WOW- Iowa! Des Moines, Iowa- It’s Not What You Might Think

I believe many people have a preconceived notion of what a place will be like before they ever step foot there. Many people think of three things when they think of Iowa: football, farmland, and corn. What I discovered when I visited Iowa for my first time was these things are definitely huge here but what’s missing is pride and family. Iowans are fiercely proud of their state and for them family comes before anything else.

For my first trip to Iowa, I chose to go to Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. The population is relatively small at only around 215,000 people or just over 700,000 if you include the suburbs. Des Moines is the most populated city in the state too so this is most definitely considered the “big city” in these parts.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things to do in Des Moines, especially in the downtown area. Just don’t expect a big city vibe when you come here or anything even close to that. I highly recommend staying in the downtown area. Most things are within a mile of downtown and it’s a very walkable city plus there are multiple places where you can rent a bicycle. I chose not to rent a car when I was here and it turned out to be a wise decision, saving me on parking fees not only at the hotel but also the metered spaces all over the downtown area. There’s also a free bus called Des Moines Regional Transit Authority (DART) that runs every 10 minutes between the East Village and Western Gateway Park Monday through Friday.

Photo to back up my attempt of a witty title

What’s There to do in Des Moines?

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit botanical gardens. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was the first place I visited here. For $10 admission, I saw the Conservatory, Bonsai Gallery, Wells Fargo Rose Garden, Dorothy and Max Rutledge Conifer Garden, Koehn Garden with reflecting pool, Ruan Allee walkway, Water Garden, Lauridsen Savannah, and my favorite part of the garden, the Hillside Garden and Waterfall. Inside the conservatory there was a Desert Garden, Rainforest, and Horticultural Exhibits area. There is also the Trellis Cafe but I didn’t eat there. Multiple seating areas are all around the outdoor spaces in addition to inside the conservatory. I walked through every garden and it took me about an hour. It is one of the smaller botanical gardens I’ve been to but worth coming here if you enjoy gardens. https://www.dmbotanicalgarden.com/

Close to the botanical garden is the small but free Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens. It’s a peaceful spot beside the Des Moines River. You can easily see the entire area in 10 minutes or less if you’re just passing through.

Also nearby both gardens is the Lauridsen Skatepark, the largest skatepark in the United States. The park has five skating areas and runs adjacent to Principal Riverwalk Park. A unique part of the park is a bright red “WOW” sculpture (seen in the first photo above) 80 feet long and 12 feet high that was designed to be skated on but has become an Instagram hotspot for people just walking through.

If you have children or are a child at heart, there’s the Blank Park Zoo with the typical zoo animals like lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinos, and penguins. There are also behind the scenes tours, which are quite pricey for non-members but half the price for members. The zoo is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm and admission is $14 for adults and $8 for children. https://www.blankparkzoo.com/ The Science Center of Iowa and Blank IMAX Dome Theater is also a fun place for families. SCI has numerous hands-on exhibits designed to spur interest in science and learning along with live science demonstrations, a planetarium, and IMAX theater. SCI is open Thursday-Sunday and admission is $11 for adults and children. https://www.sciowa.org/visit/

Salisbury House and Gardens is a 42-room mansion built in the 1920’s modeled after the King’s House in Salisbury, England in the style of Gothic, Tudor, and Carolean Architecture. The house is filled with original art, tapestries, and antique furniture from around the world. One of my favorite things was learning all of the background information about the Weeks family that lived there. Carl Weeks made his fortune by combining cold cream with face powder and began his own makeup company, The Armand Company. Salisbury House is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. Self-guided tours do not require reservations and are $10; guided tours at 1 and 3 pm are $15 and reservations are recommended. https://salisburyhouse.org/

Salisbury House and Gardens

If you enjoy history, the Iowa Hall of Pride is a fun way to learn about Iowa. There are displays about some sports legends from Iowa like gymnast Shawn Johnson, track and field Olympian Lolo Jones, professional football player Kurt Warner, plus many others. There are also displays and information about musicians, farming, wind farms, bike trails, just to name a few. Most of the displays are touch-screen with multiple videos to watch. There’s also a game area where you can play arcade-type games for a fee. It is open Monday through Friday and costs $10 for admission. https://www.iowahallofpride.com/

The Farmer’s Market is a fun place to stroll around if you’re in Des Moines on a Saturday from May 1 through October 30 in the mornings until noon. Several blocks downtown are closed off to cars so you can leisurely browse from over 150 vendors. I saw everything from meats, cheeses, breads and other bakery products, tea, artwork, handmade jewelry, fresh flowers, and a wide variety of produce. There were also some bands and musicians scattered throughout the area. https://www.dsmpartnership.com/desmoinesfarmersmarket/saturday-market

For art lovers, the Des Moines Art Center is a wonderful place to explore for about an hour or so, plus admission is free. There’s mostly modern and contemporary art, which I’m usually not a huge fan of but I enjoyed many of these pieces of modern art and could appreciate them. One of my favorites was a temporary display by Justin Favela and is running through January 2022. Using only tissue paper and cardboard, he designed enormous food-related pieces of art that I found intriguing. There were also some paintings by famous artists like Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvadore Dali, and Renoir. https://desmoinesartcenter.org/visit/

One of the Justin Favela displays at the Des Moines Art Center

An outdoor art exhibit that’s also free, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park includes artwork by more than 25 artists on 1330 Grand Avenue in downtown Des Moines. There are walkways around most of the sculptures and grassy areas in others. The park is open from sunrise to midnight daily. https://desmoinesartcenter.org/visit/pappajohn-sculpture-park/

Where to Eat

There is no shortage of bars in downtown Des Moines, some of which also serve pub-style food. There isn’t a huge selection of restaurants in the small downtown area, but there are still quite a few including The Spaghetti Works (affordable especially for what you get), Court Avenue Brewing Company, Buzzard Billy’s (cajun), Exile Brewing Company, Hessen Haus (German food), Pho Real Kitchen and Bar (really good Vietnamese food), Royal Mile (British Pub-style food), and one of my favorites, Fong’s Pizza which has Asian-inspired toppings like Crab Rangoon or ramen noodles if you’re adventurous plus more traditional toppings. There are of course more restaurants in the area if you have a car or aren’t staying in the heart of downtown. All of the above restaurants are within a mile of one another if you are staying downtown and are easily walkable, however.

Where to Stay

I stayed at the Hampton Inn Downtown and found the location to be perfect for me. Since I could walk to most places I wanted to go to with the exception of a couple of places I didn’t even need to rent a car. However, the hotel walls are thin and the doors so heavy they slam loudly when closed so be advised and bring earplugs. There’s also a Residence Inn right beside the Hampton Inn; both are on Water Street. For a non-chain hotel in the downtown area, there’s the Des Lux Hotel and the Surety Hotel. If you want to stay closer to the Wells Fargo Arena and Iowa Events Center, there’s a Comfort Inn and Fairfield Inn and Suites nearby.

Final Thoughts

You may be wondering how many days would be the right amount for Des Moines. I stayed five nights and thought that was a day too many; four nights would have been plenty or even three nights. A long weekend would actually be just about right and give you plenty of time to explore the major sights. Since I was running the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon on a Sunday morning, I decided to stretch out my time a bit more in case I needed to take it a bit easy after the race, plus I wanted to give myself a buffer in case of flight delays before the race since there aren’t many flights from where I live to Des Moines.

I realize Des Moines, Iowa isn’t on most people’s list of places they want to visit, but honestly, it’s a nice city with friendly people and some unique offerings. If you ever find yourself in the area, try to forego any preconceived notions you may have and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Have you been to Des Moines? If so, what did you do? I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the area!

Happy travels!

Donna

IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, Des Moines, Iowa- 49th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Iowa was my 49th state.

Before COVID and the pandemic, I was supposed to run a half marathon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in September 2020. At that point I would have already run a half marathon in New Mexico in April of that year, followed by Minnesota in June, and the race in Cedar Rapids would have been my 50th state. All three of those races got shifted or cancelled completely so now in 2021, I still have not run a half marathon in New Mexico but I ran Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota for my 48th state in June of this year. Confused? Blame it on COVID.

When I saw the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon was scheduled for an in-person race October 17, 2021 and the race director promised regular communication leading up to the race plus he would do everything in his power to make sure the race took place in person, I signed up immediately. True to his word, the race director sent out weekly emails with information about the race. Unfortunately since the race was in October, that meant my teenage daughter would not be running with me since she didn’t want to miss school. No one else would be going with me either, which means this was my first real solo vacation and first time traveling to a race by myself (no sherpa but that was OK; there was a gear check).

Packet pickup was at the Iowa Events Center both Friday and Saturday and included something I hadn’t seen in a while, an actual in-person expo with several vendors and booths set up. You could buy shirts, shoes, gels and other running-related supplies or talk to people about products and local running events. There were also speakers like Jeff Galloway, the famous Olympian who has since coached millions on the run/walk method. I picked up my goodie bag and race bib and was surprised to see a long-sleeve quarter-zip shirt personalized with the race name on the front and 13.1 on the back included in the bag.

Social distancing? Nope. Masks? Nah. Good thing I’m vaccinated.

A cold front had moved into Des Moines bringing with it a frigid wind in the days preceding the race. I went on a 30 minute shakeout run on Friday morning and it was 50 degrees, which was fine to run in what I had brought for the race (short-sleeve top and running skirt). However, the temperature was supposed to drop to 40 degrees at night starting Friday and by 8 am on Sunday, race morning, it was only supposed to be 41 degrees. On top of that, it was supposed to increase by 10 degrees in just a couple of hours. I was not happy with the weather prediction for race morning. Welcome to the Midwest, right?

After obsessively checking the weather like a crazy person and also obsessing about what I was going to wear for the race, I decided to stick with my original plan of my short-sleeve shirt, running skirt, knee-high compression socks, beanie, Buff on my neck, and my beloved Turtle mittens. I wore a fleece jacket to the start then threw it in the gear check bag and made my way to the start. It turns out it was a few degrees warmer than they had predicted the night before so at 8 am at race start it was 44 degrees and sunny.

There were around 5000 people running the marathon and half marathon, which both started together and we were crammed-in together tightly (and no one was wearing a mask). It would not have been a good scene for anyone worried about COVID, but that’s not me since I’m vaccinated and don’t have any health complications so it didn’t bother me. My plan was to run around 8:45 minute miles which would mean my finish time would be around 1:54.

The race start was right in the heart of downtown Des Moines and the half marathoners split off from the marathoners around mile 3. The course went by Water Works Park and Grays Lake Park, past the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and ran along the Des Moines River for the last part. It was scenic and pancake flat with the exception of one very minor hill around mile 11. There were bands, first aid stations, and Gatorade/water at multiple points along the course. At one point there were even volunteers holding out tissue boxes with tissues for runners. I’ve never seen that before but thought it was a great idea because it’s common to get a runny nose from cold air when running. Spectators were also out in full force, many with funny posters; one of my favorites was: “On a scale of 1-10, you’re a 13.1.”

I went back later to take some photos of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

I felt so good right from the beginning that I ended up going faster than I expected. My split times were 8:26, 8:24, 8:21, 8:18, 8:28, 8:21, 8:17, 8:20, 8:23, 8:24, 8:28, 8:33, 8:29, and 8:20 for the final 0.25 miles. Strava had me at 13.25 miles with a finish of 1:50 at 13.1 miles but my official time was 1:51:20, which was a PR for me! I’m still astounded that I PR’d for my 51st half marathon! I finished 12th in my age group out of 110 women. This is a FAST course!

At the finish, we got our medals along with snack boxes filled with pretzels, peanuts, sunflower seeds, an oatmeal bar, fruit snacks, and animal crackers; there was also water and Gatorade plus a chocolate Gatorade protein recovery drink that tasted like chocolate milk. AND there were BBQ sandwiches, oranges, bananas, cookies, and Truly hard seltzer. There was an area set up in a big field with really talented bands playing and cornhole boards and bleachers to sit on. Finally, there were big posters with the race logo for photo ops.

I truly loved this race. Who would have thought my race in Des Moines, Iowa, state number 49 would be so outstanding? The race director and the volunteers did an excellent job putting on this race and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a well-organized, flat (unless you’re running the marathon; believe it or not, Iowa actually has some hills and the marathon is hilly, I’ve been told), and most of all FUN race.

Have any of you run this race or know anyone who has? Anyone interested in taking a trip to Iowa to check it out?

Happy running!

Donna

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