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.
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.
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.
Beautiful weather (sunny but not as hot as yesterday) so once we got on bikes in Mortlake along the Thames Path, we didn’t want to get off. On a Friday, the trail along the river was largely empty until we got to major tourist areas like Richmond and towns like Kingston and it felt like we were very far from big city London. At times, we could have been in a small country village, with weeping willows draped over the quiet narrow winding river, dirt and stone trails under shady trees, little lanes leading to town. We passed houseboats, kids learning to kayak in a river inlet, small tour boats heading to Hampton Court, riverside pubs and restaurants, tourists hanging out in Richmond.
We stopped at the Petersham Nurseries for lunch at the tearoom. Pricy but good food (sandwiches, salads including a chicken salad with lentils I must try to replicate) and we ate in the garden, watching staff in the neighboring greenhouse cutting flowers to make beautiful bouquets. We didn’t quite make it to Hampton Court (next time, we need to cross the Kingston bridge and ride inland on the other side of the river) but we stumbled upon the bustling square at Kingston which was very lively, with a big outdoor farmers market, a cool old town hall with a gold statue, a pretty old church and yard. S0uth of Kingston was not as nice. The bike trail and terrain became urban/suburban. NO thanks so we turned back and st teddimgton Lock, road to the Ham Gate of Richmond Park. With the exception of one challenging uphill, we had a flat and pretty park ride. We did stop at a cafe because we were desperate for water and got gouged — 7 pounds for a water, small ice tea and flapjack. Next time we go on what turned out to be a 25 mike ride in London we need to remember our water bottle and day pack.
At night, we trekked to Richmond Park for an evening opening of the London Zoo, where we found better people watching than animal watching although there were cool monkeys and penguins.The zoo was packed with young people in particular. Dinner was Indian/Bangladeshi and excellent at Namaaste Kitchen (64 Parkway) in Camden, which was full of kids going to pubs and clubs. I fell asleep on the #24 bus ride back to Hammersmith station where we got a cab to Mortlake, arriving “home” at 1 a.m.
We drove to Ames last Saturday to help our friend Victoria Szopinski launch her campaign for mayor (Run Victoria Run!) and ended up taking a drive around downtown and campus since I haven’t been there in years. So long in fact that I last visited the Wheatsfield Co-op when in a little downtown brick shopfront (as I recall). It’s now in a bigger freestanding building on west edge of downtown – nice place, although not quite as amazing as Iowa City’s Co-op.
One Sunday, it was suddenly spring again (the last we saw spring was, oddly, in February) so we rode bikes through Water WorksPark along the Bill Riley and Great Western Trails toward Cumming. On the return at Park Ave. near Orlondo’s, we took a new spur of the Bill Riley Trail paralleling George Flagg Parkway that was handy (given there was construction on the regular trail and Flagg Pkway) through the woods along packed dirt (at least it wasn’t gravel) to meet up with the paved stretch of the trail leading to Gray’s Lake Park, where we picnicked and watched a group of very limber and fearless young people doing what we learned is called Acrobatic Yoga. (Imagine the old airplane rides you give little kids, where their tummy rest on your extended legs – and then imagine the kids, actually in this case, limber and fearless young person starts doing all kinds of twists and turns and what appeared to be handstands while atop your extended legs. Crazy)
The weather didn’t cooperate on Labor Day — it rained in the morning in Lanesboro – so we scrapped our original plan to ride a third leg of the Root River Trail (from Lanesboro to Fountain , or another option – Lanesboro to Preston or Harmony) and drove south to sunnier skies and another bike trail in Iowa. We found both – sort of (there was sun but also thunder, lightening and clouds in the distance that fortunately didn’t result in rain) – in Riceville, Ia, where we hopped on the very pleasant Wapsi-Great Western Line Trail, riding through forested corridors lining corn fields and then through open cornfields, past Amish farms. There was scenery to delight both me as a Michigan native (a rare, for Iowa, strand of Birch trees) and Dirck, as a native Kansan (prairie, with yellow and purple flowers.)
To do a loop, we did have to ride on a country road but noticed that some Amish cyclists we passed were taking the same approach as us – riding in the oncoming traffic lane so we could see the rare car coming our way and get out of the way. It seemed safer than having the traffic to our back, even if it may have taken the oncoming driver by surprise.