Bicycling in Iowa
Quietly, this low-profile but ambitious state has piled on miles of trails.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists on the Raccoon River Valley Trail pass the courthouse in Adel, which appeared in the movie "Bridges of Madison County.''
For a long time, Iowa has been a great place to ride a bike.
It's not as flat as people think, and it has an excellent network of paved county roads.
RAGBRAI, a cross-state bike ride that spawned many imitators when it debuted in 1973, now is so popular that its 8,500 week-long riders, who come from 50 states and 50 countries, are chosen by lottery.
It's one of the 50 Best American Adventures, says National Geographic Traveler magazine. Sometimes, daily riders swell the crowd to 20,000.
But not many people outside the state know that Iowa also has hundreds of miles of beautifully paved bicycle trails through river valleys and along lakes.
Call it the curse of the corn field.
"It's the part of Iowa you drive through on an interstate that discourages them,'' says Anita O'Gara, development director of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which helps acquire land for trails.
So get off the interstate and try a trail — say, in the 11 counties around Des Moines, where 200 miles of trails are forming giant loops.
Just outside Yale, a doe crashed out of the brush and bounded onto freshly plowed fields.
Near Redfield, weeds erupted right out of the bike path, atop little volcanoes of soft asphalt. The rich, black earth here is among the most fertile on the planet, which is why, out of 28 million acres of Iowa’s native prairie, only a few thousand escaped the plow.
People who ride this trail pick up all kinds of interesting tidbits. Adel, a pretty town with brick streets, stood in for Des Moines during the filming of "Bridges of Madison County,’’ and its magnificent 1902 French Chateau courthouse appears in the film.
It’s not the only Iowa trail that has links to Hollywood. The 26-mile Heritage Trail out of Dubuque ends in Dyersville, just three miles from the "Field of Dreams’’ site.
I rode that trail another May, past limestone-pocked hills and a ski area while following the Little Maquoketa River.
© Beth Gauper
The Heritage Trail west of Dubuque runs through a shady valley.
From Dyersville, I rode to the movie site, where cars from five states were parked in
a lot next to the diamond, their occupants emerging with baseball gloves and video cameras.
In northern Iowa, the 15˝-mile River City Greenbelt links Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly played the night he died in a plane crash, and Mason City, setting for "The Music Man.’’
Other trails are renowned for scenery. The 63-mile Wabash Trace Nature Trail, from Council Bluffs to the Missouri border through the rare loess hills, already is being called one of the nation’s best trails.
North of Des Moines, the 26-mile Neal Smith Trail follows big Saylorville Lake into Big Creek State Park, ending at its beach.
But most trails, like the Heritage out of Dubuque and the Raccoon River, combine scenic river valleys with farmland.
Farmland usually isn’t seen as a plus, but trail regulars say it gives them a window into Iowa’s soul.
"We ride the Raccoon River trail from March through November, every weekend,’’ said Nancy Shafer of Des Moines. "We see the farmers plowing their fields, then putting in seeds. We see a little bit of green, then knee-high by the Fourth of July.
"This is rural Iowa,’’ she says. "This is what it’s all about. It’s pretty exciting.’’
Now, Iowa has a trail for everyone. There are crushed-limestone paths for walkers and people who prefer a natural appearance. There are asphalt paths for in-line skaters and people who like to ride hard.
There are paths around tourist areas, such as Pella, Okoboji, Storm Lake and the Amana Colonies.
"In the early ’80s, the Elroy-Sparta (in Wisconsin) and (Minnesota’s) Root River were really big influences on us,’’ O’Gara says. "But we have a lot of success stories in Iowa now.’’
Trip Tips: Iowa's bicycle trails
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists follow the Neal Smith Trail north of Des Moines.
Information: Bike Iowa lists bicycle tours, shops and clubs.
For user reviews of trails, check the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's TrailLink site.
Below are details on some of Iowa’s best trails. Most charge a daily fee of $1 or $2.
Des Moines area trails
Raccoon River Valley Trail: It's a 70-mile paved loop from Clive, on the west edge of Des Moines, through Adel, Redfield and Perry. On the northwest end, there's a 19-mile spur to Jefferson.
Daily fee is $2, free for youths 17 and under.
Neal Smith Trail: 26 paved miles north from Des Moines along the Des Moines River and into the popular Saylorville Lake recreation area, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Big Creek State Park. It's a popular place to swim and camp.
From Des Moines, it can be reached from the Iowa 415 exit off I-80/35; parking is to the west on Northwest 66th Avenue. Its northern trailhead can be reached from the Elkhart exit off I-35; head west and follow the signs for Big Creek State Park.
© Beth Gauper
On the north edge of Cedar Rapids, a bicyclist heads out on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
Chichaqua Valley: 20 paved miles from Bondurant, just north of Des Moines, across the Skunk River and northeast to Baxter, through three small towns.
Summerset: 12 paved miles from Carlisle, on the Des Moines River just southeast of Des Moines, to Indianola through Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park.
Great Western: 16˝ paved miles from the south edge of Des Moines south to Martensdale. In Des Moines, it connects to the Bill Riley Trail through Water Works Park.
High Trestle: 25 paved miles between Ankeny and Woodward, through Slater and Madrid. The trail is named for a 13-story-high, half-mile trestle bridge over the Des Moines River east of Woodward.
It's covered by 41 art frames that evoke the supports of a coal mine that once operated nearby. On its eastern end, the High Trestle connects to the Heart of Iowa Trail in Slater.
Eastern Iowa trails
Trout Run Trail: 11-mile loop around Decorah, along the Upper Iowa River and Trout Run Creek and past the fish hatchery where the famous Decorah eagles nest. It's beautiful, lined with art works and flat except for the south section, which uses switchbacks to climb hills.
Cedar Valley Nature Trail:
52 miles between Evansdale, just south of Waterloo, to Hiawatha, north
of Cedar Rapids. The 16 miles south of Evansdale and four miles north
of Hiawatha are paved; the rest is finely crushed limestone.
Cedar Valley Lakes Trail Network: 120 paved miles around Cedar Falls and Waterloo, connecting to parks and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
Heritage Trail: 26 miles of crushed limestone between Sageville, just north of Dubuque, and Dyersville in northeast Iowa. The easternmost 12 miles, along the Little Maquoketa River, are most scenic.
Prairie Farmer: 20 paved miles through native prairie between Calmar and Cresco, through Ridgeway, in northeast Iowa. The trail was named for a radio show.
Wapsi-Great Western Line: 18 partly paved miles from Riceville along the Wapsipinicon River valley to the Minnesota border.
Its northern trailhead is seven miles west of the eastern trailhead of Minnesota's paved, 15-mile Shooting Star State Trail between Adams and Leroy on the Iowa border.
The High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines is named for a spectacular bridge.
Western Iowa trails
Wabash Trace Nature Trail: 63 miles of crushed limestone between Council Bluffs and Blanchard in southwest Iowa. The northern part of the trail connects to the Loess Hills, a geological formation of windblown glacial silt found only in Iowa and China.
Combine a ride with a drive on the 220-mile Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, which roughly follows the Missouri River.
Iowa Great Lakes Trail: 14 paved miles from Mini-Wakan State Park on the north edge of Big Spirit Lake south to Milford, past Okoboji Lake and Arnolds Park. Another 11 miles follow the west edge of West Okoboji Lake and the east side of Spirit Lake.
Sauk Rail Trail: 33 paved miles from Black Hawk State Park to Swan Lake Park near Carroll in western Iowa.
Three Rivers: 33 miles of crushed limestone, including 36 railway bridges, between Rolfe and Eagle Grove, north of Fort Dodge. The section from Rolfe to Humboldt follows the West Fork of the Des Moines River.
T-Bone: 21 paved miles from Albert the Bull Park in Audubon along the Nishnabotna River through Hamlin, Exira and Brayton to Atlantic.
RAGBRAI, The Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is held the last full week in July. The ride is hosted by the Des Moines Register (the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Around Iowa).
It draws 20,000 or more riders, many of whom come from around the nation and world to partake of the hospitality offered by Iowa's small towns.
For more, see Sightseeing by bicycle.
Last updated on October 29, 2020