Trail of the Month: May 2011
When is loess* more? When it's a rail-trail running through the Loess Hills of western Iowa.
The Wabash Trace Nature Trail—the newest member of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame—winds 63 miles from the outskirts of Council Bluffs, Iowa, southeast to the small town of Blanchard near the border with Missouri. Along the way, it offers views of some of the most scenic countryside in Iowa, including the unique Loess Hills. These 200- to 300-foot-high ranges were formed from silt ('loess' comes from a German word meaning 'loose soil') blown east from the Missouri River floodplain after the last ice age. Carved by wind and rain, the deposits formed a series of corrugated ridges roughly parallel to the river.
The windblown silt hills (found to such a depth and linear extent in only one other place in the world: China) eventually greened over, with prairie grasses occupying the drier ridge tops and trees nestling in the steep valleys. Today, the Loess Hills are home to some of the best remaining native prairies and woodlands in the state, and also provide crucial habitat to prairie creatures such as red-tailed hawks.
But the Wabash Trace is much more than simply a nature trail—it's one of Iowa's longest and most popular rail-trails, with a rich history and plenty of local color. Its roots go back to the Wabash Railroad, which was one of the most important connections between the farmlands, factories and people of the American heartland and points east in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (The railroad is perhaps best known for the 'Wabash Cannonball,' a passenger train that connected St. Louis to Detroit and was enshrined in a popular song from the early 1900s.)
When the Iowa spur of this railroad—which connected Omaha and Council Bluffs to the main line running through northern Missouri—was finally railbanked in 1988, residents of towns along the tracks rallied to turn it into a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians (and also equestrians along a parallel track for 10 miles at the north end between Council Bluffs and Mineola). These activists coalesced into a nonprofit group, Southwest Iowa Nature Trails, Inc., that helped get the rail-trail project off the ground. With the help of another established nonprofit, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, they secured ownership of the trail and funding to start building it.
Ten years of hard work later—including restoring more than 70 bridges along its length—the Wabash Trace Nature Trail celebrated its grand opening. The volunteers are still hard at work today, clearing branches and leaves (the trail is shaded by trees for much of its length, making it a cool haven on hot summer days), picking up trash and raising funds to pave sections of the trail. At present, the Wabash Trace's surface is primarily crushed limestone, with sections of pavement in the towns of Shenandoah, Malvern and Silver City. Although trail advocates get some help from government agencies, the pathway is still primarily a volunteer-run trail, which accounts for the $1 fee charged for a day pass (a year-long pass costs $10).
But trail supporters don't always have their noses to the grindstone. Every Thursday night on the northern section of trail, when the weather is nice, they throw a rolling party known as the "taco ride." The tradition began several years ago when a group of riders decided to cycle the 14-mile stretch from Council Bluffs to a bar in Silver City with a Thursday taco special. When the bar closed, the riders switched to a steakhouse in Mineola (about four miles closer), and the owners put tacos on the menu to accommodate the hungry riders. These days, it's not unusual for several thousand cyclists to turn out on a Thursday night, stream down the trail, stop for refreshments at a picnic area they've dubbed "Margaritaville," and swarm the Mineola Steakhouse. The ride is so popular it even has its own website: www.tacoride.com.
Riders that survive the taco ride and venture farther south will find plenty to hold their interest. The trail passes through several quaint towns, including Imogene, originally settled by Irish immigrants—whose legacy lives on in an impressive church, St. Patrick's, and a welcoming bar, The Emerald Isle. Another nine miles down the trail is Shenandoah, boyhood home of 1950s singing stars the Everly Brothers and site of a fully restored Wabash Railroad depot or wet your whistle with a whistle-stop wheat beer, among other microbrews on offer at the Depot Deli Restaurant.
South of Shenandoah, the trail follows a rocky ravine and then moves into more open country. Outside the small town of Coin, riders can see a reconstructed native prairie—one of America's rarest habitats—along the trail. From there, it's just another five miles to the Missouri border, where the Wabash Trace ends in Blanchard.
Whether it's the tasty food, the beautiful scenery or the unique natural history that brings you out, you're certain to be rewarded—and maybe even find yourself at a loess for words—when you experience the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.
* To be exact, loess rhymes more closely with "bus."
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