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Free Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa

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Free Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa is a city full of unique experiences and places to explore. Luckily, it does not need to cost a ton to explore everything Des Moines has to offer. Some of the best things are free! Read on to discover all the FREE things to do in Des Moines, Iowa.

80/35 BMX

Address: 1701 E McKinley Avenue, Des Moines, IA

Grab your bikes and helmets and ride on the 80/35 BMX track. It is free to ride on as long as no racing or events are happening. Take a look at their website for clinics for kids and other fun.

Better Homes and Garden Test Garden

Address: 1716 Locust St, Des Moines, IA, 50309

Hours: Open seasonally, May to September on Friday from Noon to 2 p.m.

Not many are aware of this little gem located in downtown Des Moines. The Better Homes and Garden Test Garden includes 22 distinct areas with hundreds of plants, flowers, and more. There is a winding walkway that guides you through the beautiful gardens the perfect place to be calm and reflect. They offer self-guided and free guided tours.

Big Creek State Park

Address: 8794 NW 125th Ave, Polk City, IA

Big Creek State Park is known for their large and elaborate wooden playground. In addition, they offer a beach for swimming, swimming, boating, biking, and walking paths. Grab the sunscreen and enjoy a beach day or burn off some energy climbing on the fun playground.

The Brenton Arboretum 

Address: 25141 260th Street, Dallas Center, IA, 50063

Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to Sunset

The Brenton Arboretum is free for humans but costs $5 per dog per visit. This is a beautiful space full of nature trails. You can explore on your own or guided tours are available. The O’Brien Natural Play Area is a popular place where kids love to play and explore. Make sure to check out their Horticulture Library.

Des Moines Art Center

Address: 4700 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50312

Hours: Open Tuesday & Wednesday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday & Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Not many know that the Des Moines Art Center offers free admission! They offer self-guided and guided tours. They also welcome families with young kids to experience art. After you wander to take in the art, visit the shop for books, jewelry, and more. Grab a bite to eat at Tangerine located inside the Des Moines Art Center. Make sure you step outside and walk through the Claire and Mile Mills Rose Garden which is a popular place for pictures and a wonderful place to take in all the beautiful flowers.

Des Moines Festivals

Des Moines offers many festivals throughout the year and many are free! Some of our favorites are the Des Moines Arts Festival, Beaverdale Fall Festival, Windsor Heights Fall Fest, Grimes Governors’ Days, and many, many more.

Des Moines Public Library

Address: 1000 Grand Avenue, Des Moines

Hours: Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.

The Des Moines area has many local libraries across the city. One favorite is the Des Moines Public Library. This local library is located just east of Western Gateway Park and offers hundreds of books, computers, reading areas, free programming, and more.

Downtown Des Moines Skywalks 

Address: Access to skywalk through most of the downtown parking garages

Hours: Open daily 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Not many would think of the Downtown Des Moines Skywalks as a fun activity, but it definitely is! A fun and free way to run and walk during Iowa’s winter brutal temperatures. If you have younger children, grab their scooters and do some exploring. The skywalk system is 4.2 miles in length and connects 55 buildings and 12 parking ramps. Download the skywalk app for a map and current closures.

Gray’s Lake Park 

Address: 2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines, IA, 50321

Hours: Open daily 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Gray’s Lake Park is a beautiful place on the outside edge of downtown Des Moines. It has a large loop trail where many walk and bike around. There is fishing access, boat rentals, bathroom facilities, and a playground. The City of Des Moines regularly offers free programming throughout the year. Make sure you take a look at their website.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Address: 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, Iowa

Hours: Closed Mondays. Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you plan ahead you can visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden on the several community-free days they offer throughout the year! Enjoy hundreds of plants including tropical plants. A wonderful place to get lost in the dead of winter.

Greenbelt Goats

Address: 1900 NW 114th St., Clive, IA

The Clive Greenbelt Goats are located near the Clive Library and are free to visit! They were introduced to the community in 2019 to help manage invasive plant species. If you would like to feed the goats, make sure to bring some quarters and you can purchase feed at the location.

High Trestle Trail

Trailheads: 69 W 1st St Ankeny, IA 50023 & 27 S Main St Woodward, IA 50276 & IA-210 Qf Ln Madrid, IA 50156 (closest to high trestle trail bridge) & S Kennedy Ave & S Madison St Madrid, IA 50156 & S Carrol St and W 6th Ave Slater, Iowa 50244

If you love to bike you need to make sure you take a ride on the High Trestle Trail. This bike trail is 25 miles long and included these famous 1/2 mile long and 13-story high bridges over the Des Moines River. This is a fun and free activity to do while taking in some beautiful Iowa scenery and you may see some wild animals along the way. Pack a picnic and make a day of exploring miles of trails.

Historic East Village

Address: Located on the East side of the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines

The Historic East Village is a fun place to walk through and explore. No need to buy anything! There are many vintage shops and more you can browse. Stop at Storyhouse Bookpub, grab a book and stay awhile. There are several fun murals to take a selfie and a public piano to showcase your mad piano skills with others. If you get tired walking around outside, head to the Iowa State Historical Museum. Admission is free!

Hoyt Sherman Art Gallery

Address: 1501 Woodland Ave, Des Moines, IA 50314

Hours: Open Monday – Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you are an art lover take a trip to view the Hoyt Sherman Art Gallery. This gallery is located within Hoyt Sherman Place and offers an extensive art gallery that is free to the public. You can browse on your own or sign up for a guided tour. The collection includes artwork from the 19th and 20th centuries featuring famous artists from Iowa.

Ice Skating in Des Moines

There are many community ice skating rinks all over central Iowa. Many of them are free and if you have ice skates at home or some you can borrow from friends, this is a fun and free activity option! Also, Brenton Skating Plaza located in downtown Des Moines offers Free Learn to Skate clinics throughout the season for anyone 4 years or older.

Iowa Adventure Passes

If you live in the Des Moines area and belong to your local library, check out the Iowa Adventure Passes. Iowa Adventure Passes allow families to visit and explore several area attractions. Any adult who holds a library card at their local library can participate. Each library offers something a bit different but some common ones are the Science Center of Iowa, Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines Children’s Museum, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, and more. This is a great way to visit some of your favorite attractions for free!

Iowa Goldstar Museum 

Address: 7105 NW 70th Ave, Johnston, IA 50131 

Hours: Open Tuesday – Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Iowa Goldstar Museum is located within Camp Dodge and is a great place to learn about Iowa’s military history. The entire museum has exhibits that illustrate Iowa’s military in the past, today, and future. This is a fun experience for the whole family.

Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum

Address: 33158 Ute Avenue, Waukee, IA, 50263

Hours: Open Monday – Friday 1 to 4 p.m.

Everyone is welcome to learn more about Iowa’s Jewish Heritage at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum located in the Bucksbaum Arts Wing of The Caspe Terrace. Appointments can be made by calling (515) 987-0899 ext. 216 or emailing ijhs@jewishdesmoines.org.

Iowa State Capitol

Address: 1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50319

Hours: Monday – Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m and Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Take in a historical landmark, the state capitol building with a self-guided or formal tour. You will be able to see where the House and Senate have their sessions, visit the beautiful library that has a spiral staircase, and if you are 6 years or older you can walk around the dome. The Iowa State Capitol building is the only five-domed capitol. Learn more and book a tour!

Jester Park

Address: 12130 NW 128th St · Granger, IA 50109

Jester Park is a great place to experience the outdoors just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Jester Park offers so many great experiences including a nature center with interactive exhibits and free events, hiking trails, boulder climbing, archery, snowshoe rental, bison and elk, natural playscape, camping, and so much more. Plan an entire day experiencing the outdoors for free!

Lauridsen Skatepark

Address: 901 2nd Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50309

Hours: Open 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily

Lauridsen Skatepark also referred to as the DSM Skatepark is the largest open skatepark in the nation. People of all ages will love the low bowl, amoeba pool, snake run, and a skateable art piece entitled WOW. Lauridsen Skatepark regularly hosts special events such as the Dew Tour. You do not need a skateboard to enjoy the skate park. Many ride bikes, scooters, or rollerblades/skates. Make sure you wear a helmet!

Movie Under the Stars

Popular summer activity is catching a movie under the stars. Many communities offer free movies outdoors in the parks during the Summer months. Grab your lawn chairs, blankets, and snacks, and put your PJs on. This is a fun way to experience your local park and meet friends in the Des Moines community.

Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Address: 1330 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50309

Hours: Open Sunrise to Midnight

If you drive through downtown Des Moines it is more than likely you have driven by Western Gateway Park which includes the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. This beautiful, outdoor space offers over two dozen works of art ready for you to explore. Explore the pieces yourself or follow the walking path and audio tour guide by calling 515-657-8264. This is also a fun space to have a picnic, let the kids roll down the hills, or ride their bikes or scooters. Many times throughout the year you can catch an art festival or music festival in the area.

Places to get wet

Address: Locations all over the Des Moines Metro 

If you are looking for somewhere to cool off for free and want to avoid the water park during the Summer months, head to one of the many splash pads and wading pools. They are located all over the Des Moines metro. Check out the entire list.

Raccoon River Park 

Address: 2500 Grand Ave, West Des Moines, IA, 50265 

Raccoon River Park is another large park located on the west side of the city in West Des Moines. They offer a large dog park for your furry friends to play, a playground, a swimming beach, bike trails, fishing, you can rent kayaks, and more. It is a great place to enjoy all the outdoor fun things.

Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Address: Located along the Des Moines River just south of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens is located along the banks of the Des Moines River on the Principal Riverwalk. It offers stone pagodas, lanterns, carved Chinese characters, and sculptural rock formations. It is a fun way for families to capture a small glimpse into the far East.

Saylorville Lake

Address: 8250 NW Horseshoe Rd, Polk City, IA, 50226 

The Saylorville Lake offers a ton of hiking trails and bike paths including the Neal Smith Trail along the lake. After you have hiked or biked your way around the lake stop by the marina to enjoy the view of houseboats!

State Historical Museum of Iowa 

Address: 600 E Locust Street, Des Moines, IA 50319

Hours: Open Tuesday – Friday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The State Historical Museum of Iowa is a little hidden gem located in the East Village. Admission is free and you can spend an entire day walking through the exhibits. Learn about the history of Iowa and what it was like thousands of years ago compared to today. If you have young children, make you stop into the Hands-On History Room which offers fun, interactive displays to keep kids busy.

Summerset Concert Series at Jasper Winery

Address: 2400 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, IA

Hours: Thursday evenings during the Summer months

This is a free event! No need to purchase wine or beer, you can bring a lawn chair and listen to live music. Pack a picnic and enjoy the evening on the beautiful Jasper Winery property. Definitely a summer favorite in Des Moines.

Valley Community Center 

Address: 4444 Fuller Rd, West Des Moines, IA, 50265

Hours: Open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Tuesday & Thursday 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Valley Community Center is owned and operated by the Valley Community Church and offers a space for families to come to play basketball, attend classes, events, and more for free. They offer an indoor play area for children 0 to 8 years of age and are a popular place to play during the cold, winter months. In addition, they offer free events including Tot Town, art classes, dance classes, and more. During the Winter they have a large outdoor skating rink that the community is invited to skate for free!

Visit a Farmers’ Market

Des Moines offers many community farmers’ markets including the biggest of them all the Downtown Farmers Market. Walk through and browse vendors, listen to live music, and sock up on fresh fruit and vegetables if you want! Nothing beats fresh produce from local vendors. The Downtown Farmers’ Market is held every Saturday morning beginning in May through October in the historic court district.

Water Works Park and Amphitheater

Address: 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, IA, 50321

Hours: Open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Water Works Park is located directly across the street from Gray’s Lake Park making this entire area full of outdoor fun! Water Works Park offers 1500 acres of open wooded areas and is home to the Arie den Boer Crabapple Arboretum which has one of the world’s largest collections of flowering crabapple trees. This park is a popular spot for picnics and family pictures! One of our favorite attractions within the park is the Reichardt Family Natural Play Area which offers hours of fun for kids to play and climb.

World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

Address: 100 Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309 

Hours: Guided Tours only at this time; Tuesday 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12 p.m., and 1:30 p.m. 

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is a tribute to the Nobel Peace Prize winner and World Food Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug. The museum was created to recognize great achievements in agriculture and fighting hunger.

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Jackie Fioritto

Jackie Fioritto

Hi, I’m Jackie. I am a teacher who recently became a stay-at-home mother of two. My husband and I moved to Des Moines from Green Bay, Wisconsin a few years ago. Originally, I am from Chicago, Illinois. My family has loved exploring Des Moines and all that it has to offer!

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