As a Cleveland native who transplanted to Des Moines about 12 years ago, I was vaguely familiar with something called RAGBRAI, a bicycle event that happens every summer. But I didn’t know much about the biking amenities and culture in the city and state.
What would the vast corn and soy fields in “flat” Iowa hold for me? Was I moving to a world of country dirt roads and uninspiring landscapes? I had my favorite Ohio trails through the Cleveland Metroparks, along the lakefront in my old neighborhood, and in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Riding my bike or hiking through those areas was a big part of my recreational lifestyle.
Was I giving up my riverside and lakeside trails, with their cool breezes and shade, for unending sun and humidity? What cycling amenities could a “flyover” city and state offer this avid cyclist and outdoors type?
Turns out, quite a lot. And offering more every year.
Learning to fly
There are dedicated cycling trails in abundance across Iowa and bike lanes sprouting up regularly all across the Des Moines metro area. The Iowa DOT, Travel Iowa, Bike Iowa (who claims about 286 trails covering 2,417 miles in the state), and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation all have trail-related resources for cyclists.
The High Trestle Trail is “the shining star of Iowa’s trail system … running for 25 miles through five towns and four counties. The trail includes an iconic, 1/2-mile, 13-story high bridge across the Des Moines River valley, one of the largest trail bridges in the world.” It’s an impressive sight, providing an expansive view of the Des Moines River valley as you soar above it on this massive bridge with plenty of bump-outs to take in the view (and stay out of the way of other cyclists).
With so many rail trails and trails that follow rivers, biking is often through shaded areas or cooled by the winds blowing along the river — even in the most humid times of an Iowa summer. And the relative flatness — and continuous biking trails — is quite an asset to speeding along at a fast pace. Traffic, traffic lights, and long slogs up hills rarely slow you down.
Runnin’ down a dream
For those less into two wheels and more into exploring on two feet, head upstream from the High Trestle Trail to Ledges State Park. The park boasts many scenic hiking trails through the “canyons” and bluffs, and while they may not be grand canyons, the terrain is still interesting. Similarly interesting hiking terrain can be found along the rivers that border our state, whether through the Loess Hills along the Missouri or the Mines of Spain near Dubuque — both within a couple hours of centrally located Des Moines. It’s pretty easy to get out and explore the biking and hiking trails across the state on just a day trip from central Iowa.
One of my other favorite parks is Palisades-Kepler State Park, outside of Cedar Rapids, which has a nice network of trails to explore. This shady park along the Cedar River offers a lot of outdoor activities, with nary a cornfield in sight.
Of course, on all of the trails I’ve mentioned you’ll find walkers, hikers, bikers, skaters, runners, and others enjoying the outdoor life. And since people are generally “Iowa nice,” trail etiquette is very good.
I won’t back down
While most of my trail riding has been limited to central Iowa (and even just to the Des Moines area), since I just like to get on my bike and go, there are a few places across the state that look like great places to bike that I haven’t explored yet. For example, there’s a 67-mile trail that runs roughly between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids: the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. The Raccoon River Valley Trail sprawls an impressive 89 miles, with a 72-mile loop that allows you to see something different on the way back. And while I’ve walked across the fascinating S-shaped Bob Kerrey bridge that connects Council Bluffs and Omaha, I’ve yet to explore the bike trails of these border cities.
There are countless other interesting trails and country roads across the state. And every July the entire state becomes one giant bike trail from river to river: RAGBRAI. I’m sure I’ll participate in this rolling festival of eating, drinking, and exploring Iowa one of these years.
Another nice thing about the trail network in Central Iowa is the bike repair stations that have cropped up along all of the trails, complete with tethered tools and pumps in case you need some trailside repairs. But more often than not, cycling increases your hunger and thirst. Which leads me to the nicest thing about biking around Iowa: the amazing trailside food, beverage, and brewery network. Whether it’s the Nite Hawk in Slater along the High Trestle Trail, Confluence Brewing here in Des Moines with its numerous bike racks and outdoor beer garden, or the Cumming Tap along the Great Western Trail (where you’ll find taco Tuesdays and grill-your-own steak nights), you’re never too far away from refreshment.
Our “unofficial” agency bike ride each year always finds time to stop at the local watering holes. And nothing stands in our way … even downed trees!
In my 12 years here in Iowa, the expansion of the trail system has been impressive. The upkeep and amenities along them continue to improve. While I’m not sure that I’ll ever ride all 2,400+ miles of trails (and counting), I sure am going to try. An avid cyclist friend of mine from Cleveland recently visited and remarked on how widespread the biking lifestyle is here in Iowa, and how different it is from back home.
It definitely was an unexpected benefit when I moved here and continues to be a welcome perk of living here. I can’t wait to see where future trails will take me.