In 1856, the first trains to ever cross the mighty Mississippi River entered Davenport, Iowa, ushering in a new wave of east–west travel across the burgeoning nation. Today, Iowa offers more than 900 miles of trail built along former railroad corridors, a result of its long history of leadership in trail development, including being the first state in the nation to put the Railbanking Statute of 1983 to use. Looking forward, many of these routes are being utilized for the Great American Rail-Trail™, a developing 3,700-mile route across the country.
Some of these amazing rail-trails are highlighted below, along with other outstanding multiuse trails that showcase the beautiful terrain and welcoming communities of the state.
Counties: Dallas, Greene, Guthrie
In pastoral west-central Iowa, the Raccoon River Valley Trail has won the blue-ribbon prize: entrance into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Leaving the outskirts of Des Moines, the 89-mile pathway swoops west and north through a Midwestern canvas awash in color: emerald expanses of farmers’ fields, meadows flecked with wildflowers and glimmers of silver silos. Lively art pieces also pop up along the route, including a colorful lighted bridge in Adel and, at its southeastern trailhead, the stunning Waukee Railroad Pergola, which looks like railroad tracks hoovering above the trail.
Its distinctive loop—in fact, the largest paved loop trail in the country—is dotted with dozens of small towns, so there is no shortage of amenities to meet traveler’s needs, including bathrooms, food and rest areas. Current plans call for a connection between Perry on the Raccoon River Valley Trail and Woodward on the High Trestle Trail, with pieces of this 9-mile route already built or under construction. As if connecting two of the state’s premier trails wasn’t thrilling enough, both are also part of the country-spanning Great American Rail-Trail.
Counties: Fremont, Mills, Page, Pottawattamie
Tucked into the southwestern corner of the state, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail was the first Iowa pathway to earn a place in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Spanning 62 miles, from Council Bluffs to the Iowa–Missouri border, the crushed-stone pathway is known for its native prairies, secluded woodlands and unique mounds of windblown silt known as the Loess Hills. While traversing these habitats, keep an eye out for foxes, pheasants, red-tailed hawks and other wildlife that abounds here.
South of the city, the trail rolls through a handful of rural communities, where you’ll find some intriguing attractions, like Malvern’s growing collection of public art, the childhood home of the famed Everly Brothers in Shenandoah, and Imogene’s unusual trailhead offering a restroom and showers inside a refurbished grain bin.
Counties: Boone, Dallas, Polk, Story
The signature bridge on central Iowa’s High Trestle Trail is a showstopper, providing an experience you won’t encounter on any other trail in the country. Towering 130 feet above the Des Moines River and wrapped in 43 twisting diamond-shaped steel ribs, the bridge is meant to elicit the sensation of traveling down a mine shaft, a nod to the area’s coal-mining history. 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—friendly suburbs of Des Moines.
The 28-mile route pops in and out of the trees with expansive pastoral vistas in between, and the trailside ponds found in some areas were once used as water sources for the steam engines that ran through the corridor. Railroad enthusiasts can stop in the Madrid Historical Museum, just three blocks from the trail, to learn about the history of the circa 1880s Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, which the trail follows. For a present-day railroad experience, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad offers passenger excursions between nearby Boone and Fraser in 1920s-era train cars.
Counties: Benton, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Linn
Winding 69 miles through a beautiful natural landscape of cottonwoods, elms, native grasses and wildflowers, the Cedar Valley Nature Trail is Iowa’s first rail-trail and one of its longest. At times following the Cedar River, the pathway makes its way north from Ely to Cedar Rapids, the state’s second-largest city and a fun urban complement to the more rural aspects of the route.
Outside the city limits, the pastoral setting embraces visitors once again with agricultural fields, open prairie and dense forests as the trail journeys to its end in Evansdale. Two not-to-miss attractions along this section include the Center Point Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and, in Brandon, Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan.
Counties: Pottawattamie (Iowa) and Douglas (Nebraska)
Floating sinuously over America’s longest waterway, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge straddles the Missouri River between bustling Omaha—Nebraska’s largest city—and the quieter-feeling hometown of Council Bluffs, Iowa. An iconic symbol of both cities, the 3,000-foot bridge is affectionately called Bob by locals and, like any modern celebrity, even has its own Instagram page and Twitter feed (@BobTBridge for both). Nationally, the bridge also has a starring role in the Great American Rail-Trail, providing the connecting point for two states on an expansive route between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
From its vantage point 60 feet above the Missouri River, visitors can take in spectacular views of the city skyline to the west and the greenery of Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park to the east. The River's Edge project on the Council Bluffs side will also be bringing some exciting bells and whistles to the area, including an observation tower, pier, treetop walk and climbing adventure course. In the park, you can connect to the paved Iowa Riverfront Trail to travel 6.5 miles along the waterway. Popular attractions bookend the trail: Big Lake Park to the north and the Western Historic Trails Center to the south.
Counties: Carroll, Sac
Western Iowa’s 33-mile Sauk Rail Trail offers a warm welcome to travelers with a graceful arch made of bicycles over its Lake View entrance. The city’s name stems from the glacially formed Black Hawk Lake, which you can see just two blocks from the trailhead. Heading south, you’ll soon be enveloped by trees before the views open up to farm fields, cow pastures and windmills about mid-trail.
Friendly small towns every few miles add comfort and convenience, while frequent nods to the corridor’s railroad past add historical interest. In Breda, be sure to look inside the restored 1905 depot, which houses memorabilia from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, and, on your way to Carroll, stop to enjoy the impressive wooden trestle that crosses over the trail.
At trail’s end, you’ll have more gorgeous lake views at Swan Lake State Park, offering more than 500 acres for outdoor fun, including camping.
Fun fact: Part of the Sauk Rail-Trail was built on the first railbanked corridor in the country.
On the eastern end of the state, the picturesque Heritage Trail extends nearly 30 miles from Dubuque on the Mississippi River (and Iowa–Wisconsin–Illinois borders) to Dyersville, home of the movie set for "Field of Dreams." Along the way, the crushed-limestone pathway passes through the deeply carved valley of the Little Maquoketa River and a handful of former mining and mill towns.
True to its name, look for interpretive signage for the historical sites you’ll encounter along the way, including a circa-1870s railroad bridge. And don’t miss taking a side excursion to the Little Maquoketa River Mounds Preserve, an important Native American cultural landmark near the trail.
Counties: Humboldt, Pocahontas, Wright
The Three Rivers Trail might be one of the best-kept secrets on this list. Running for nearly 40 miles in north-central Iowa from the small community of Rolfe—named after the early English settler who married Pocahontas—to just west of Eagle Grove. The variety of habitats the route traverses—including woodlands, marshy areas, open prairie and grasslands—keep things interesting, and you’ll have lovely views of the three rivers for which the trail is named.
History buffs should be sure to stop in the Humboldt County Historical Museum, just off the trail. This complex of restored buildings includes structures dating back to the 1870s.
Although one of the shorter trails on this list, the 11-mile Trout Run Trail is no less worthy of inclusion. It loops around the town of Decorah in northeastern Iowa, and unlike many of state’s other trails that tend to be relatively flat, portions of this route offer a refreshing challenge with switchback climbs through rocky hillsides. Along the way, you’ll enjoy scenic overlooks, public art, and fields of wildflowers and planted crops.
Counties: Scott (Iowa) and Rock Island (Illinois)
The Government Bridge—connecting Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois—is an engineering marvel that can swing a full 360 degrees to allow Mississippi River traffic to pass. The bridge spans 1,854 feet and has two decks: an upper deck serving two railway lines, and a lower deck accommodating vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians and cyclists on separated lanes to either side of the roadway.
On the Illinois side, it touches down on the Rock Island Arsenal, a small island in the river that hosts a U.S. Army facility, so the structure is sometimes referred to as the Arsenal Bridge. From this end of the bridge, you can reach the Great River Trail for a 62-mile ride along the Mississippi.
On the Iowa side, there’s a ramp providing access to the Mississippi River Trail, which runs along Davenport’s riverfront and heads up to Riverdale. Following the paved 14-mile pathway, you’ll have a great view of barges, riverboats and other marine traffic, as well as the river itself. This region is known as the Quad Cities, and along the route, you’ll have access to a handful of riverfront parks and vibrant communities.