Rails to Trails in Western Iowa by Dan Gudahl
This past Sunday Chris Van Roekel and I rode from Waukee to Coon Rapids on our bikes. We have been exploring different rails to trails locations each Sunday for the past month in western Iowa. Sunday’s ride from the outskirts of Des Moines to Coon Rapids (51 miles) has been on my list to accomplish. This was a practice run for next week’s Riding to Retirement Sunday activity where we plan to ride from Herndon to Herndon - the whole Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) loop which is about 70 miles.
Over the past few weekends we have ridden the Sauk Rail trail and lake loops, the T-Bone trail round trip, the Wabash Trace trail from Shenandoah to Council Bluffs, and the E-63 American Discovery trail and RRVT trail to Jefferson as conditioning rides. Besides getting all my body parts in shape for the Ride to Retirement next week, the exploration of these rails to trails bike paths has been educational and fun. I’d like to share some of what I have learned from these experiences.
1. There is a nice parking lot in Herndon that includes good signage and a bike repair station. From Herndon the ride north takes you to Jefferson via Cooper. The ride south goes to Panora and Waukee.
There is a gate at the parking lot in Herndon where the rail line used to go west. For many years many people have been working on getting some momentum going to push the RRVT west. There has been a bike tunnel under Highway 4 for years. But one land owner in particular near Herndon has not given permission for the trail to go west. There is a work around in the works for the trail to circumvent this uncooperative landowner’s property in Herndon so the RRVT can continue west to Bagley and Bayard. However, more momentum is needed in order to make progress.
As an option, going north about a mile from Herndon you can turn left on a gravel road and take this for about a mile until reaching E 63 which is also part of the American Discovery Trail. This is a smooth but hilly and straight 14 mile ride to Coon Rapids. Check the wind forecast before you start your ride or you might end up getting discouraged. Riding from Des Moines to Whiterock, camping out, then riding back to Des Moines is easily doable and mileage-wise is similar to a RAGBRAI day’s worth of miles each way.
2. The Wabash Trace trail which we rode from Shenandoah to Council Bluffs is packed gravel. The surface is nice to ride on and almost the whole trail is tree lined. However, you will notice the engineering features of railroad construction when having to tackle a long 3% uphill grade. Malvern is a wonderful place to stop and visit the Art Church and have a beverage at one of the local stops.
3. The T Bone trail and the ride to Jefferson and along E63 have nothing to offer when it comes to open restaurants or bars along the way. The Jefferson Depot does have a nice restroom and the T Bone has a restroom near Albert the Bull trail head location. It is especially important to bring water, re-hydration drinks and energy bars when riding these trails!
4. One of the most enjoyable parts of these rides, at least for me, is the stops along the way. If businesses focused on trail users are open, I try to stop and buy something and take a short rest. On RRVT, it is easy enough to stop every 10 miles or so which breaks up the ride and makes riding the whole 70 mile loop less daunting and much more of an adventure.
5. RRVT is for the most part a double wide cement bike path. It is well marked and very smooth…much easier to ride than packed gravel. Waukee is a fast growing city and the trail head when we were there was full of cars. Riding north through Perry and on to Jamaica, the trail users thinned out but there were still half a dozen bike riders enjoying a socially distanced beverage at Just 1 More in Jamaica when we passed by. As urban areas grow in Des Moines, RRVT will only become more popular and utilized. Chris has a bike bell which he will ding to let people know when you are coming up on them from behind. This is useful as it gives people a clear warning without scaring them!
6. All the trails we rode were well maintained and free from litter. Volunteer crews worked hard to clear RRVT from tree debris from the recent wind storm. There is still a bridge under construction on the RRVT between Redfield and Adel but the detour is on hard surface roads and not too difficult.
Overall these trails are Iowa treasures but there are still many more trail projects that need support and volunteers. Connecting the RRVT to places west and on to Council Bluffs is a worthy and worthwhile goal that will help support small communities along the way and make new adventures available for those who like to get out doors!
Come join me next week, Sept.6 2020 as I attempt to ride the RRVT loop from Herndon to Herndon starting at 8 a.m. If you can’t do the whole loop, you can join me in Panora by 9 a.m., Redfield by 10 a.m., Adel by 11 a.m. Dallas Center for lunch at the Handle Bar by a little after 12 noon… Then Perry by 2 p.m., Jamaica by 3 p.m. and finish up at Herndon by 4 p.m. or so.