DES MOINES—On a bicycle trail in rural Iowa, life is busting out all over.
Just outside Yale, a doe crashed out of the brush and bounded onto freshly plowed fields. Warblers zoomed back and forth across the trail, twittering, as female cardinals sought out twigs for nests.
Near Redfield, weeds erupted right out of the bike path, atop little volcanoes of soft asphalt. The rich, black earth here is among the most fertile on the planet, which is why, out of 28 million acres of Iowa's native prairie, only a few thousand escaped the plow.
In fact, just about everything here is fruitful. A Redfield woman who had quadruplets got last year's profits from the excellent homemade cookies sold to bicyclists at the restored depot in Redfield. The McCaughey septuplets live not far away.
People who ride the 34-mile Raccoon River Valley Trail, just west of Des Moines, pick up all kinds of interesting tidbits. Adel, a pretty town with brick streets, stood in for Des Moines during the filming of "Bridges of Madison County." Its magnificent 1902 French Chateau courthouse appears in the film, as does Bernadine's dress shop, which still bears the slogan "Where Francesca Shops."
It's not only this Iowa trail that has links to Hollywood. The 26-mile Heritage Trail out of Dubuque ends in Dyersville, 3 miles from the "Field of Dreams" site. The 15 1/2-mile River City Greenbelt links Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly played the night he died in a plane crash, and Mason City, setting for "The Music Man."
Other trails are renowned for scenery. The new 63-mile Wabash Trace Nature Trail, from Council Bluffs to the Missouri border through rare loess hills, already is being called one of the nation's best trails. North of Des Moines, the 24-mile Neal Smith Trail follows big Saylorville Lake into Big Creek State Park, ending at its beach.
Iowa, which has an excellent network of farm roads and is not as flat as people think, has been a great place to bicycle for a long time. It began to receive nationwide attention in 1973, the first year of the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), which now attracts 8,000 riders from 50 states and 50 countries and is billed as "the longest, largest and oldest bicycle ride in the world."
But it wasn't until the 1980s that the Iowa Legislature noticed the popularity of rail trails, and in 1988 it allotted $1 million a year for trails. The state has been piling on the miles ever since.
"Iowa has a lot of rail lines, and a lot of rail lines are being abandoned," says Anita O'Gara of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which acquires the land. "And people love these things."
Now, Iowa has a trail for everyone. There are crushed-limestone paths for walkers and people who prefer a natural appearance. There are asphalt paths for in-line skaters and people who like to ride hard. There are paths around tourist areas, such as Pella, Okoboji, Storm Lake and the Amana Colonies.
Today, Iowa ranks No. 5 in the nation in miles of rail trails, after Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
IF YOU GO
- THE TRAILS
Below are details on some of Iowa's trails. Most charge a daily fee of $1 or $2.
- Raccoon River Valley Trail: It starts in Waukee, 10 miles west of Des Moines. The 16 miles from Adel to Linden are most scenic. Adel Chamber: 515-993-4525.
- Neal Smith Trail: 24 paved miles along the Des Moines River and into a popular recreation area, augmented by the 5 1/2-mile John Pat Dorrian Trail. From Des Moines, it can be reached from the Iowa Highway 415 exit off I-80/35; parking is to the west on Northwest 66th Avenue. Its northern trailhead can be reached from the Elkhart exit off I-35; head west and follow the signs for Big Creek State Park. 515-276-4656.