. Walnut Woods State Park
Just upstream from Raccoon River Park is a 260-acre park preserving an important expanse of bottomland hardwood forest, cherished in spring and summer as a location for birdwatching.
At Walnut Woods State Park you’ll enter the largest single stand of black walnut trees in North America.
The gentle Raccoon River meanders through the park, providing opportunities for boating, paddling and fishing, while on land you can hike or ski along two miles of trails.
There’s a fine old lodge here, built from the limestone during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as a small campground.
12. Living History Farms
Next door in Urbandale is a top-notch outdoor museum charting 300 years of Iowa’s agricultural history.
Living History Farms is made up of a series of sites, giving a sense of farming and daily life at different points in the state’s past. So there’s a 1700 Ioway Farm, an 1850 Pioneer Farm and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm.
You can travel at your own speed through these environments meeting on-site interpreters who put on educational demonstrations throughout the season.
There’s also a replica rural town, Walnut Hill, designed like a Midwestern settlement from 1875, complete with a print shop, general store and blacksmith, as well as the authentic Flynn Mansion and Barn, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
13. Smash Park
A couple of blocks from Jordan Creek Town Center and a stone’s throw from hotels, is a fresh entertainment attraction.
Smash Park is a few things rolled into one, but at its heart are facilities for pickleball (four indoor, two outdoor courts), cornhole, shuffleboard and darts.
Inside is an arcade with ping-pong, football, eight large HD TVs, a giant Connect Four and a variety of other games for all ages.
This is all complemented by a kitchen serving contemporary, street-style bites, from wraps to bowls, flatbreads, bao buns, burgers and salads.
14. West Grand Golf
This highly rated practice facility is billed as the best spot in the Des Moines area if you want to work on your swing or fine tune your short game.
West Grand Golf can be a family day out thanks to its 18-hole miniature golf course, in a gorgeous, water-rich setting with fountains, waterfalls and exquisite flower gardens.
The course is fun for kids, but offers great practice for serious golfers. As for the driving range, this has irrigated grass tees and several target greens, all guarded with bunkers.
15. Valley West Mall
To go with West Des Moines’ profusion of shopping options you’ve got this giant enclosed mall that opened in 1975 and has more than 100 tenants. When we made this list the main anchor was JCPenney, which also housed a branch of Sephora.
A few of the many well-known stores on hand at Valley West Mall are Claire’s, Victoria’s Secret, rue21, Kay Jewelers, GNC, Eddie Bauer and Bath & Body Works, along with many independent businesses.
Food-wise you’ve got a Dairy Queen/Orange Julius, Chipotle, Jimmy John’s and Blaze Pizza, to name a handful. The mall is also home to the Des Moines Children’s Museum, a fabulous, hands-on learning resource for children and parents.