Hightail it to High Trestle4/6/2022
Cycling continues to increase in popularity in central Iowa, and the economic boom is being enjoyed by many communities, which have sprouted some fine dining and drinking establishments over the 600 miles of trails connecting urban Des Moines with the outer ring of trails that traverse Iowa’s rural landscapes.
“Des Moines has amazing bicycling opportunities,” says Bif Ridgway, who runs the popular Bike World shop. “But to see real beauty, you’ve got to get outside of the metro.”
That means riding on trails that hug the outer limits of the metro, including the High Trestle Trail (HTT), Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRV), Great Western Trail (GWT), Chichaqua Valley Trail (CVT), and the Neal Smith Trail (NST).
Scott Sumpter started BikeIowa.com 20 years ago to help guide Iowans to biking events.
“When we started, we thought Des Moines had a pretty cool bike scene,” he said. “But now you can cycle 100 miles from Des Moines in any direction. The growth has been phenomenal.”
The majority of these trails are built on old railroad beds, are paved concrete or asphalt, and have little elevation change, making them relatively easy to ride or hike. Many of the trailheads have modern restrooms, water refills, and even bike repair stations.
For riders to relax and refresh along the way, there are also plenty of bars and restaurants, which can turn a leisurely ride into a unique and enjoyable excursion. Many of these spots have responded by upgrading their menus with more entrees, appetizers, mules, cocktails and a myriad of craft beers. Combine that with plenty of live music and multiple cycling events, and it’s easy to see why many of these trail spots are overflowing on the evenings and weekends.
Beer is the clear choice for most cyclists, and it’s a veritable smorgasbord along the trails. Specialty beers are everywhere, including Iowa giants like Toppling Goliath of Decorah, Big Grove out of Solon, Backpocket in Coralville, Peace Tree from Knoxville, Lake Time in Clear Lake, Front Street in Davenport, SingleSpeed out of Cedar Falls, and both Confluence and Exile from Des Moines.
The Metro’s 5 Outer Core Trails
1. High Trestle Trail (HTT)
The trail is 25 miles of pure cycling pleasure; it’s nearly completely flat and, on some stretches, seemingly fully enclosed in a canopy of trees. It is also the most popular trail because it leads to the High Trestle Trail Bridge.
The Bridge is the “Crown Jewel” of Iowa’s trail system and has become an iconic image for the state. It’s the fifth-longest footbridge in the U.S. In 2015, the BBC named it one of the eight most amazing footbridges in the world.
Nearly a half-mile long and 13 stories high, The Bridge offers expansive views of the Des Moines River Valley. When the railroad shut down, the decking was removed and, left in place, were 22 concrete piers that rose 130 feet from the river. It was dubbed “Iowa’s Stonehenge” until the pedestrian decking was put in place in 2011. There are six observation stations and 41 steel frames over The Bridge. At night, it’s a spectacular view with the river channel frames illuminated in vibrant blue lighting.
For those who want to hike, the closest parking is located at 2335 QF Lane in Madrid, less than a mile from The Bridge. The access point includes handicap parking and a portable toilet.
HTT also has the “Triple Crown” of trail bars: the Nite-Hawk Bar and Grill in Slater, the Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid, and the Whistlin’ Donkey Bar and Grill in Woodward. All have fully stocked bars, a variety of food choices and an energetic vibe. The bars work in tandem to provide a variety of live music options on evenings and weekends, including country, blues, folk and rock. They also sponsor monthly “Full Moon Rides” over The Bridge.
The Nineteen14 in Minburn
The Chicken in Orilla
Founders Irish Pub in Bondurant
Fleetwood at Saylorville at the Saylorville Marina
Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny
Trailside Tap in Ankeny
Nite-Hawk Bar and Grille in Slater
Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid
Whistlin’ Donkey Bar and Grill in Woodward
Named for the former semi-pro baseball team that played a stone’s throw away, Nite-Hawk sits at the junction of HTT and the Heart of Iowa Trail. The restaurant has an outdoor open-air covered patio that spills onto the trail. It boasts more than 20 appetizers, a full menu featuring its famous tenderloin and Reuben sandwiches, meat loaf, and its popular homemade pizza. A mix of live music is always on the calendar.
Flat Tire is the closest establishment to The Bridge, as it takes about 20 minutes to bike there from this repurposed Quonset hut. It has a large patio deck right on the trail, another out back when the oversized garage door is opened and a permanent food truck housed on the patio.
With more than a dozen Iowa beers on tap and a deep mule menu, Flat Tire has been a favorite spot for cyclists since The Bridge opened. On June 25, rivets might be popping from the foundation when Jimmy the Weasel rolls into town. Get there early if you want a seat, otherwise it’s elbow-to-elbow until the rhythm and blues show ends. You can also catch JTW down the road at the Nite-Hawk on Aug. 20.
With its spacious indoor bar and restaurant, Whistlin’ Donkey has been a go-to for cyclists and locals. But the real fun is at its popular outdoor Tiki-bar, which is hopping during the summer. A nearby soundstage allows for outdoor performances. The menu includes more than a dozen appetizers, daily specials and options like the Barnyard Burger — a quarter-pound patty topped with jalapenos, spicy cheese curds and a honey-garlic BBQ sauce.
At the opposite end of the 25-mile trail is Ankeny, which is investing heavily in making itself the destination stop for out-of-state cyclists. They have built an impressive trailhead, and two excellent spots to begin or end your trek, Firetrucker Brewery and Trailside Tap, are adjacent.
Firetrucker features outdoor patio seating and cozy indoor tables. Head into its tap room to sample the Pumpertruck Porter, 2 Alarm Red, Arson Oatmeal Stout or Cat Dragon Ginger Beer. Check their calendar for Bike Nights and live music events every Saturday.
While Trailside Tap may sound like a typical trail bar, the food is anything but, as it’s the finest traditional restaurant along the trail. With a pleasant ambience inside and a well-designed partially covered patio outside, it’s an excellent spot to spend a few hours. The menu offers brunch items from lemon cornmeal pancakes and shrimp and grits to a full dinner menu of seared salmon, littleneck clams, butcher’s steak and chicken and dumplings.
2. Great Western Trail (GWT)
Cyclists can access GWT from Water Works Park. The 19-mile trail flows south through the former town of Orilla and then to Cumming, Lida, Churchville and ending at Martensdale. There are two essential stops: The Chicken in Orilla and Cumming Tap.
The Chicken is just an eight-minute car ride from Valley Junction. It serves up some fabulous Nashville hot chicken, broasted chicken and popular pizza choices that include Thai peanut chicken, bang-bang shrimp and chicken poblano diablo. Wednesday is BOGO pizza. More than a dozen Iowa breweries are available on tap including Keg Creek and Sacrilegious from Glenwood and Reunion and Wilson’s Orchard from Johnson County.
Hopping Dive Bars
Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid
Cumming Tap in Cumming
Greencastle Tavern in Mingo
The Proletariat in Perry
Tojo’s Bar and Grille in Jamaica
The night life in Cumming revolves around the classic Cumming Tap. Visitors might be surprised at how this small town of 400 can double or triple in size on any given night. They have taco truck Tuesday, Wednesday night steak rides, and street parties on the weekends, complete with bands, food trucks and high energy. Across the street is the welcoming Iowa Distilling Company, which makes its own bourbon, corn-based Zone vodka and spicy Prairie Fire whiskey. Check their calendar for live music and regular visits from Pho Wheels food truck.
A new edition has been the Agrihood development called Middlebrook Farm, a planned community that integrates agriculture into a residential neighborhood. They sponsor the popular “Friday at the Farm” beginning May 20 through October with a farmers market, the “Wine Wagon,” live music and various family activities.
3. Chichaqua Valley Trail (CVT)
This 26-mile trail begins in Berwick, the former fictitious home of KGGO radio, and runs northeast through Bondurant all the way to Baxter. Bondurant has several options. Grab a Big Grove Easy Eddy and a sandwich at Founder’s Irish Pub. Its hand-breaded tenderloin creation is a Fareway cut pounded into a rectangle and big enough for two to share.
Across the street is Reclaimed Rails Brewery. There is a ski-lodge feel to its second floor taproom, which is decorated with reclaimed wood. They brew more than 20 beers, including the popular Blood Orange Wheat, Hipster Juice IPA and the sour Grandma’s Pocket Candy.
Next door is the Pinkley’s Boxcar BBQ, which delivers food right to the brewery. The focus is on Memphis-style pork and brisket. Farther up the road is the ever-popular Greencastle Tavern in Mingo. Both cyclists and bikers share the patio beer garden during their summer Sunday bike days.
4. Neal Smith Trail (NST)
This 25-mile trail runs from Des Moines to Big Creek via the Saylorville Recreation Area. It is an excellent choice for riders who prefer a more challenging terrain with quick and shifting elevation changes. The trail is also an excellent opportunity to experience the diverse environments Iowa has to offer, from wetlands to prairies, dense forests to riverbanks, and abundant flora and fauna surrounding the lake. Children and adults alike can enjoy the Butterfly Gardens and the Prairie Flower Recreation Area, both north of the Saylorville Visitor’s Center.
Papa’s Pizzeria is a family-run pizza spot on the square in nearby Polk City. Its “Lake Monster” food challenge is a thin-crust meat pizza topped with a tenderloin, chicken strips and a bacon cheeseburger and then drizzled with a mac and cheese sauce and finished with a side of onion rings. Or, you could just try one of their 15 popular signature pies.
A few miles from the Sycamore Access is Sonny’s Pizza Bistro in Saylorville, one of the finer pizza options in Polk County. It has a quaint little bar and a full line of Italian pasta dishes alongside a variety of pizzas, including Cajun Shrimp and Giardiniera chicken.
The lone bar option on the actual trail is the festive Fleetwood at Saylorville — dubbed “Iowa’s Only Floating Bar.” New owners are broadening the menu from a focus on baskets and fried foods. It’s a fun stop to enjoy anything that fills a plastic cup, as there is no glass around the Saylorville Marina with so many bare feet. They offer a variety of live music every Thursday through Sunday with sizable crowds.
5. Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRV)
Last fall, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy inducted RRV into their national “Trail Hall of Fame,” and for good reason. At 89-miles, it is the longest trail in Iowa and one of the longest in the nation. It offers a variety of scenic woodlands, prairies, bridges and even public art. Trail counters indicate more than 350,000 yearly users.
At the trailhead in Dallas Center, you’ll find The Korner Kone, which offers a dozen choices of subs and specials like chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes. A new spot is The Handlebar. It is smack dab on the trail, provides ample parking and has the potential to become a must-stop for music events. The signature smash burger is covered in bacon-onion jam and Gouda cheese atop a brioche bun. The beer menu offers more than 30 selections ranging from light to hoppy, malty to sour, and dark to ciders with choices from a dozen Iowa breweries.
A picturesque small town on the trail is Minburn. A beautifully restored railroad depot now houses The Nineteen14, named for the year the depot opened. It’s a popular rendezvous spot for cyclists and offers a strong weekend breakfast menu on the patio overlooking the trail. Tuesday is taco day, and their excellent fried chicken or beef versions may remind you of Tasty Tacos. Down the road is Lunch Box BBQ Café, which offers smoked meats, pizza and a variety of sandwiches.
Perry is one of Iowa’s most diverse communities, so it’s no surprise there are several ethnic options scattered around the downtown. They include Peruvian, Salvadorian, Mexican and Chinese within a few blocks: La Ventura Panaderia Salvadoreno, Taqueria Villa, Casa de Oro and the Mandarin Café all have special takes on their cuisine.
Cyclists can now return to the Tin Pig, which has reopened after the derecho tore off its roof. It has a varied menu, from burgers and wraps to pasta and steaks. Next door is The Proletariat, dubbed “The Classiest Dive Bar in America.” The online page says, “beer, booze, books, pool, darts, pinball, jukebox, clean, unpretentious.” Perhaps that’s all you need to know.
The historic Hotel Pattee is headquarters for several cycling events, like the winter “BRR” ride to Rippey. It showcases an eclectic, smart bar, and it’s refreshing to meander through the public rooms around the lobby and revisit the history in photos and displays. Stay overnight and enjoy the high-end dinner menu including choices like filet mignon de burgo and rigatoni a la vodka.
If Iowa winters have you longing for Jamaica, you can find it between Perry and Jefferson right on the trail. A visit to Tojo’s Bar and Grille is in order, another classic cycling stop for a cold beer and one of Iowa’s biggest and best tenderloins. Its line-up also includes popular burgers and more than 20 appetizers.
From here, the trail moves south and east through Panora, Redfield, Adel and back into the metro. Right on the trail in Panora is PJ’s Drive-In, a tight little spot where locals scurry in for their homemade burgers, sandwiches and ice cream. Check out The Dairy Shoppe in Redfield for a chili dog and s’more sundae. For a sit down, jump off the trail in Adel and try Brickyard Burgers and Brew’s avocado and egg burger.
The trail from Linden to Redfield is an excellent choice, especially for hiking or biking during peak fall foliage. The traffic is fairly light, and this section is heavily wooded, helping to cool riders in the summer and provide hikers and birdwatchers with abundant views during the fall.
To ride uninterrupted along these beautiful and changing landscapes is one of the reasons the trails are so popular. And then, of course, there is The Bridge. While the work of art serves as a passageway over the Des Moines River, its story is a work of art as well. David Dahlquist is the creative visionary for The Bridge, which has received a number of honors and awards for its design.
Dahlquist traces the beginnings of The Bridge some 13,000 years ago when glaciers carved out what is now the Des Moines River Valley, leaving deposits of coal that later brought Italian immigrant miners and the railroad to the area. All of that is in the distant past, but his creation evokes the spirit of the mine shafts and the transcending of time. The 45 cribs over The Bridge relate a sense of containment, as in a mine shaft, but we are able to see through it as we move through space and time.
His RDG Dahlquist Art Studio offers this description: “The vertical elements are ‘portals’ that form a gateway to the bridge and are sculptural symbols that speak to geology, the cutting and slicing of nature that forms the river valley. The massive columns focus the trail and evoke the concept of entering a mine. Seams of coal appear in lighted veins in the stacked forms on the bridge landings. One is inside the story, surrounded by the sculptural forms that embody history and geology. The changing geometry of the steel cribbing radiates around you. The viewer moves along the path as though moving through history, through the tunnel of a mine.” Today, through Dahlquist’s studied vision, everyone can enjoy this alluring structure.
The Bridge seems to draw people like a magnet. The closer you get, the stronger the attraction seems to be. And, the closer you get to The Bridge, the more diverse the mode of transport.
People can be seen on just about any contraption imaginable that gets them from here to there. There are horses and hikers, road bikes, touring bikes, mountain bikes, folding bikes, trail bikes, dirt bikes, electric bikes, recumbent bikes, one-seaters, two-seaters, skinny tires, fat tires, hoverboards, roller skates, roller skis, roller blades, wheelchairs, scooters, strollers, little bikes, little trikes and lots of little tykes.
So, however you get there — and whatever you do along the way — it’s time to hightail it to High Trestle. ♦
James Strohman is an Ames writer. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming Fun Rides
Pigtails Ride on HTT, May 21: Begins at the Ankeny Trailhead, this female-specific ride supports the Iowa Bicycle Coalition: pigtailsride.com
Bacoon Ride on RRV, June 18: Begins in Waukee, think Baconfest on wheels: bacoonride.com
High Trestle Full Moon Rides: HTT, on Saturdays nearest the full moon, riders emanate from Woodward, Madrid and Slater and descend on The Bridge: April 23, May 28, June 25, July 23, Aug. 20, and Sept. 17: bikeiowa.com