Union Park is a 51-acre park in Des Moines, full of nostalgia and fun for all ages! Unique park highlights include a working carousel, formal gardens, and a splash pool. But that’s not all – visitors also enjoy the green space, playgrounds, picnic areas, and more.
A Brief History of Union Park
The area around Union Park was once called Thompson’s Bend, so named after the original landowners. The City of Des Moines bought 27 acres from the Thompson family and established Union Park in 1894. And in the early years, it had an aviary, pavilion, and greenhouse.
In the 1970s, a rocket slide got installed and became a favorite among kids. And then, in 1998, a historic carousel came to Union Park, thanks to Buz Brenton of the Des Moines Heritage Carousel Association. The association worked with the city council on an operating agreement. As a result, the carousel now offers tens of thousands of rides to kids each year.
The historic park entrance underwent restoration in 2012. And formal gardens have always been a part of the park, and you can still stroll through them today.
Things to Do at Union Park
Ride the Heritage Carousel
Heritage Carousel is a nostalgic, turn-of-the-century replica carousel, complete with band organ music! It’s worth stopping for a ride on one of 30 animals (or chariots) on this 37-foot, 3-row wood carousel. Another great feature is its wheelchair accessibility.
Not only is the carousel fun, but it’s a fantastic work of art! Carousel animals are all hand-carved and painted. Plus, it features paintings of landmarks around the Des Moines area, like the Botanical Garden and the Salisbury House.
Cost to ride:
- $1 for adults
- 50 cents for kids (adults standing beside small children ride free).
- Season passes, wristbands, punch cards, and tokens are available for frequent riders.
Hours of operation:
- Memorial Weekend – August (when school starts): Tuesday – Sunday, 11 am – 7 pm.
- Late August – September, open on weekends only.
- Available for private rental.
Adopt an animal!
To keep rides affordable, the Des Moines Carousel Foundation relies on donations. Adopting (and naming!) carousel animals, you can help them out! For more ways to contribute, see the website.
See the Heritage Carousel of Des Moines website for more information on the carousel.
Play at the playgrounds
A visit to the Union Park Rocket Slide is a must. And other play structures around the park are fun for all ages.
Cool off at the splash pool
The zero-depth entry splash pool and pad with sprinklers are on the park’s north end. Not only that, but it’s near the carousel and other playgrounds, so the kids can have a ton of fun. Did we mention it’s free!? For hours, see the city’s website.
Explore the gardens
A formal garden with several planted areas is on the park’s southeast side (between Thompson and E. 9th). Stroll through the gardens during the summer months to see what plants are blooming. Or sit on one of the many benches and enjoy the surroundings. You can also rent the area for your next event!
Make a game of tennis part of your visit to Union Park! The tennis court is on the park’s north side (Guthrie Ave), near the splash pool.
Have a picnic
Union Park is a beautiful place to picnic. There’s so much to do and see there you’ll want to pack a lunch or grill dinner. Picnic benches are in several areas at the park.
The open-air shelter can be reserved and is otherwise first-come, first-serve. There are also two enclosed shelters available by reservation. For more on rentals, see the Des Moines Park Shelters page.
Winter activities at Union Park
Sled down the hill on the park’s west side! You can also cross country ski through the park’s green space or explore the park on snowshoes. Snowshoe rentals are available at Birdland Marina at Captain Roy’s.
Things to Do Nearby
Birdland Park & Marina are west of Union Park at 2100 Saylor Road. The 60+ slip marina and Ding Darling Shelter are two of the most visited spots. Plus, Neal Smith Trail runs through the park (see below). And be sure to stop at Captain Roy’s for food, drinks, and fun.
Neal Smith Trail is a popular trail just west of Union Park. The 25-mile trail extends from Des Moines north to the Saylorville Lake area to Big Creek State Park!
Riverview Park is a unique spot just 1½ miles northwest of Union Park. Its history, amusement park-themed play structures, and outdoor concert venue make it one of the more unique Des Moines parks.
Des Moines Botanical Garden is 2½ miles south of Union Park (accessible by trail!). It’s a living museum with lush indoor and outdoor gardens and many plant collections. The good news is that it’s open year-round!
Principal Riverwalk is just south of the Des Moines Botanical Garden, near Downtown Des Moines. It’s a one-mile loop trail with excellent views of the river and (so) many great places to explore. From there, you can see the Botanical Garden, Asian Gardens, Rotary Park, and more. See our article on the Principal Riverwalk for details.
The north section of the Des Moines River water trail ends just west of the park at Birdland Marina. Start upriver at Cottonwood Recreation Area or the Euclid Bridge (park at Polk Co. River Place) and take out at the marina. Kayak rentals are available through Quarry Springs Outfitters at Captain Roy’s.
Visit Union Park today!
Union Park is at 725 Thompson Ave, Des Moines, IA 50316.