Omaha + Council Bluffs

The plan was to go down to southwestern Iowa and ride the middle section of the Wabash Trace. It’s in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame and it’s relatively close to home, so why not?   The Trace would be my third RTHoF trail.  The other two were Indiana’s Monon Trail and Cardinal Greenway.  Ranking trails is subjective, but neither of those trails crack my top ten list so I’m not sure why I thought the Trace would be different.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was pleasant enough…just not worth the three hour drive.  There are nicer trails much closer to home.

Hall of Fame? OK.

Fortunately, Omaha was right down the road.  I love Omaha.  Most people don’t give it a second thought, but it’s one of my favorite cities.  Why?  Mostly because of the  rich tapestry of neighborhoods in a place you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them.  The economy is surprisingly vibrant here as well with headquarters for companies like Mutual of Omaha, Kiewit and Union Pacific scattered around.   It’s not a college town but it feels like one.  Jan said it reminded her of Austin back before Austin went corporate and turned into Boulder 2.0.  I can see that.  It reminds me of Seattle…in a good way.  People are smart here.  Pleasant, too.

This was my third time cycling in Nebraska’s largest city.  My first visit was in December a few years back and it was bitter cold.  I had fun, though.   I also cycled here on a beautiful spring morning en route to Ogden Utah.  Each time I’ve come I’ve discovered more infrastructure than the time before.  Omaha may still have a ways to go, but the city and region have obviously embraced cycling in a big way.

I always park on the Iowa side of the river not far from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.  This is how my journey always begins.  Bob the Bridge is the region’s signature piece of infrastructure and one of the best bicycle bridges anywhere.  It connects Council Bluffs Iowa’s surprisingly robust trail network with downtown Omaha.

There were some big changes on the Iowa side of the river this time.  What used to be an empty field is now a  work zone with apartments springing up all over the place.  The riverfront includes a park with a hall overlooking downtown Omaha.  It’s surprisingly scenic, especially if all you know of Omaha is what you’ve seen from I-80 while zipping through on the way to Colorado.  There’s bikeshare here.  Through the middle of it all is a cycletrack that will extend into downtown Council Bluffs when completed. I’ve long felt that this waterfront was prime for development and when it’s done it will be easier and faster to get to jobs and entertainment in Omaha by bicycle than by car.

Council Bluffs cycletrack.

Of course, Bob the Bridge was the highlight of the visit as it always is.  As I said previously, I think this is one of the best bicycle bridges in America…maybe the very best.  It was built from the ground up especially for cyclists and pedestrians and to spur the development that is now taking place.    The bridge is about 3,000 feet long and rises gently before swooping gracefully over the Missouri River.    This is no small thing.  Bob the Bridge is a centerpiece as opposed to an afterthought.   There were lots of people out and about on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Most were on foot but there were a few cyclists, too.  It’s de rigueur to stop at the apex of the bridge for a photo op.

Bob the Bridge from the Omaha side of the Missouri River.
Downtown Omaha from the bridge deck
The obligatory photo op.

Once you roll off the bridge on the Omaha side, there are trails into the center of the downtown district.  One choice is to head straight west towards TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.  It’s probably the most beautiful ballpark in America that doesn’t have a permanent major league tenant.  You’ll pass CenturyLink Center and Arena on the way.  This is Omaha’s convention center.   They’ve held the NCAA swimming and diving championships in the arena.  They built a pool just for the event.  There are numerous hotels, restaurants and watering holes here that are easily accessible via bicycle.  Head west just a few blocks and you’re in the heart of the Creighton University campus  There’s a trail and sidepath heading north that takes you almost all the way to the  departure lounge of Eppley Airfield.

You can also head south along the river.  Cycle through Lewis and Clark landing, pass under Interstate 480 and then follow a series of bridges through Heartland of America Park and on to the Gene Lahey Mall, a beautiful canal side park that extends into the very heart of downtown.  It’s just over a mile from the bridge to the end of the trail here.

Passing under Interstate 480 along the Missouri River.
And then up and over a series of bridges into the heart of downtown Omaha.
The water features at Gene Lahey Mall were very nice on a hot, late summer afternoon.

If you want to explore further afield, you’re going to have to ride on the street for awhile.   Like most cities, Omaha is adding bike lanes all over the place.   Many connect to other trails in different parts of the city. If you feel like exploring beyond downtown, check out the city’s interactive bicycle map here.   The good news is that riding on the street here is relatively easy.   I recommend heading into Midtown.  That’s where we found Ponderosa Cyclery, a great local bike shop in the heart of a neighborhood strip with lots of used brick buildings and locally owned restaurants and shops.  This is a surprisingly hilly city, though, so be forewarned.

Neighborhood pride. Omaha is a city of vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own identity.

If you want to stick to trails, I’d recommend crossing back over to the Iowa side of the Missouri where you’ll find a riverfront trail that extends both north and south of Bob the Bridge for several miles each direction.  I didn’t ride it this time but I have  on previous visits.  If you head south, you’ll find yourself at Harrah’s Casino.  There’s even a connection to the Wabash Trace, so we could have ridden all the way back to Shenandoah and on to Missouri if we wanted to.  Maybe next time.

As the largest city in the state ranked dead last in terms of bicycle friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Omaha shouldn’t be this much fun but it is.  That’s the thing about bicycle friendly rankings.   Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Omaha is proof positive of that.  If you find yourself here, I definitely think it’s worth the time to get out and explore by bicycle.

The Joy of Route Finding

Back in 2014 when we were still living in suburban Indianapolis, the guy who owned the shop where I bought my Kona Rove told me of how he had once cycled from his home in Lafayette to Indianapolis International Airport to catch a flight.  I remember having trouble getting my head around that at the time. Lafayette is 60 miles from IND and some of the roads in between are not very bicycle friendly.

A few years later we were living in Utah and as I pedaled past SLC on the way home to Ogden I realized I was kind of doing the same thing.  Even the distance was about the same.  That’s when I started thinking about cycling from place to place a little differently.  The final nail in my “can’t ride from here to there” coffin came just last month as I headed into Portland from Seattle.  I’d just completed a trip across the better part of two states and so it was now official.  The bike was something more than just a local transit vehicle.

I spend more than a little time looking at maps and as I do, it has occurred to me that there are a number of places I’d like to cycle to from our home in Jefferson.  I’ve started to develop routes to these places. I just finished the first of these…a 130 miler to Omaha Nebraska.   I am also working on routes to Lake Superior and the Black Hills.   When those are done, I’ll figure out where to go next.

Developing these routes is great fun for me…almost as much fun as cycling itself. There’s a huge cache of resources available online including state and county DOT maps that can be used to gather data about traffic counts, road configuration and other information.  With the help of these tools, I develop and then plot the route in Google MyMaps and RidewithGPS.com.  I’m certainly not an expert, but I want to share what I’ve learned so far in case you might be interested in doing this.

First and foremost, I’ve learned not to delegate route finding to someone else.   What they choose might not work for you.  Even the pros sometimes leave me scratching my head.  When I was in Portland last month, I picked up an Adventure Cycling Association route book at Powell’s.  The ACA is the gold standard when it comes to this sort of thing and yet some of their route choices puzzled me.  I know that there are better ways to get through that territory than what they suggest.

I’d also be very careful before letting some tool choose your route for you.   I tried this in RidewithGPS and discovered that when I changed the base map from Google to the Open Cycling Map, I got two dramatically different route recommendations.  In theory, OCM should be better as it is a compilation of routes chosen by cyclists for cyclists, but I actually ended up using more of the Google route.  Go figure.

Experience helps.  I try see as many of these roads as possible with my own two eyes.  It’s best if you can see them on a bicycle but that’s not always possible.  If not, seeing them through the windshield can still be valuable.  Whenever I take a trip by car now, I’m scouting cycling routes along the way.   If I have to, I pull over and take notes before proceeding.

If I can’t do that, I rely on Google Streetview.  Before Seattle to Portland, I used Streetview to become familiar with the course.  The route information provided by the Cascade Bicycle Club was really helpful.    They provided a list of all the potential trouble spots and I pulled all of them up on Streetview and internalized them before heading west.   During the ride, I was able to recognize all of these places as I came upon them.  It was like I had been there before.

The official Iowa bicycle map. Road color communicates average traffic volume.  Purple roads like E63 east of Coon Rapids have the lowest counts.
This is  a snapshot of that stretch of E63.  This is why I love cycling in Iowa.
Even downtown, traffic is pretty much non-existent in Iowa’s small towns.

So I built my route to Omaha using all of these inputs.  It includes sections of two regional rail trails, long stretches of mostly empty, paved two lane county roads, city trails, and about 30 miles of gravel.  I’ve already cycled close to a third of the total route.  Here’s a fully functional embed of the route from RidewithGPS.  You can click on the link to view a full version of the map.  Check out that elevation profile!

Crossing the Missouri River into Omaha in the fog via the spectacular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
The fog began to lift as I roll into downtown Omaha.

Even if you never plan to go on a long ride like this, I think the ability to identify and map routes can be valuable.  I’ve discovered by trial and error that a lot of urban bike routes are placed on streets I find less than desirable,  so when I visit a new place I go through much the same process (in abbreviated form)  before heading out to ride.   I think it increases my enjoyment. I suspect it probably could do the same for you.

So now you know a little about my route planning and finding methodology.  Let me know what you think.  If you have ideas that might help me with this, I’m all ears.