We’ve cycled along the Des Moines River Trail from downtown at Mullets southeast to the Cownie Soccer fields but yesterday we discovered the trail has recently been extended about six more miles to Easter Lake and it’s a glorious ride that is surprisingly rural in parts (for a city trail). (Turns out this leg of the trail is named after an old friend and now city councilman Carl Voss!)
We passed a lush soybean field and rode through the woods along the river to Easter Park, which we’ve also spent little time at. The Park has a wonderful six-mile trail looping around it and through it with nice playgrounds, cool bridges (including a red covered bridge — shades of the Bridges of Madison County). We found a perfect picnic spot on one bring crossing the late — a stylish high-top circular table with two high-top metal seats, where we ate as a few canoeists paddle below us and some pimply teens goofed around and played Lynyrd Skynrd louder than we’d like but hey, it’s a public park.
Two years ago, when I wrote a cover story about the Raccoon River Valley Trail for Rails to Trails magazine, the trail was looking good. Now it’s even better, as promised two years ago. Where the trail intersects with gravel roads, the section you ride over is now paved – rather than gravel, which is a huge improvement. There is also new landscaping here and there – some with new amenities such as picnic tables — which is also greatly appreciated.
It was hot and humid on the trail yesterday, which may explain why we had the 12-mile stretch from Redfield to Panora almost to ourselves. Lovely autumn landscape (despite the summary weather) with wide expanses of yellowing corn and still-green soy beans and old barns and bright blue silos in the distance. In the tiny town of Linden (a midway point), we had a lovely picnic at a table under an overhang in a small park. No one around other than the occasional piece of farm machinery rumbling by. In Panora, we stopped trailside at the Kick Stop for some ice cream and met some fellow riders from….the Czech Republic (they’ve lived in Ames, home of Iowa State U., for years). Great day and welcome reminder of what I love about living in Iowa.
…was enough for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the 39.9 mile (i.e. 40 mile) ride on Day 3 of RAGBRAI from Winterset to Indianola in central Iowa. Glorious weather, fun biking companions (my docent friend Judy and her friend Carole, from Fort Dodge, and Carole’s daughter.).
The ride wasn’t as hilly as I feared – but hilly enough, which was a challenge for me psychologically (not to mention physically) because after breaking my arm twice, I’ve become even more cautious. I braked a lot on the downhills, which were further complicated by the often rough condition of the roads (a big crack down the middle at times, bumpy patches and other cracks). Sadly, the danger I perceived was real — three riders landed in the hospital, some with what sounds like serious injuries. Part of the issue too is that there were so many riders and I’m partly to blame for that. Like many Des Moines residents, I jumped on the ride for a day because it was coming so close to home.
As we arrived in Indianola, after some hills that felt gratuitous to include on the route. I was surprised to see a big hole in the center of the square where apparently the old courthouse is being replaced with a new “justice center.” Apparently the festivities were actually nearby — on the Simpson U. campus. (News to me.) I did find Outer Scoop on Jefferson, for some great and much-deserved ice cream.
Spring – and Des Moines’ bike trails beckon! But this spring, like many others, is tricky for riders (and walkers), thanks to flooding and construction. On our first ride of the season, yesterday — a gorgeous spring Easter Sunday — D and I set out on the Inter-urban Trail north of our house in Beaverdale and rode east toward the Neal Smith/Dorrian trail along the Des Moines River. Within minutes, we encountered flooding and closures. Nevertheless, we persisted.
Crossing the trestle bridge over the river, we ended up going straight on a new dirt trail spur that led us toward McHenry Park (we think) and then back onto the Smith/Dorrian trail briefly. As we figured, the portion of the trail hugging the river north of Birdland Marina was flooded but we didn’t expect the road paralleling the trail to be torn up (apparently under construction). Instead of navigating dirt and gravel, we ended up walking our bikes up a grassy embankment and taking what turned out to be another detour, in an industrial area near North High. We ended up just south of Union Park and Birdland Marina, where we again encountered torn up trail so we walked our bikes up the hill past Captain Roy’s, a popular riverside bar and restaurant. (Braver souls rode on the street.) From there we had smooth sailing past the Botanical Center into the East Village, past Principal Park and west along the Raccoon River to Gray’s Lake where we encountered more construction but it was easily navigated, in part because the road around the lake is closed to cars so it’s wide open for bikers and walkers.
More smooth sailing in Waterworks Park, even along the river where there is often flooding. And no issues — except my out-of-shape body (this was my first ride in nine months, since breaking my arm in July 2018 in Norway) — as we chugged up the road past Ashworth Pool, Greenwood Park, The Des Moines Art Center and along Polk Boulevard and Roosevelt High school home to Forestdale. Oh happy day!
Whether biking, walking or driving, I always prefer going in a loop — returning a different way than the one I just rode, walked or drove. New scenery, new experiences, new, new, new! But it’s not always easy- – especially on bike trails around Des Moines.
Now we have a new almost-loop that takes us north of our Beaverdale/Drake Neighborhood, on both sides of the Des Moines River, thanks to the new improved bridge on NW 66th Avenue that crosses the river. It’s all about “connectivity” — in this case connecting the Inter-Urban Trail to the Trestle to Trestle Trail , along the river’s west bank, to the Neal Smith Trail, along the river’s east bank. It’s not perfect — the second connection still requires navigating residential streets — but it’s better than it used to be.
From our house, we ride north to the intersection of Urbandale Avenue and 34th street, where we hop on the Inter-Urban trail, winding through the woods eastward, across 30th street on Urbandale Avenue, past the HyVee on ML King Blvd and onto the Trestle to Trestle Trail, riding north to the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.
In the bad old days, we used to turn around when we got to the ice cream shop (Van Dees) in Johnston (where all good trails should lead) and retrace our route. Or we’d dare to wend our way north and east on neighborhood streets (including the once-scary NW 66th Avenue bridge) to connect to the Neal Smith Trail, where we’d ride south on the river’s east bank.
Now, thanks to the new bridge, getting to the river’s east side is a breeze — a pleasant discovery we made last Sunday.
The NW 66th Ave. bridge now has a self-contained bike lane! On the west side of the bridge, there also is a new section of paved trail that leads briefly into the woods, away from the car traffic. In the past, we had to ride on a sidewalk along the busy road to the bridge and then share the bridge road (which narrows) with cars. At least once, we almost got blown over by passing cars while riding on the bridge’s slim and rough shoulder. NOT FUN!
Thanks to the new bridge, we can now ride safely to the east side of the river, head south to the (Wakonsa) Trestle Bridge and then retrace our route on to the Inter-Urban trail and home.
Playing catch up. On Sunday, we met our friend Jane for breakfast at Sjolinds (“shoe” linds) in downtown Mount Horeb – cheerful Scandinavia fare (tried the Scandinavian fruit soup, bit too gelatinous for me and certainly for Dirck). We got a sneak peak at the very impressive Driftless Historium, a new local history museum (that I’m writing a story about) and then attempted to ride bikes in 94 degree heat on the Military Ridge State Trail. The trail is packed dirt and stone but really lovely. But the heat kept us from going far. We went a few miles east, which was all downhill (we barely peddled) but, of course, uphill on the return; Then we went a few more miles west which was more level but less shady and closer to the highway.
Mount Horeb’s Grumpy Troll brewpub was packed with hot sweaty people like us — including several motorcyclists. We ended up on the second floor, eating newly introduced nachos. Pleasant place. And cool temps! To really cool off, we went to the local swimming hole — Stewart Lake County Park — which reminded me a bit of Ithaca. Small body of water, murky and warm on top, colder toward the bottom, lined with woods including the occasional white birch (my favorite). Across from the sandy beach, some kids took turns climbing up a sagging pine tree and jumping when they reached the top. Dangerous but looked like fun. We drove to nearby Blue Mounds and spotted people eating ice cream cones on the porch of the local convenience store so we joined them. (The one employee was very busy scooping cones and working the cash register.) Onto Blue Mound State Park where we climbed up a high old wooden observation tower (I got a splinter holding onto the railing) for a stupendous view of rolling green Wisconsin dairyland – with pristine red wood/stone foundation barns, century farms with white farmhouses, the occasional golden limestone house like the stunner we airbnbed in. As our friend Jane suggested, we drove from the park along Ryan Road (near Highway F) for more glorious views from high on a ridge. We also drove past Campo Di Bella Winery which also offers farm-to-table meals and farm stays. Looks promising!
Dinner was classic townie – Marcine’s, a tavern in the small town of Mount Vernon, that Jane took us to. Fortunately we just missed the band (which could have been very loud) but sat at high top tables and drank beer and ate very good burgers. Place was packed. Later, we finally could really enjoy the porch at our airbnb (cooler temps, fewer bugs), where we sat on a quiet night and chatted with our airbnb host Nina, a former professional juggler who does various jobs now (including helping out at the famous Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds).
For my sister’s final day in Des Moines, we finally got half way decent weather (high 40s!, some sun!) so we took a day trip with our sweet Lab mix rescue dog Millie northwest about 40 miles to the High Trestle Trail. What a treat to have the entire bridge to ourselves on an early spring day — and always a spectacular view and surprising structure to find in the middle of Iowa. (It was recently dubbed by the BBC as one of the world’s eight spectacular foot bridges.)
The good news is that it’s now easier to walk to the bridge quickly along the trail, thanks to a handy sign along highway 210 just west of Madrid, Iowa that helps you clearly find the dirt road (QF Road) that leads to the trailside parking, which is about a ten-minute walk to the bridge.
We stopped at Picket Fence Creamery in nearby Woodward,Iowa and tried a little tub of ice cream and some chocolate milk (that we earlier saw being bottled in the little shop beside the dairy that is on a largely unpopulated dirt road in the country). From there we drove ten minutes further west to the Hotel Pattee which is still hanging in there (last I heard it was for sale again) and is still incredibly impressive, with one-of-a-kind rooms, each decorated with art and artifacts to honor a specific aspect of small town Iowa life. The desk clerk gave us the key to the 1913 farmhouse room but several other rooms were also open so we wandered in them as well (the southeast Asia room, the Irish room, the Russian room…unfortunately the RAGBRAI room wasn’t open)…
Anyway, the three stops made for a perfect half-day road trip from Des Moines, perfect for visitors.
I would not advise doing what we just did – riding the strenuous bike trail in North Liberty, near Iowa City – in 94 degree heat. But it was Sept. 23 and we were thinking “crisp fall day,” even after weather reports forecasting near-record heat.
The roadside trail had its pretty moments as we cycled south from Penn Meadows Park on Dubuque Street, past high dry corn and rolling, wooded properties near Coralville Lake. There wasn’t too much road traffic but when we turned right onto Oakdale Avenue, we were deep in new subdivision land – not my favorite scenery. We found much the same heading north on 12th Street back toward town. There were also some killer little roller coaster bits, all the more killer in the heat. So not sure we’ll be doing this trail again. My quest to find a great trail in the rural countryside near Iowa City continues….
We did appreciate the cold AC and sorbet inside Heyn’s Ice Cream, locally-owned and made, inside a charming corner store with an old-fashioned counter, in North Liberty.
We also took a very pretty drive to get to North Liberty from Wilson’s Orchard (a pretty place just north of Iowa City off Highway One that was packed with sweaty families with sweaty kids trying to pick apples on a ridiculously hot fall day. Good cider, donuts and, of course, apples. on trees in orchards lining a deep valley with weeping willows). The drive included a section of RAGBRAI we rode a few years ago (very scenic but rolling, with lots of gentleman farms with white picket fences, perfect barns and big new houses that reminded me a bit of horse country outside Nashville).
Turning west off Highway One past a party barn, onto country road F8W/Newport Road, we stumbled upon a picture postcard perfect farm stand,Iowa Grown Market, (open June – October) where we could not resist buying some carrots, cherry tomatoes, a mottled pumpkin and a few other things we thought would survive sitting for hours in the heat in our car. (They did survive.)
Wilson’s Orchard (and sadly, the kids are looking at cellphones, not the view…)
In Iowa City, we had another very good lunch at the Bluebird Cafe (splitting the pulled pork sandwich, our favorite from last visit, and a good Greek salad) and stopped for frozen yogurt with “popping juice pearls” (kiwi/green; strawberry/red, passion fruit/yellow) at Yotopia (also locally-owned and made) before braving Kinnick Stadium to sit with thousands of other hot football fans (quite a few inebriated – this was a 6:30 p.m. game) watching the University of Iowa Hawkeyes lose (narrowly) to Penn State.
Good thing Dirck remembered that there is a new place to stop, as we were riding our bikes on the Neal Smith Trail near Birdland Marina on Des Moines’ East Side Sunday. We rode right past Captain Roy’s, without noticing it, but backtracked and found a pleasant little clearing with outdoor tables and a deck overlooking the Des Moines River, as well as a food truck serving burgers and chicken and waffles and a small building with a takeout window for beer and other drinks. We sat in the sunshine, watching the occasional boat go by on the Des Moines River, enjoying a late summer/early fall day.