Iowa's High Trestle Trail
Trail of the Month: July 2016
“The first time I saw it, I got goosebumps.”
Like the entrance to an alien starship, the fantastical channel of blue lights along the signature bridge of central Iowa’s High Trestle Trail beckons curious travelers to explore. Wrapped in 43 twisting diamond-shaped steel ribs lined with LED lights, the bridge is meant to elicit the sensation of traveling down a mine shaft, a nod to the area’s coalmining history. Towering 130 feet above the Des Moines River, it is just as impressive in daylight, providing an ever-changing picture of the scenic river valley hung with an elaborate frame.
“The first time I saw it, I got goosebumps,” says Pat Boddy, who represented Polk County on the steering committee that was shaping the trail project in the early 2000s. “[The bridge design] was presented to us on a Powerpoint screen that was animated as if you were coming down the trail. It was one of the most marvelous things I have ever seen.”
The bridge’s unusual appearance came from the imagination of local artist David Dahlquist. Boddy laughs at the memory of turning to her fellow committee members during the presentation and quipping, “You realize it will never be as good as that animation?” But, much later, when she saw the finished bridge in person, she thought it was even better.
“I still get goosebumps,” she says. “It was that kind of moment when you realize that you’re getting involved in something that you know is beyond people’s expectations.”
From the west end of the bridge, the paved trail rolls to Woodward and, from the other end, east to Madrid and Slater before pivoting south through Sheldahl and Ankeny, suburbs of Des Moines that have a familial hometown feeling. The route pops in and out of the trees with expansive pastoral vistas in between. Trailside ponds found in some areas were once used as water sources for the steam engines that ran down the corridor.
At night, the song of frogs is heavy in the trees, a sound that Boddy describes as a “melodic cacophony.” During the day, the trail might present such natural treasures as a swarm of butterflies, a slinking fox or a deer in the underbrush. Pelicans rest on the river’s sandbars, and in the fall, the hawk migration is a spectacular sight.
“During fall migration, the hawks, raptors and other birds go flying by in a group,” says Lisa Hein, senior director for conservation programs at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which spearheaded the trail’s development. “You’ll see hundreds to thousands of birds. It looks like a tornado of birds high in the sky, and it’s great to watch them from the bridge.”
Turkey vultures are also common here. “In the late spring and early summer, they like to sit on the arches of the bridge and spread their wings in the morning sun,” says Becky Roorda, who represented Madrid and Boone County on the trail’s steering committee. She adds with a chuckle, “It looks like they’re waiting for bicyclists, like ‘There’s a weak one.’”
Bicyclists and pedestrians have been coming through the corridor since 2008 when 20 miles of the rail-trail opened. A short gap in the trail was later closed in 2011 when the distinctive bridge (and a small amount of trail leading up to it) was also completed. As an interesting anecdote: a few years prior to the transformation of the bridge for trail use, its decking had been removed, and the bridge’s massive concrete pillars remained topless, lined up like a row of dominos in the river for several years, earning the nickname “Iowa’s Stonehenge.”
Today, the trail spans 25.6 miles with towns spaced every few miles, offering convenient opportunities for adventurers to quench their thirst, grab a bite to eat or explore the art galleries and local attractions. Roorda points out that several local businesses, including two that she co-owns, have been established because of the trail.
Railroad enthusiasts can stop in the Madrid Historical Museum to learn about the history of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, which the trail follows; its tracks were laid down in 1881. For a present-day railroad experience, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad offers passenger excursions between nearby Boone and Fraser in 1920s-era train cars.
The rail corridor had been purchased in 2005 by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and according to Hein, “There wasn’t any question about converting it to a trail. It’s part of our culture. Iowa’s been building rail-trails since the ‘80s in the Des Moines metro area.”
With federal funding for the project secured with the help of then Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the project moved at “lighting speed” according to Hein. Even though the trail’s grand opening started out as an overcast and drizzly April day, Hein remembers the sun coming out as if on cue for the ribbon cutting. The trail was an instant success, and the High Trestle Bridge continues to see an estimated 250,000 visitors annually as of 2018.* The trail was recently ranked by the BBC as one of the top 10 pedestrian paths in the world.
“For local people, biking wasn’t really a big thing,” says Roorda. “With the trail, many people bought bikes and got into it in a big way. There’s been a big explosion in biking and walking.”
Building on the momentum, two important extensions for the trail are in the works: one heading 6 miles south from Ankeny to Des Moines, and another going 9 miles west from Woodward to Perry to connect to the Raccoon River Valley Trail, which offers nearly 90 miles of paved trail. The two trails tie into a regional trail system that seems nearly boundless, spanning a whopping 670 miles—and growing—in and around Des Moines. The trails are also a part of the developing 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail, which currently comprises 246.6 existing trail miles and 218.7 gap miles on its route between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
A 2018 Bicycle Tourism and Economic Development Planning RFP for the City of Ankeny affirms that the High Trestle Trail and other regional trails, including the Gay Lea Wilson Trail and the Neal Smith Trail, have had a positive impact on the redevelopment of the Ankeny Uptown Business District, helping to drive trail-oriented business growth. The RFP also estimates that, as a whole, the High Trestle Trail is responsible for a $7 million+ impact annually for adjacent communities.
"This unique coming together of bicycling, living designed around bicycling, and social and place-making elements catering to bicyclists, provide a quality of life not seen in many other regions," the report states.
“The High Trestle Trail has raised awareness and appreciation for trails in Iowa,” says Hein. “The whole thing has brought magic to the trail system here.”
*Updated in June 2019 with information from: Request for Proposals: Bicycle Tourism and Economic Development Planning, City of Ankeny, Iowa, April 2018