The High Trestle Trail is named for the original railroad bridge that spans the Des Moines River between Madrid and Woodward, on the trail's northern end. This dramatic trestle is a work of art itself: a half-mile long, the bridge rises 13 stories, that's 130 feet, and includes scenic overlooks with spectacular views of the valley below.
The 25.6-mile trail runs between Ankeny, on the outskirts of Des Moines, and Woodward. You can pick up the paved corridor in several places, but a great staging point is Slater. It's the trail's hinge, where you can swing south 12.2 miles toward Ankeny or aim west 12.7 miles to Woodward (or travel nearly 30 miles east on the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail, if you're feeling particularly adventurous). Equestrians can ride on the grassed surface adjacent to the paved trail between Woodward and Slater, but note that horses are not permitted on the bridge.
Picking up the High Trestle Trail at Earl Grimm Park, you have two options. If you head south, you'll follow a former Des Moines & Minneapolis Railroad—and later North Western—corridor. Farm fields and farmyards gradually give way to signs of the city. Eventually you'll reach the suburban neighborhoods of Ankeny, about 10 miles north of downtown Des Moines.
Alternatively, from Earl Grimm Park (the trail's hinge in Slater) you can also head north and quickly dogleg west, changing rail beds to join part of the old Milwaukee Road. (An equestrian track runs parallel to this section from Slater to Woodward.) Soybeans and corn fields texture the horizon all around you, and on weekday mornings trucks line up for business at grain elevators. But you'll also find plenty of recreational diversions.
Two 42-foot-tall towers mark the east gateway to the trail's signature bridge. Veins in the structures, representing seams of coal, pay tribute to coal mining, once a minor industry in the Des Moines River valley. When the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad first built tracks through the area in 1881, the route down to the valley floor and across the river involved steep curves—a treacherous journey for rail cars. Trains had to steam down one side to pick up enough speed to climb back up the other, and several wrecks resulted.
In 1912, the railroad finally built a high trestle bridge flat across the top of the valley. More than 60 years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a new crossing, better able to withstand regular flooding from the new Saylorville Dam. Today, the bridge has been revamped and extends 2,530 feet from end to end.
Arcing over the decking are 43 steel "cribbings," each lined with blue LED strips that come on at night—creating a must-see journey along the trail after dark. Walk through them, and you are bathed in the fluorescent glow; ride through them at 10 mph, and the lights spiral and blur together as though you're plunging deep into a mine or firing into warp drive. It's a surreal passage depicting the geometry and sensation of moving through a mine shaft. The original west abutment from the 1912 bridge has been converted into a lookout area, where you'll find some of the best views of the bridge and river valley. If you want to just experience this section at night, the closest parking lot is on QF Lane. You'll have to walk or ride roughly 0.5 mile down the unlit trail to reach the bridge. Deck lights, as on an airplane runway, guide you out onto the bridge.
From the bridge, Woodward is 2.5 miles farther west, where the railroad built a depot and where the High Trestle Trail ends today with a full-service trailhead. Future plans call for the creation of a new trail branching west from Woodward, which would connect with the Raccoon River Valley Trail in Perry.
A planned southern extension will also connect the High Trestle Trail to the Gay Lea Wilson Trail at SE Oralabor Road in Ankeny. Both trails are part of the Central Iowa Trail Network (CIT), which, when complete, will run about 110 miles.
The High Trestle Trail is just a few miles north of downtown Des Moines. To reach the southern trailhead from the airport, head north on Fleur Drive and then merge onto I-235 heading east; continue onto I-35 as the highway swings north.
In Ankeny, exit and head west onto East First Street (which becomes West First Street). Continue until you pass Southwest Maple Street, then look for the trailhead on your right, under the water tower.
For pedestrian access to the bridge overlook, you will find QF Lane about 0.5 mile east of the bridge as you drive on SR 210 between Slater and Woodward (look for the "Trail Access" sign). Head south on QF Lane for a few blocks until you reach a gravel parking lot on your right; you'll know you're there because it's the first right turn after you drive across the paved trail.