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On the western outskirts of Des Moines, the Raccoon River Valley Trail offers a quintessential central Iowa experience. Over its nearly 90-mile span, you’ll traverse wooded, prairie, and agricultural landscapes. The route forms a loop through several rural communities with a long tail coming off the loop on its northern end that heads to Jefferson, and another tail on its southern end that rolls out toward Des Moines.
The Raccoon River Valley Trail runs along a former railroad right-of-way that was first built in the 1870s to carry rail traffic between Des Moines and the Great Lakes region. Fully paved and with a level grade typical of a rail-trail, it’s an easy walk or ride, though you may wish to conquer the trail over the course of multiple days due to its size. Note that using the trail requires a $2 daily fee for individuals age 18 and older. All proceeds go to the conservation boards in the counties through which the trail passes, and the money is used for trail maintenance and improvements. Look for the payment drop boxes at the trailheads.
At the northern trailhead in Jefferson, you’ll be greeted by a former Milwaukee Road depot painted a cheerful yellow. Although the building is open only for special occasions, ample parking is available here, and a drinking fountain can be found outside to fill up your water bottles for the journey. From the depot, you’ll head south past country homes for a few blocks until the trail dives under a shady tree canopy. The trail opens up to farmland as it approaches the old railroad town of Cooper at mile 7. Come in the summer, and you’ll see a plethora of grasshoppers darting across the pathway. A highlight of this section is the 600-foot-long trestle bridge over the North Raccoon River.
From Cooper, it’s 5 miles to Herndon, where you’ll come to your first trail junction. This is where the loop portion of the route begins. Turn left to travel east to the towns of Jamaica, Dawson, and Perry, or continue your southward momentum to the towns of Yale and Panora.
If you choose the eastern leg, you’ll pedal through peaceful, picturesque terrain: farm fields and wildflower meadows interspersed with copses of trees. To either side of the trail, the brushy embankments are also bustling with birds. After 7 miles, you’ll see another depot (circa 1889) sitting trailside in Dawson. Peek inside at the displays of railroad history and the old baggage room. Here, you’ll also find restrooms and drinking water.
In another 6 miles, you’ll come to Perry, one of the larger towns along the route. The community truly embraces the trail, and in the windows of many businesses are signs welcoming trail visitors. You’ll pass a self-service bicycle- repair station as you enter the town, which also has a refurbished depot with restrooms, drinking water, and a covered picnic table. Restaurants and lodging are plentiful here.
From Perry, your trajectory turns southeast as you roll through the small farming town of Minburn and then Dallas Center a few miles later. In Waukee, you arrive at your second trail juncture. You can finish your day’s journey by taking the short trail segment east along US 6 (Hickman Road) to the trail’s end in Clive. If you’re not done riding yet, pass under US 6 to seamlessly pick up the Clive Greenbelt Trail, which will take you through the West Des Moines suburbs.
To stay on the Raccoon River Valley Trail, in Waukee, pivot west to continue on the trail’s loop toward Adel. From Adel, you’ll pedal through Redfield, Linden (named for its many linden trees), and Panora in relatively quick succession. At Panora, you’ll pass a lovely trailside garden and a covered shelter with railroad signage and a small section of track. The trail turns north here, and you’ll have 6 miles to go before reaching Yale, where you’ll pass by a massive grain silo, as well as a city park with restrooms and water.
You’re on the homestretch now with 5 miles to go before reaching Herndon, the site of your first trail junction. Upon arrival, you’ll have experienced the entirety of the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
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