End of the Trail? Never in Iowa

With thousands of miles to choose from, we dare to select three can’t-be-beaten bicycle trails.

Writer: Mike Kilen

I’ve been bicycling in Iowa for more than 30 years, so naming my favorite trail in any given region of the state is like asking me to name my favorite child. I love them all in their own ways.

Whatever trail you try, it’s a treat to ride in Iowa. Just when you think
you’ve pedaled many of its 1,990 miles of trails, another 475 miles are planned and awaiting funding—with 3,047 miles proposed.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is one of the reasons for such variety. INHF officials say the organization has helped establish 65 percent of Iowa’s multiuse trails.

Not sure where to ride? The
Iowa Department of Transportation provides a detailed bicycle map, which also includes safe road routes, at iowadot.gov/iowabikes. 

Here are a few I strongly recommend.


Chichaqua Valley Trail

Near Bondurant

This 26-mile route near Bondurant is a gem from the early days of Iowa trails. Established on an old railroad line in 1987, it’s been revitalized in recent years with new connections from nearby Bondurant, Ankeny and Altoona.

I always go for the sweet spot, the segment that takes in the quiet and beautiful countryside from Bondurant to Mingo. After pedaling the 2.5-mile connection from Bondurant Depot in town, the paved trail at the trailhead off Northeast 88th Street is a dream for the next 8.7 miles. You can coast downward for nearly four miles into the South Skunk River Valley, listening to trees singing in the wind and rumbling over several old stone bridge foundations dating back to the late 1800s.

I passed an old railroad marker for Kansas City (238 miles) while whistling down the grade on a spring morning. I’ve found the trail’s traffic is nearly always light, though a count by conservation departments in Polk and Jasper counties indicated more than 45,000 people used the trail in 2018.

Once at the bottom of the hill, bikers will cross a long Skunk River bridge, great for a photo of the river rushing underneath. (I followed a surprised, scampering squirrel along the bridge when he discovered he had nowhere to leap.) Then you climb more slowly out of the valley without much effort, past rolling countryside.

Once in Mingo, refreshments await at the Greencastle Tavern. Back uphill to Bondurant, the Sweet William was just popping and all was right with the world.

Then you get what every biker wants after a round trip—a reward. Bondurant has many choices for refreshments, including a local brewery and an Irish pub.


Iowa Great Lakes Trail

Near Arnolds Park

Many Iowans have enjoyed pristine West Lake Okoboji, immense Big Spirit Lake, and the rest of the region’s Iowa Great Lakes. But the bicycle trail circling around and winding among the lakes for 40 miles is a must-do activity.

“We are getting a little more recognition for our trails, which are becoming more popular,” says Erin Reed, executive director of the Dickinson County Trails Board. Some 215,000 trail users were counted at eight trail locations in 2018.

The heart of the trails is a 14-mile stretch through the hustle and bustle of Arnolds Park to Spirit Lake, with connecting loops around the lakes. 

This is why I love this trail: You can take a leisurely ride through Arnolds Park along U.S. Highway 71, where people in bathing suits are strolling, boats are pulling up to marinas, and hordes are lined up for doughnuts at Wyman’s Spudnutz or for other delights at the many bars and restaurants along the waterway connecting East and West lakes. Or you can follow the trail past expensive lakeside homes, craning your neck to see how the other half lives.

On a spring day, I chose another pleasure, taking a 16-mile trip from the north end of the town of Spirit Lake to the trail that circles Big Spirit. 

This is a route to open it up a bit and test your legs without dodging around tourists or stopping at road crossings. It’s a completely different, quieter experience. Along the east side of Big Spirit, traveling on a wide and smooth bike lane, I could see smaller cottages along the lake and white pelicans in the wetlands to the east. Around the northern rim of the lake, you ride on a country road that borders Minnesota, passing a state park and a fishing pier, where in early spring many anglers were testing the waters.


Trout Run Trail


One thing I love about this trail: You can start at a popular ice cream shop and end there. The 11-mile loop requires no repeated experiences, except for that ice cream at Whippy Dip.

The popular paved trail, completed in 2012, is yet another highlight in a town brimming with recreation, such as mountain biking, hiking and paddling one of the Midwest’s premier streams, the Upper Iowa. 

You’ll ride along that river in town, but that’s just the start of the stunning variety you’ll find in a relatively short distance. It’s been so popular, a University of Iowa study estimates it pumped $1.6 million to $2.4 million into the economy. 

I headed along the north end of downtown overlooking the river, then followed its bend along the edge of town, through parks, before entering the countryside views.

This is where the fun starts, flanking the creek and heading out to another major tourist draw: the Decorah eagles’ nest that overlooks the fish hatchery about five miles into the trip. The famous bald eagles are known around the world because a camera is mounted near the nest and broadcasts live online.

Rest up, because the next five miles are a fun challenge: steep hills through pasturelands that have you rolling up and down switchbacks.

You get the whole story of the area right here—agriculture, trout streams, the river and its bluffs, notes Gabriel Eide, of the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce.

Once you hit the home stretch rolling into town, that ice cream reward is within a mile.

IF YOU GO: Chichaqua Valley Trail

Photographer: Buffalo Bonker

Best segment: The trailhead at Northeast 88th Street east of Bondurant (follow the signs from U.S. Highway 65) is a great start to a 17.4-mile out-and-back to Mingo, especially in the heat of summer when you’re in the shade of the bottomland forest.

Fun stops: A cool sip of your favorite beverage at Greencastle Tavern in Mingo. If you travel 8.6 more miles to Baxter, at the eastern end of the trail, a new stop is Bea’s Place (formerly Cadillac Jack’s) on Main Street. Once back in Bondurant, Reclaimed Rails Brewing offers locally made beers, or for good eats try Founder’s Irish Pub in downtown Bondurant. Look for trail amenities on chichaquavalleytrail.org.

Future: Recent trail additions have breathed new life into the trail, a 5-mile segment from Berwick and the 6.2-mile connector from Bondurant to the Gay Lea Wilson Trail. A future route to Pella and Red Rock Lake to the south is planned but could take 10 years, according to Polk County Conservation officials, who team with Jasper County Conservation to manage the trail. If you’re looking for fun future rides, check out the group Friends of Chichaqua Valley Trail on Facebook.


IF YOU GO: Iowa Great Lakes Trail
Photographer: Duane Tinkey.  Okoboji store courtesy of Okoboji Tourism
Best segment: It’s hard to choose, so I recommend two, depending on your mood. Start in Milford and travel north through the smaller chain of lakes until you reach Arnolds Park, where all kinds of ice cream, doughnut, beer, breakfast and lunch options beckon you off the bike. From there, you can go on into the town of Spirit Lake, which has more options in its downtown. Or go on the route described on the previous page for a quieter, serene ride along Big Spirit.

Fun stops: On the main spine through Arnolds Park, go early to beat the lines at Wyman’s Spudnutz, a trendy doughnut shop in an old gas station. Check out the bike gear at Okoboji Expedition Co. and keep it in mind if you need to rent a bike. The Okoboji Store is hard to beat for a waterside lunch on its huge patio, right at the connection of East and West lakes. It’s a regular boat and bikini show as vessels navigate under the bridge. For breakfast, try an old-time favorite—the pancakes at O’Farrell Sisters, which has been around since 1949.

Future: With the purchase of 17 miles of abandoned railroad, work has begun on bridge renovation on what will be a connecting 43-mile segment of trail from Superior to Sibley.

IF YOU GO: Trout Run Trail

Toppling Goliath Brewing Photographer: Mary Willie

Best segment: That’s the beauty. You can ride the entire trail in a short ride.

Fun stops: Of course, the Decorah eagles’ nest is a must. You can often see the bald eagles’ white heads peeking out from the nest, keeping an eye on the trout at the hatchery. It’s a good time to take a run through the hatchery and see all the colorful trout in their runs. A great way to end a loop is at Whippy Dip, a Decorah institution serving up ice cream for decades. Decorah is also known for its breweries, such as one just off the trail in town, Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. It might take a side trip, but if you’re into local beer, folks travel to Decorah just to taste the award-winning beers at Toppling Goliath. You’re not far from downtown on the trail, with its many lunch options. And one of the state’s finest food cooperatives, Oneota Co-op, is in town.

Future: A link between the Trout Run Trail and the Prairie Farmer Trail, a nearby 20-mile trail, is in the planning stages and will one day lead to 40 miles of connected trail.