Navigating the Best Rail-Trails in Iowa
Iowa has a rich railroad history. In 1856, the first trains to ever cross the mighty Mississippi River entered Davenport, Iowa, ushering in a new wave of east-west travel and commerce across the burgeoning nation.
Today, Iowa’s residents can remember and celebrate the original railroads with hundreds of miles of recreational rail-trails. Grab a copy of the new Rail-Trails Iowa and Missouri by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Wilderness Press, and then make use of the long days and abundant sunshine this summer by checking out some of the top rail-trails in Iowa.
Heritage Trail, 29.4 miles
The Heritage Trail rolls along like a dream for nearly 30 miles from the Mississippi River town of Dubuque to Dyersville, home of the movie set for Field of Dreams. Along the way, it passes through the deeply carved valley of the Little Maquoketa River, historical sites, and a handful of small farming and former mining communities.
Beginning in Dubuque, you’ll start your trek a couple of miles north of the historic riverfront that’s home to an excursion riverboat and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. You’ll head north out of Dubuque on pavement through an older residential and commercial area to a greenway that leads to the Heritage Pond trailhead and interpretive site in Sageville.
The trail continues through the river drainage for nearly 8 miles to the town of Graf. Fossil hunters come here to look for remains of tiny prehistoric sea creatures in the limestone cliffs along the river and old railroad cuts. The final miles to Dyersville is all farmland, where you can be forgiven for expecting to see old-time baseball players emerging from the cornfields.
Note: Trail users ages 12 and older must carry a trail pass costing $2.10 per day or $10.25 per year. Passes are available at area sporting goods and bicycle stores, at trailside businesses, and at trailhead parking lots.
High Trestle Trail, 25.6 miles
The High Trestle Trail is one of the most pristine and highly tracked trails in Iowa—even at night. The trail’s popularity is largely due to its famous 130-foot-tall High Trestle Bridge, which boasts one of the most well-known rail-trail art installations in the country, From Here to There. Wrapped in 43 twisting, diamond-shaped steel ribs lined with LED lights, the bridge elicits the sensation of traveling down a mine shaft—a nod to the area’s coal-mining history.
For individuals strictly interested in viewing the high trestle bridge (note that the trail is open 24 hours a day), there are two ideal entrance points. One, with lots of parking and a historic rail house, is located at the trail’s northern endpoint in Woodward. The other—significantly closer than the Woodward access point—is a small parking area just off the trail outside of Madrid.
If you’re interested in traveling the entirety of the High Trestle Trail, the best place to start is at the west end in Woodward. Exhibits inside the former rail house explore the history of the disused line the trail now inhabits, and art and local signage pay homage to both the trail and the area’s railroad days.
Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail, 20 miles
The Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail follows part of the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad corridor, which traces its origins as far back as 1866. The trail makes its way through some of the last native prairie habitat of the region, with spectacular wildflower meadows and scattered woodland areas lining the pathway. There are also ample opportunities to see wildlife and a wide variety of birds.
As you enter the town of Calmar, you’re greeted on your right side with the portion of the railway that remains in use. The trail passes through a small park that is home to the Winneshiek County Freedom Rock—a memorial to honor veterans and first responders. The memorial is a project of artist Ray Sorensen, who paints patriotic scenes on the stones and hopes to decorate one for each of Iowa’s counties.
The trail ends at the restored train depot in historic Calmar. Inside the depot you’ll find a range of displays on the city’s railroad history, as well as an antiques shop.