The Cedar Valley Nature Trail—part of the cross-country American Discovery Trail— follows the fertile Cedar River between Evansdale and Ely. The 68-mile trail comprises three former trails—the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Cedar River Trail and parts of the Hoover Nature Trail—which merged in Spring 2017. The route also includes an additional segment to be constructed in Summer 2017 between Rowley Street in Ely and Linn County’s southern border at Seven Sisters Road.
Among the first rail-trail conversions in the state, the northern portion traces the original corridor of the Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Northern Railway, an interurban railroad that, by 1914, had connected Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The Illinois Central Railroad gained sole ownership in 1968 and abandoned large sections in 1983. The southern portion follows the old Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway that operated from 1876 until 1903, when it was acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. That railroad’s bankruptcy in the early 1980s led to the line’s abandonment, and a citizen’s coalition launched efforts to acquire the rail bed for a recreational trail.
Asphalt covers the northern 16-mile section of trail as well as the southern section spanning from Iowa Street in Center Point to the Linn County Line. Occasional flooding can cause washouts along the trail or damage bridges (Note that a 9-mile detour avoids a damaged bridge in LaPorte). Parts of the trail are landscaped with grasses and wildflowers native to the Iowa prairie, providing habitat for the varied songbirds and mammals that live along the corridor; it is not uncommon to see Iowa’s state bird, the American Goldfinch. Cross-country skiing is permitted—except for on the portion of trail in Linn County.
At the northern trailhead on River Road (south of I-380), a paved connector trail joins the Cedar Valley Lake Trail that leads to a trail system in Waterloo and Cedar Falls. Beginning at the northern trailhead, you’ll head southeast over the Cedar River and along a 4.5-mile stretch to Gilbertville, where a trailhead at East Washburn Road offers restrooms, water, and parking.
From here, it’s a further 8 miles south to La Porte City. Note that the circa 1914 Wolf Creek Bridge in LaPorte was closed after an engineering study reported structural problems in 2015, and the county has created a 9-mile detour on county roads until a more permanent fix can be found. In LaPorte, you’ll find food and refreshments as well as a park offering shade at Maple and Walnut streets (next to a railyard). An old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad depot is located in the railyard, and a Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Northern Railway station dating from 1912 is located at the corner of Main and Locust streets.
From LaPorte, you’ll head about 3 miles to a new bridge over a second Cedar River crossing (look for the red cedar trees that give the river its name). You’ll then head east along oxbow lakes and through woodlands to two rural towns, Brandon and Urbana, both of which have markets. This northern section of trail is an important habitat for nesting waterfowl and songbirds.
In Center Point, you’ll find a museum in the old railroad depot that’s open on summer Sundays. Food and beverages are also available in town. You’ll then head south along a rural stretch—look for deer, wild turkeys and other wild animals—before reaching suburban Hiawatha. The trail runs below power lines as it heads into town; note that the Boyson Road trailhead offers a bike repair station as well as water, restrooms, and parking.
Continue south past Cedar Lake to a 7-block stretch in downtown Cedar Rapids, host to a variety of restaurants, cultural attractions and bars. At Seventh Street, the trail turns right, heads 3 blocks to the Cedar River, and then cuts left to follow the river a short distance. At 16th Avenue Southwest, the trail turns right, crosses over the Cedar River, and then follows it southeast until Tait Cummins Memorial Park, where it passes through a couple tree-lined segments.
Making your way toward Ely at the southern end of the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area, you’ll enter a section where you can see for miles; look for a wind turbine or two on the distant horizon. Where the trail crosses Ely Road and Wright Brothers Boulevard, a plaque explains the area’s unique landscape formed by two distinct landforms: open plains and pahas, hills formed by windblown silt. You’ll then pass through Iowa farmland and subdivisions, eventually reaching City Park at Hillcrest Street. Here, you’ll find a pond, restrooms, water and parking.
The original section of trail turned right on Dow Street and left at Main Street and ended about 200 feet south of Rowley Street in Ely. In the Summer of 2017, an additional segment will be constructed extending the trail along Ely Road to the Linn County southern border at Seven Sisters Road.
To reach the northern trailhead in Evansdale from I-380, take Exit 70, and head north on River Forest Road. Go 0.2 mile, and turn right on Gilbert Drive; then go 0.9 mile, and turn right on Grand Blvd. Go 0.2 mile, and bear left onto Sixth St. Bear right onto River Road, go 0.4 mile, and look for the trailhead parking on the left.
To reach the Boyson Road trailhead in Hiawatha from I-380, take Exit 25 onto Boyson Road, and head east. Go 0.3 mile, and turn right onto Kainz Drive; then turn left immediately into the trailhead parking lot. The trail passes in back of the lot.
To reach the southern trailhead in Ely from I-380 S./IA 27 S., take Exit 13 toward The Eastern Iowa Airport, and take a sharp left onto Wright Brothers Blvd. W. Go 3.8 miles, and turn right onto Ely Road. After 2.5 miles (Ely Road becomes State St. for 1.5 miles and then becomes Ely Road again), turn left onto Seven Sisters Road. Look for the trailhead on the left.