For some people, Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer and the winding down of bike season. Well, I’m not heading to the pain cave any time soon. So this year, I decided to check off a bucket list ride in Iowa. It’s been about five years since I’ve been eyeing Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, Raccoon River Valley Trail. But making the 5 ½ hour drive from Chicago, Illinois, to Grimes, Iowa, for one trail seemed silly, so I combined it with two other paths to make it a “Three Trails in Three Days” event.
All three trails I selected were rails to trails but what is unusual is they are all paved. My experience in the past has typically been that these trails were primarily crushed limestone. Even though these three are paved, I decided to take my Trek Domane with Panaracer Gravelking tubeless tires. I figured we wouldn’t be going for speed on this trip, just comfort. My friend was riding a Trek Domane with 700×25 tubed road tires.
High Trestle Trail
We left Chicago on Thursday morning, planning to be at our hotel in Grimes around 4 p.m., change into our cycling gear, and head to Woodward, a small town at one end of the High Trestle Trail and only 2.6 miles from the trestle. The town is quaint, with one gas station, two restaurants, and very nice trailhead facilities with ample parking, bathroom facilities, and historical information.
This was my third time riding the High Trestle Trail, and I always plan to be there at sunset. However, I had a blond moment and read my Garmin watch wrong. I thought sunset was at 6:45 pm instead of 7:45 pm. Then, with extra time on our hands, we took pictures of the trestle in daylight, including the overlook on the west side, for a fantastic view of the bridge and the Des Moines River below. After pictures, we continued riding the out and back trail planning to be back at the trestle for the sunset. As we traveled east, we ran into the local high school’s boy’s cross country meet and shared the trail with them for a short bit.
Continuing to ride east, there are trail side restaurants perfect for a meal, ice cream, or beer. The whole trail is 30 miles and has relatively little elevation gain. It is ideally suited for recumbents and families with kids or burleys because of its wide concert surface and ease of pedaling.
We only rode 10 miles out before turning around. Thunderstorms were forecasted, and we didn’t want to get caught crossing the trestle in a lightning storm. By the time we got to the east end of the trestle, the skies were black to the south but peaks of blue to the north. So we kept an eye on the radar that was constantly changing. Then, as it started to rain, we headed to a small picnic shelter just to the east and waited out the rain. Mother Nature rewarded us by painting a double rainbow. During a 20-minute rain delay, the rainbow got more intense as if an olive branch from Mother Nature apologizing for almost ruining what we came to experience—an amazing sunset.
The rain kept away all but one couple from Omaha and their two dogs. We chatted, took pictures, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset as the blue light installation came on across the bridge. This is always a highlight of my trip to the Grimes area, and I highly recommend it.
The radar was threatening rain again, so we pedaled quickly the 2.6 miles back to Woodward. But just before getting to the car, there was a gap in the trees and I caught the picture below.
History of the High Trestle Trail
The half-mile bridge rises 13 stories high and is the fifth largest in the world. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific originally owned the trestle. The Milwaukee segment was abandoned in the late 1970s, while the C&NW route passed into the hands of Union Pacific and then was abandoned in the mid-2000s to form today’s trail. Most of the trail was then paved in 2008.
High Trestle Trail Resources
Raccoon River Valley Trail
The Raccoon River Valley Trail is a unique rail-trail because it is a loop instead of the typical out-and-back design. There are 89 miles of paved (concrete or asphalt) trail, composed of a 70-mile loop with two spurs totaling 19 additional miles. The northern spur heads to Jefferson, while the southern spur goes towards Des Moines. Along the trail are 14 towns where you can refuel for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and grab a beer or an ice cream.
Our ride started at the Dallas Center trailhead, a ten-minute drive from our hotel in Grimes. There was plenty of parking, bathrooms, a bike tool stand, water, and a place to pay a trail fee of $2/day for persons over 18.
For no particular reason, I picked a counter-clockwise direction, and almost immediately, corn and soybean fields flanked the path for miles. The crops must have attracted thousands of kamikaze grasshoppers flying every which way and littered the trail. We could hear them hitting our spokes and legs, and I even got one between my face and sunglasses. At first, we tried gallantly to avoid running them over but eventually gave up because of their sheer numbers. I’m confident the farmers were happy with fewer critters eating their crops.
Aside from the grasshoppers, we noticed how pristine the trail was, as if a street sweeper cleaned the trail every morning. Even when the cement trail crossed a gravel farm road, there wasn’t a single stone on the path. Crazy! I believe a lot of the credit can go to the groups that “adopt” sections of the trail.
As we pedaled near the town of Cooper, we came across a 600-foot-long trestle bridge over the North Raccoon River. The iron and wood trestle was still visible, but unfortunately, a black chainlink fence was constructed, which detracts from its historic beauty.
Next, we came to the town of Perry, which embraces cycling tourism. At the trailhead, a giant bicycle dwarfed even my 60cm frame. It lights up at night as bulbs are visible around the wheels. There were also huge decorative planters, historical kiosks, and a make shifted weathervane made of bike parts.
Somewhere after the town of Jamacia, the smooth concrete path turns to asphalt, with some areas nicer than others. But, most had tar snakes and seams that ran perpendicular to the trail, which caused bumps as we rode. A payoff for enduring the bumps was increased shade and wooded areas. For this section, a gravel bike was a better choice.
I planned our lunch stop at the halfway point (36 miles) in Panora. Unfortunately, the place that all the websites recommended was permanently closed. But we stumbled upon Crafty’s, which I highly recommend. Family owned and seems to be the place locals frequent, plus the air conditioning felt great. The weather was a sunny 95, and we needed to cool down. I had a turkey, brie, and fig panini with a smoothie, which we ate alfresco at one of their sidewalk tables. This way, we could watch the bikes while we ate. Both the sandwich and smoothie hit the spot. After filling our hydration packs, we continued on our ride.
At mile 65, was the town of Adel, where just half a block off the trail was Billie’s Ice Cream Store. A root beer float and a huge glass of ice water were the tickets to help bring down my internal temperature and rehydrate me.
The final turn was in the town of Waukee, where the trailhead was a cool art installation, along with a detailed trail map, restrooms, etc. Just before arriving at Dallas Center and completing our journey, there was the obligatory giant chair where we posed for one last picture. We arrived at the car around 5 pm and decided to go a few more blocks to The Handlebar restaurant. We parked our bikes at the rack along with other riders and sat on the porch to eat dinner. They carry an assortment of beers, but I abstained since I worried about the drive back to Grimes after such a hot day. Yep, I’m a lightweight; revoke my cyclist card.
We purposely took our time on the Raccoon trail to take in the sights. Our moving average was only 14.2 mph, but the day wasn’t about speed; it was about the experience.
There is work on a connector between the Raccoon River Valley and High Trestle trails, making this destination ride even better.
History of the Raccoon River Valley Trail
The Des Moines Western Railroad Company became part of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad. In 1881, the line opened as a narrow-gauge railroad, and then a decade later, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad widened it to standard gauge. The Raccoon River Valley Trail runs along a former railroad.
The first section of the Raccoon River Valley Trail opened on Oct. 7, 1989, with a 34-mile route completed in 1990 from Waukee to Yale. Today it is a multi-use path used year-round, including in the winter for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Raccoon River Valley Trail Resources:
Great River Trail
To break up the drive home, we stopped just on the Iowa-Illinois border in Rapids City, IL, along the Mississippi River. We only covered a short section of the 63-mile Great River Trail, heading 15 miles north before dark clouds forced us to turn back.
The trail starts in Savanna, IL, in the north and ends in Rock Island, IL, in the south. The section of the trail we rode meandered like the river. Sometimes we were right next to the river riding atop the levee seeing paddle boats and barges float past. Then other times, the trail parallels busy IL-84 using a dedicated bike lane, through neighborhood streets, or an evergreen forest.
I counted five different path surfaces over the 15 miles, from concrete to asphalt to chip & seal. The two previous trails spoiled us as this section of the Great River had a lot of cracks, bumps, and debris. It’s a shame because there was numerous cyclists on the section we were riding. I have the impression that each town is responsible for building and maintaining its portion of the trail. Some did a better job than others and I was happy to have wider tubeless tires for this trail; even then, it was bumpy.
History of the Great River Trail
This paved trail follows the former spur route of the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Pacific Railroad. It’s part of the 500-mile Grand Illinois Trail network in the north; in the south, it traces the American Discovery Trail, which crosses the country with a mixture of trails and on-road routes.
Great River Trail Resources
Three trails in three days made for a fabulous quick vacation. There are many more trails in Iowa, and I just scratched the surface. Wonder where I’ll venture to next? Have a favorite trail? Share it with our RBR readers in the comments below.
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women’s cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri’s full bio or visit her web site sunflowersandpedals.com.