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 streets were 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 the reasons, it felt really good.  So we rode.  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.