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Cross-Country Rail Trail Would Roll Through Iowa

Cyclists ride across the High Trestle Trail bridge near Madrid, Iowa.
Phil Roeder
Cyclists ride across the High Trestle Trail bridge near Madrid, Iowa.

A plan to create a nationwide trail network for hiking and cycling includes a winding route through Iowa, from Davenport to Council Bluffs. The Great American Rail Trail was mapped out by the non-profit Rail Trail Conservancy and builds off of the state’s existing trail network.

The complete trail would travel 3,700 miles from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific Ocean in Washington State. According to the RTC, existing trails cover 53 percent of the 465-mile distance across Iowa including the Lake Manawa Trail, Heart of Iowa Nature Trail and Cedar Valley Nature Trail.

“They’re building upon an existing system and vision that’s already been laid out,” said Lisa Hein, senior director for conservation programs at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. “So it helps bring a national perspective to the work we’re doing at a local level, and they’re looking at the locals to help figure out what’s the best route across the state.”

In order for a nationwide trail to become reality, Hein said local and state groups will need to step up funding to connect nearby trail systems. She said it costs $300,000 to $400,000 on average to build one mile of paved bike trail.

“We have enough funding to do maybe 3 to 10 miles a year,” Hein said. “With the connections that we need to still make to complete the Great American Rail Trail across Iowa, it’s going to take a few years.”

The Dallas County Conservation Board has already been working on filling one of the gaps, a nine-mile stretch between the High Trestle and Raccoon River trails northwest of Des Moines. While the plan is set, executive director Mike Wallace said the funding to construct the connector comes through bit by bit.

“We know we can do at least another mile, but that will be in 2020,” Wallace said. “One piece of the puzzle at a time, I guess.”

Wallace said being recognized as part of a cross-country trail “means your time and effort are paying back because you have a system people acknowledge and appreciate.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation has its own master plan to connect trails across the state, including designs to connect with other national trails. Besides the Great American Rail Trail, the DOT wants to connect with the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Mississippi River Trail.

Some of the other states on the national rail trail are closer to a complete route than Iowa, including Illinois (86 percent), Washington (71 percent) and Ohio (67 percent). However, the route through Wyoming is only 1.6 percent complete with 500 miles to go.