Writing new chapters for Central Iowa trails

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The world famous High Trestle Trail provides bikers and hikers breathtaking views of the Des Moines River Valley.

Nearly 40 years ago the Central Iowa trail network got its start with the establishment of the Bill Riley Trail. This short trail links Waterworks Park with Greenwood Park and the neighborhoods near the Des Moines Art Center and the former Science Center of Iowa location. It was a modest beginning named after the famous Iowa State Fair talent scout and television personality who loved trails.

Today the network of trails in central Iowa has grown to include local neighborhood trails
as well as long distance regional trails stretching in all directions. The current plan envisions the regional spine extending 70 miles west to Whiterock Conservancy, 45 miles southeast to Lake Red Rock, 80 miles northeast to Pine Lake State Park, 25 miles south to Lake Ahquabi, as well as existing connections to Jefferson, Martensdale and Ames.

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Cyclists ride the Raccoon River Valley Trail near Redfield. The RRVT is 89 total miles with a 72-mile interior loop.

The exciting part of this work is the amazing trail loops that have evolved. An eastern metro loop plan was begun in 1995 linking Chichaqua Valley Trail with the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail and the Neal Smith Trail. Large sections of this eastern loop are completed, but in the meantime, a western loop that will connect Neal Smith Trail with the High Trestle Trail and Raccoon River Valley Trail is underway. Finally, Central Iowa trail network is currently pursuing a third major loop linking the Great Western Trail to the Summerset Trail and back into downtown Des Moines.

This interconnected system central Iowans enjoy didn’t happen by accident. It has taken sincere dedication, planning and tenacity from volunteers, public agency staff, engineers, designers, railroad companies, landowners, project donors and elected officials. Perhaps the most important advocates are trail users, who passionately shout the praises for trails.

Trails are some of INHF’s most complicated and challenging — yet most rewarding — projects because they touch so many lives and communities. A single trail can take years to complete, not for a lack of enthusiasm, but mostly because funding is so tight and, frankly, establishing a 10-foot wide trail in the most physically altered state in the nation can be daunting. Nearly every inch of Iowa is consumed by some form of development (residential, commercial or agricultural), and very few places are reserved exclusively for outdoor recreation or nature. This is one reason that setting aside railroad corridors for trails is a sensible concept. The railroads existed before most of the agricultural and commercial development, and the railbeds have a solid infrastructure on which to build trails.

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The Central Iowa Trail Network is an extensive system of existing and planned trails. It does and will link multiple communities and counties throughout the Des Moines metro area and beyond. The system will eventually have large loops, plus many cross-links, short-cuts and other connections. Features more than 700 miles of trails, including: Raccoon River Valley Trail, Heart of Iowa Nature Trail, Bill Riley Trail, Neal Smith Trail, Somerset Trail, Chichaqua Valley Trail, High Trestle Trail, Great Western Trail and Iowa River Trail.

Most recent trail additions
The latest additions to the central Iowa trail system have been along such railroad corridors. At the east end of the regional trails network, INHF recently acquired an 11-mile corridor between Prairie City and Mitchellville. This corridor will eventually transfer to Jasper County and Prairie City. The project expands and diversifies the recreation opportunities found nearby at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which provides extensive wildlife habitat and educational programming.

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The 25-mile Neal Smith Trail takes Central Iowa residents from downtown Des Moines to Big Creek State Park in Polk City. Often dominated by views of Saylorville Lake, the trail traverses a range of landscapes, including bottomland, shaded forest, oak uplands and prairie.

At the western end of the Central Iowa trail system, INHF secured 6 miles of the former rail corridor between Herndon and Bayard. This corridor was preserved by the previous owners so it would be available as a future trail. It is the first step toward linking the Raccoon River Valley Trail west to Whiterock Conservancy and Coon Rapids.

While the completion of these current projects is likely years away, securing the corridors is key to the projects’ success.

It’s also sad to think of the corridors lost over the years. For example, INHF was outbid on the effort to acquire an abandoned railroad connection between Marshalltown and Cedar Falls. And another corridor lost would have extended the Great Western Trail all the way to the Missouri border. Yet, while we missed out at an even greater network, Iowa trails have received international recognition and become a destination for cyclists.

State funding for public acquisition of rail corridors has been possible from state gambling monies that support REAP and the State Recreational Trails fund. Local match funds are provided through private contributions and public agencies.

To complete trails on the corridors recently purchased, it will take diligent work and cooperation. Volunteers, agency staff, engineers and elected officials will pursue grant funding, begin section-by-section construction, hold fundraising events, attend numerous meetings, cut ribbons and watch their children grow as the trails become reality. It is a classic story of trailbuilding in Iowa that will take years to finish. The result will be an important link in the regional vision to create an interconnected statewide trail system that supports quiet places for people to visit small towns and reconnect with nature.

To learn more about emerging trails you can support, call Lisa Hein at 515-288-1846 or visit the donation page on our website. Also, get outside and enjoy the trails!

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2 thoughts on “Writing new chapters for Central Iowa trails

  1. Thank you, Lisa, and the rest of the INHF Team and community advocates for your persistence in making Iowa the Trails Capitol of US.

  2. As a business owner on the High Trestle Trail, I can vouch for the enhanced quality of life provided by Iowa’s trail system. In addition to tourists from all over the world, the local users of all ages are enjoying the exercise and nature offered by the trails in ever increasing numbers.

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