They say that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If you’re visiting Greater Des Moines to prepare for the IRONMAN North American Championship in June, then you’re in luck, because we’ve got tons of opportunities to catch all the can’t miss stuff that will make your trip an unforgettable one.
Whether you’re here to check out the courses, make a splash around Gray’s Lake, or to get some insight into your spectator strategy, we’re here to make sure you’re properly hydrated and loaded with carbs. We’ve outlined some of our favorite spots along the bike and running courses, as well as the downtown hot spots near the finish line. Pro tips and happy hours galore, so you’ll never hit the wall.
Please note that there is no swimming outside the buoys allowed at Gray’s Lake prior to race day and there are sections of the bike course that have heavy traffic. Please obey rules of the road while riding, and we recommend driving the bike course and riding parts of our more than 800 miles of recreational trails!
Can’t Miss Bites and Sips on the Bike Course:
Beans and Beignets Coffee and Café
Located in charming Earlham, Iowa, Beans and Beignets Coffee and Café is a little slice of Southern comfort just off the bike course. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the real star of the show is Great Aunt Amy’s Beignets (Ben-yay, indeed.) Available in traditional, cinnamon and sugar, and lemon. Pairs well with the best cup of coffee in Earlham, and ice cream, naturally.
The Chicken in Orilla, Iowa is a classic roadhouse joint located right off the Great Western bike trail. You’ll see plenty of local cyclists and they’ll happily chat with you about the IRONMAN bike course, cycling in our community, and their favorite post-ride brew (Pro tip: Confluence Long Ride is both delicious and aptly named). Specializing in, you guessed it, chicken, they have everything from chicken and waffles to Nashville (and Iowa) hot chicken. And don’t sleep on the homemade cheese curds, served with marinara and ranch.
The Iowa Distilling Company
You’ll want to be going to Cumming, home to about 700 human ears, but about a million ears of corn. All the better to make delicious bourbon, which you’ll find by the barrel at Iowa Distilling Company. Stop by for a sip of not only their bourbon but other popular spirits made in-house like Prairie Fire cinnamon whiskey, Zone Vodka, Steel Drum Rum, and Country Gal Moonshine.
The two best things to come out of Norwalk? Jason Momoa and Pyra Pizza. Load up on some post-ride carbs with their authentic Neapolitan wood fried pizzas, including the Grand Prix (sausage, roasted red peppers, black olives, fresh mozzarella). Named after the settlement just south of Des Moines that became Norwalk, the restaurant has been around 120 years and with pizza this good, we look forward to the next 120.
Explore the Bike Course through Madison County:
Bridges of Madison County
If Madison County rings a bell, it's because their famous bridges have been popularized in a best-selling novel and movie directed by Clint Eastwood. The IRONMAN bike course rides through Madison County, where you can find all six bridges and countless cool photo ops. Even if weepy melodramas aren’t your thing, this is a really cool slice of Americana. Find a map of the bridges here.
Birthplace of John Wayne
Speaking of Americana, be sure to spend some time at the birthplace of The Duke himself, John Wayne. Also located in Winterset, just a stone's throw from the bridges, there is a house and a museum, both open seven days a week from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., with self-guided tours and staff available to answer questions.
Howell’s Greenhouse and Pumpkin Patch
If the family is coming along for your spring training, be sure to send them to Howell’s Greenhouse and Pumpkin Patch in Cumming. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t technically pumpkin season, there’s still plenty to explore, including a greenhouse, garden center, farmyard playground, and the real star of the show, baby goats. Your cuddles await.
Things to Check Out Along the Run Course:
Pappajohn Sculpture Park￼
Located in the heart of downtown Des Moines, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is home to more than 30 pieces from internationally acclaimed artists spread out over 4.4 acres, making it the crown jewel of Western Gateway Park. Pack a picnic, toss a frisbee, or just soak in the beauty of all the art, including the Nomade, one of the most selfied spots in the state.
Historic Court Avenue District
The Historic Court Avenue District is the buzzy, centrally located downtown district that is full of fun things to do. Prime among them is the Downtown Farmers’ Market, named the #2 farmers’ market in the country, attracting 25,000 people every Saturday morning for the meals, music, murals, and mutts. (Pro tip: FM vendor Pepper Harrow Farm from Madison County has the best flower bouquets in the state!) Even beyond the market, there are cool bars and restaurants for every taste!
El Bait Shop
Looking to hydrate (and carb load) after the run? Head over to El Bait Shop, whose 262 beers on draft make it the biggest selection West of the Mississippi. Pair a brew with one of their old-school comfort food meals like meatloaf or a pizza burger. If you’re more “old man beer” than “craft beer,” walk across the hall to the High Life Lounge, where you can get the same old school food, but paired with decidedly old school beers that would make grandpa proud.
On June 12, Locust Street will be lined with spectators, cowbells, and high fives. Until then, it will be lined with its usual array of award-winning restaurants, including Django (French), Americana (upscale American), Proof (fine dining), and Ritual Café (lunch).
Family Options While You Train:
Two blocks from the finish line, the Science Center of Iowa is the place for the kids to have fun and learn something while they’re at it. With permanent exhibits like Why the Sky? (space), Brick by Brick (LEGO), and What on Earth (zoology/geology), along with a host of cool traveling exhibits, it brings learning to life.
Living History Farms
We’re not all farms, but the ones we do have are pretty epic. This interactive, 500-acre outdoor museum has four different farms that tell the story of Iowa’s 300-year-old history. Tour a 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, 1850 Pioneer Farm, 1900 Horse Powered Farm, and the 1876 Town of Walnut Hill. At the farms, you’ll find everything from milking cows to a blacksmith shop to old-timey baseball games. It’s literally acres of fun.
Des Moines Children’s Museum
Not too far from part of the bike course in Valley West Mall is the Des Moines Children’s Museum. With fun activities like a play farm, craft area, and The Floor is Lava adventure, it’s a great place for the kids to burn off some steam.
Blank Park Zoo
Lions and tigers and red pandas, oh my! This 49-acre zoo on the south side of the city includes exhibits such as tigers, seals, lions, giraffes (that you can feed!), lemurs, red pandas, and rhinos (including a recent addition, baby Kamara). With add-ons like train rides, face painting, a carousel, and camel rides, we’re not lion when we say the fun is almost unbearable. Ok, we’ll stop.
Gray’s Lake Park
This is where you’ll swim on race day! This urban oasis in the heart of the city has a two-mile trail around the lake with illuminated bridges and a view of the skyline. It’s the perfect place for a stroll, swim, or a beach day. Please note — you are not allowed to swim outside the buoys prior to race day as lifeguards are not on duty.
Water Works Park
As one of America’s largest urban parks (fun fact – it's larger than Central Park in NYC), Water Works Park is home to the transition for IRONMAN Des Moines. With the Reichardt Family Natural Play Area and over 1500 acres to explore, it’s an excellent option for biking, jogging, fishing, hiking, or whatever is your outdoor adventure of choice.
Get ready to shop ‘til you drop at all the different shopping options around the course! Visit Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines for the largest shopping and entertainment district in the state. If boutiques and vintage finds are more your thing, you’ll want to check out the hip East Village (called “the closet thing to Brooklyn Iowa has ever seen”), the boutique shops in Winterset, or the famous West End Salvage; a one-of-kind salvage shop that had its own HGTV show and is a favorite of Des Moines native Jason Momoa whenever he’s in town.
June is Pride Month, and IRONMAN is the same weekend as the annual Pride Fest! Capital City Pride hosts their 44th annual festival celebrating the LGBTQ+ community! Enjoy events all weekend long including: silent discos, pet parades, drag shows, and more! Plus, two headlining acts, Matt and Kim, an indie punk duo, as well as Todrick Hall, who is known for being on Broadway, as well as in “Ru-Paul’s Drag Race”. Take a chance to explore the festival while you're in town!
Take your family to enjoy a show at the Des Moines Civic Center! Riverdance, a show about Irish and International Dance, will be in town throughout IRONMAN weekend. Plus, Des Moines Performing Arts is offering IRONMAN visitors a special discount! Use code IRONMAN to get $10 off tickets (four ticket max) for the Friday evening show, as well as both Saturday shows. Dance the weekend away with a viewing of Riverdance!
Check out these links for additional recommendations and options: