Cedar Falls: Cycling Iowa’s Oldest Trail Network

When Jan and I attended the Iowa Bike Expo in Des Moines way back in January, we met a tourism guy from Cedar Falls.   “You should come over and ride our trails” he said.  “It’s the oldest paved trail network in Iowa…over 110 miles long.”

Trail along the Cedar River near downtown.
Downtown from Gateway Park. The Cedar River is big, but crossing it is easy.

I guess I filed it away wherever it is that deep thoughts go to percolate,  because when we were looking for a new place to explore  last week I suggested going to Cedar Falls.  Jan was nonplussed.   “It’s east Iowa” she said and I understood. East Iowa is the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids and  Waterloo…old world manufacturing town more akin to struggling smaller cities in Indiana, Michigan or Ohio than our little corner of Iowa.  Such places generally leave me feeling  blue.  Take Davenport, for example.  During a recent visit, I loved the updated riverfront with the fancy minor league ballpark and ferris wheel  but there were no people around.  In the city, no people means no fun.

Cedar Falls (pop 41,000), on the other hand, is not that.  I’m willing to concede that maybe we just got lucky and picked the right weekend to come here.  There was a gran fondo and downtown was closed off, the beer was flowing and cyclists were everywhere.   College students were returning to the University of Northern Iowa for the start of classes.  There was a lot going on and the vibe was very much alive.

Whatever it was, it felt really good.  When I visit a place like this, I try to get my arms around how the trails work and what their primary purpose is.  Some communities build trails mostly for recreational purposes.  Others try to position them for commuters as well.

Cedar Falls is a mixed bag in this regard.  Many of the trails we rode were in floodplains along the Cedar River and through adjacent wetlands.  The Cedar is not an insignificant river, and there were telltale signs that these trails flood regularly and likely close when water is high.   That means that they aren’t necessarily a reliable transportation option.    There are days when you’re going to have to take the streets to get where you’re going.

Ahhh, connectivity. The signage was really helpful to those of us who come in from out of town.  Kudos.
More signage. It’s hard to get lost here, even if you don’t know your way around.

But Cedar Falls has pretty good connectivity overall.  Most major destinations are on the trail network.  Even so, I urged Jan to get off the trails and take the streets through the heart of the city.  I ride streets all the time so I’m comfortable there.  She doesn’t.  That said, she found riding the roads in and around downtown to be easy and delightful.  Motorists were considerate and sharing the road was the norm rather than the exception.

I missed these floodgates at Washington Park when we cycled through them, but they’re obvious in the photo.

There’s a typical suburban commercial node out on University Avenue that we didn’t get to cycle to, but it is connected to the network and they’re busy installing traffic calming roundabouts out there.  It appears to be relatively easy to get to now and I suspect it will be easier to get to in the future.  The same is true of the University.  It’s located southwest of downtown and is on the trail network.

One thing that surprised me about Cedar Falls is just how outdoor focused the town is.  It felt more like Boulder or Boise to me than the typical Midwestern college town.  In addition to bike trails, there are soft trails for hiking and mountain biking as well as water trails that cross many of the areas small lakes.  There are also winter trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.   Everywhere we went, people were outside and having fun.

Cedar Falls is more than just cycling. This is a true outdoor town in every sense.

And so after careful consideration, I’m going to add Cedar Falls to Pedalfree’s Bicycle Friendly Hall of Fame alongside Missoula.    It’s that good.

If you have an interest in coming here, I recommend parking at Gateway Park, directly across the Cedar River from downtown.  It’s a good central location.  From here you can head southeast to George Wyeth State Park and on to Waterloo or you can go north and do the loop around Big Woods Lake and even go further on out to Black Hawk Park.   You can also get to the University via the trails.

For more information and a trail map, visit the Cedar Trails Partnership website.   If you want to stay overnight and make it a weekend, consider the Blackhawk Hotel downtown.  There’s the original old world hotel and a mid-century modern motor court out back.  If you want to stay in the main hotel, be sure to specify that in your reservation.

There are also a number of good restaurants, several brewpubs, and a surprisingly eclectic mix of stores where you can browse or shop to your heart’s content.  We ate at Toad’s, bought popcorn at Here’s What’s Poppin’, and filled a couple of half growlers (because I like IPAs and Jan doesn’t) at the very highly rated Second State Brewery.

All in all, it was a really great day.   I’m glad that Cedar Falls is close enough to Jefferson to allow us to return.  We plan to do so, soon.

 

Iowa’s Loess Hills: A Little Bit of Bicycle Heaven

I recently had an opportunity to grind some gravel in Iowa’s Loess Hills. It’s a beautiful, mostly undeveloped area on the far western end of the state, about two hours from Jefferson.  I’d read enough articles about the cycling here to know that I wanted to come and so when the opportunity  presented itself I didn’t hesitate.

For those who don’t know, the Loess (pronounced “luss”) Hills are really just large sand dunes.   They were formed out of blown dust and glacial grime deposited in what is now the Missouri River valley when the glaciers from the last ice age retreated.   You wouldn’t know this from looking at them, but when you cycle through them you have a chance to glimpse the underyling geology.

B road cut reveals the underlying geology.  There are no rocks in these hills.

The plan was to identify a course and then ride it with two different bikes, back to back, to see which one performed better on this kind of terrain.  I’m riding an organized 125 mile gravel race in October.  It’s located just across the river in Nebraska, so I thought this would be a good place to form an opinion on which bike I’d rather ride.  The two bikes were my 2016 Kona Steel Rove and my 2018 Salsa Fargo.

The Rove (left) and Fargo (right). These bikes are both drop bar, but there the similarities end.
The route and elevation profile. I wanted hills and I got them.

So I mapped out a 25 mile loop using Google Maps and RideWithGPS.com.  It included 1,800 feet of climbing in the form of four significant climbs.  Peak grade was 11%.  The steepness and volume of vertical was pretty significant over 25 miles.  Riding twice would be 3,600 feet and 8 climbs.  I’ve spent days in the Rockies where I didn’t climb that much.  So much for the widely held belief that Iowa is flat.

I set off on the Rove first.  I was immediately taken with the beauty and simplicity of this part of Iowa.   The air was hazy with smoke from western wildfires and that was a shame because some of the vistas would have been spectacular on a clear day.  The climbs were work but that only made them worth climbing in my mind.  I had no trouble navigating and was back to the car soon enough.  I swapped bikes and did it again. It went even faster the second time.

Pisgah, my base, was utter charm and simplicity…
…though it did have a little bit of a Hitchcock/Steven King vibe to it.
Within the first two miles I knew I was going to like cycling these roads.
There are a series of loops on and off the main byways. I had them pretty much to myself.
And every climb was followed by a roller coaster ride back to the bottom.

I don’t know why places like this are out of favor with the masses.  I saw maybe three people over the four hours or so I was riding.  They appeared to be local residents in pickup trucks and they were friendly and courteous to a fault. I got chased by the same dog twice, but he was more playful than a threat. I’m not complaining.  The emptiness of this place is a big part of its charm.   If it was overrun with tourists, there’d be noise and litter and all the stuff I go to a place like this to get away from.

This hill is reserved for a return visit. I know where it goes and I’m taking it next time.

At about the 18 mile mark on my loop, I came across a road that plunged down a steep hill and literally screamed “ride me.”  I didn’t because I wanted to stick with my plan and 50 miles of hills is already a good day’s work without looking for more.   But more kept finding me.  This is a beautiful area and now that I’ve had a taste of it I plan to come back and explore the rest of it.

Missoula

Some of you already know this, but I get around.  I’ve ridden my bicycle through the heart of cities as large and diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle.  I’ve crossed rivers with names like Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Monongahela.  I’ve climbed out of canyons and cycled through countless small towns and across miles and miles of countryside.  Most places are navigable, at least to some degree. Few are exceptional.   None are Missoula.

Lots of places have signs, but in Missoula they actually seem to mean it.

I came to this storied seat of education on the far side of Montana expecting to leave just a little disappointed.  Missoula sounded too good to be true.  It has serious cred as an outdoor town…kind of like so many other places that were less than perfect when it came to actually turning my crank.  I’ve heard it all before and so this time I listened to my jaded heart and tempered my expectations.  But Missoula didn’t play along and that’s a good thing.  Missoula blew me away.

This bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street is the most ingenious piece of bicycle infrastructure I’ve seen in the US.
It was early and not much was open yet, but it’s hard to miss all that bicycle parking.
Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork. There’s a hiking trail up to the M on the mountain as well.  It looked crowded from down below.
Protected bike lanes on Higgins – Photo: Google Streetview
The Higgins underpass along the Kim Williams Trail is wide and easy to navigate.
Love locks on the footbridge to Albertson’s.  I saw this on the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh as well.

This is without a doubt the best place I’ve ever ridden a bicycle. There is no honorable mention I can think of.  This city is that far ahead of the other places I’ve cycled.  It’s the gold standard, the place against which I will now measure all other places.  It is the one and only city in Pedalfree’s Cycling Hall of Fame.

So what did I like?   Connectivity, for one thing.  I felt like I could go anywhere here by bike.   Crossing the Clark Fork was no big deal.  There’s a foot bridge that sneaks up behind the Albertson’s grocery store.  It’s full of padlocks and inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. There’s also this incredibly pragmatic bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street.  I call it America’s Hovenring.  There are trails here and there and everywhere.

Missoula is an active place and so it seemed as though all of those trails were clogged with walkers and joggers.  Instead of weaving through the crowds, I hit the streets.   I cruised the protected bike lanes along Higgins Street downtown and passed a law enforcement officer. We exchanged greetings, which was easy to do since he was also on a bicycle.  Everywhere I went, motorists were kind and courteous.  They still respect crosswalks in Missoula.

It might seem like a small thing, but I passed countless bikes in front of businesses here.  Few, if any, were locked.   Apparently there’s no need.   Helmets are optional, just like in Holland.  Speeds are low for both bikes and cars.  The folks I saw were not training for next weekend’s gran fondo.  They were just going about their daily lives on bicycles.

It seems as though the total community is engaged.  There’s a local organization called Missoula In Motion that works with employers to encourage people to commute sustainably.  They hold a commuter challenge and have a leaderboard on their website where companies compete with each other. It reminds me of my time in Denver when RTD, the local transit organization, worked with employers to get people out of their cars and clean up what was then the country’s worst air pollution.

Of all the places I’ve been, I think Missoula would be the easiest to live without a car.  The town itself is relatively compact.  There’s free bus service everywhere, even to the airport.  Roads are being redesigned in a way that incorporates Vision Zero principles.  One major exit off of Interstate 90 is a roundabout with no stoplights.  Another is under construction at present.

Not everything is rosy here.   As I understand it, air pollution is a serious problem in the winter.   The lay of the land suggests that this is the case, as Missoula sits in a relatively tight little valley the likes of which typically produces temperature inversions.  Growth is also creating sprawl outside of the city limits.  People want to be here and it’s bustling.  I saw this same thing destroy Boulder, and so I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Missoula can work through it.

We weren’t even going to stop here.  It was just a fluke that we did…a matter of making time work in terms of other stops further on down the road.   I’m glad we did.   It was serendipity.   I can honestly say that Missoula is in a class by itself when it comes to bicycle friendly…at least from my perspective.  I can’t wait to come back.

 

 

What I Learned from Seattle to Portland

I rode the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic yesterday. StP is a 205 mile Gran Fondo that took me way outside my comfort zone in more ways than one.   It starts in downtown Seattle and traverses Washington state west of the Cascades before crossing into Oregon and finishing in downtown Portland.  In between, there are a couple of big river crossings as well as a mix of suburban and rural riding including a 40 mile segment on the shoulder of a major highway.

So what did I learn from the experience?   Lots, but these are the  big three…

Our cities are becoming very crowded places.

Living in a small town in the Midwest, I sometimes lose sight of just how crowded other places have become.  With the exception of Chicago and parts of Minneapolis, the Midwest doesn’t really do density.   It has been years since I’ve been to either Seattle or Portland and they’ve changed a lot.   There are more people in the same space and this creates a whole host of challenges for cyclists.

Bicycles are especially loathed where they are especially loved.

In many ways, the Pacific Northwest leads when it comes to cycling.   The accolades keep pouring in and I get it.   Bike lanes are everywhere.  Even the protected variety is common.  I believe this is demand driven.  I saw a lot of everyday cyclists along the way and it’s the rare business here that doesn’t have a few bikes parked out front.  That said, there are still far more people in cars than on bikes here and traffic is mostly a mess.  This leads to frustration on the part of motorists and I observed more than a few acting out in dangerous ways.

Portland deserves its bicycle friendly reputation.

The last 12 miles of the course took me into the heart of Portland via city streets.  After 200 miles on the bike, I was tired to the point of maybe making bad decisions and yet had no problems at all.  Traffic was horrendous as a nearby interstate was shut down for the weekend, but connectivity and signage was the best I’ve ever seen. Navigation was a breeze. Most motorists here were considerate and willing to share the road.

Rolling through Seattle…4:45 AM
Crossing into Oregon via the Lewis and Clark bridge. Not a lot of room for error here.
Rolling through Portland. Bike lanes are wide and well marked here.
Finishing at Holladay Park, Portland. I made it!

I’m glad I rode StP.  It was a once in a lifetime experience.  For one day, at least, I got to live the Pacific Northwest bike culture.  If you have an interest in and ever get a chance to ride an event like this, I encourage you to do so.  There’s no better way to feel the essence of a place than from the saddle of a bicycle.

Hennepin Canal Towpath: Colona to Geneseo Illinois

If I was ever to ride a bicycle across the country, it would be about discovery more than speed.  I’d use rail trails and lightly traveled gravel roads as much as possible, even if it meant bringing a heavier bike, going slower and facing detours.  The US Bike Route system being developed by the folks at Adventure Cycling may serve their membership but it doesn’t serve me.  There’s simply too much riding on the shoulder of relatively busy highways for my taste.  That’s not what I’m all about.

Out and back. The westernmost two miles are technically closed but passable on the right tires.

So I’ve spent some time online mapping out alternatives.  That’s what originally led me to the Hennepin Canal Parkway, a 100 mile plus canal towpath that spans most of the western half of northern Illinois and connects to other trails so that it’s possible to ride all the way from  Joliet in the east to the Mississippi River way out west.  I had a chance to ride the westernmost segment this past weekend while traveling back to Iowa from Indiana and I wanted to share my observations and some snapshots.

First things first.  If you read the online reviews at Traillink you’ll find that a lot of people don’t seem to like this trail.   I think that’s because they come here expecting something and then discover something else completely.   Whenever you ride one of these trails, it helps to do a little online recon before heading out.  Bring the right bike and the right gear and that may make all the difference in terms of your experience.

My journey started at a small city park in the town of Colona.  I suspect that Colona is a bedroom community as it sits close to Moline and John Deere headquarters, but it very much feels like a stand alone small town.  There are several places to park here.  I chose the first one I came to, which was Lock 28 Park.  There are no restrooms here, but trail access is easy.  Other trailheads may offer more services…I don’t really know.

So after parking I hopped on the bike and headed east, passing under Interstate 80 via a flooded culvert.  I didn’t spend much time thinking about what was in the water.  If I had, that might have been the end of the trip.   It was dark and spooky…real horror movie stuff.   Shortly after emerging on the other side, I ran over a snake that looked like a twig until it started moving as I came up next to it.  Then I passed under another culvert that required me to duck to avoid decapitation.   Last but not least was the missing bridge.  Fortunately, there was a  crude detour that went down and around before heading back up the other side.

This was all in the first two miles.  On my return, I passed a sign that indicated that this section of trail is officially closed (there was no sign heading east) and it makes sense in hindsight because the rest of the ride was relatively challenge-free by comparison.

So what’s it like?  Well, flat, for starters.  It’s probably the flattest trail I’ve ever ridden.   Pavement is very much a mixed bag.  It was paved at one time but in some places the pavement is crumbling and in others it is gone completely.  There has been some maintenance, as there was fresh base and gravel in some of the spots that appear to regularly get wet, but this is not a smooth, well-maintained suburban kind of trail by any stretch of the imagination.

My starting point. Lock 28 Park in Colona.
Culvert under I80. Fun times!
Typical pavement pattern.
Culvert #2. The sign says to dismount and walk. If you choose to ride (like me) be sure to duck. There’s not a lot of clearance and losing your head would really wreck the day.
This is fairly typical of what you’re going to find and it makes MTB tires the obvious choice.
One of the many locks along the route.
And a relatively shy snapping turtle.
This bridge spans one of the locks between Colona and Geneseo.
Touristas on the trail.

It’s also much more remote than I was expecting.  Over the ten miles from Colona to Geneseo, I only saw a handful of houses.  There are few road crossings.  In addition to the aforementioned canal, the route parallels the adjacent Green River.  Vegetation is dense along the route.  It was as humid as could possibly be.   There are lots of critters including bugs, snakes and snapping turtles. You’re in the bottomlands and it feels more a lot more like Louisiana’s bayou country than Illinois.

If you decide to tackle this (and I really think you should), I’d recommend having some decent rubber under you.  I rode my Salsa Fargo, a 29″ drop bar mountain bike equipped with WTB’s 2.25″ Ranger tires.   It was definitely the right choice.  I think this is the kind of route the Fargo was made for.  I was able to go relatively fast but stability on varying pavement was never a concern.  I would be less inclined to use my touring rig, a Kona Rove with 700c x 35 mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.  It would probably be fine,  though the higher pressure those tires require make pinch flats more of a risk.   Any hybrid, hardtail mountain bike would be a good choice, as would a fat bike.  I would leave the carbon fiber road frame with 23 mm tires at home.  If that’s all you have, there are better nearby trails to choose from.

I’d also pack the Deet as well as a lunch if you’re the type of person who likes to feed along the road.   I didn’t pass any restaurants or vending machines although if I had more time and was willing to detour,  I’m sure I would have found them in Geneseo.

I think the most important thing to pack if you want to ride this is an open mind infused with a sense of adventure.  Most people don’t much care for bugs and snakes, but they’re the tradeoff for getting to experience a slice of raw nature and (mostly) natural wetlands in an area of the country where most people have forgotten what these things are.

Now that I’ve had a taste of this trail, I’d like to come back and ride all the way across the state.   So much of modern life feels choreographed to me.  This isn’t.  This is real…a trail that isn’t all that different than it was 100 years ago.  It hasn’t been over-engineered and prettified to accommodate tender, urban sensibilities.  It reminds me of a time when the world felt simpler and more genuine.  To an old-timer like me, that’s never a bad thing.