About this Itinerary
The Great Western Trail in central Iowa is a paved, 16.5-mile rail-trail that heads south from urban Des Moines to the small, rural town of Martensdale. Built on an abandoned rail bed for the Chicago Great Western, this multi-use recreational pathway crosses large swathes of classic Iowan farmland as well as a few remaining remnants of prairie and wetlands that include some of the state’s endangered plants indigenous to this area. Maintained jointly by the Warren and Polk County Conservation Boards, the Great Western Trail is a pleasurable way to enjoy both urban and rural landscapes with parking, picnic shelters and water easily accessible along the route.
The trail’s northern terminus is in Des Moines, a short three miles north of the Des Moines International Airport and bordering the southern edge of Water Works Park. Des Moines Parks and Recreation provides bike rentals through their Gray’s Lake Park Bicycle Rental Program. Hybrid and road bikes can be rented by the hour or day at the Gray’s Lake Park’s concession stand, located 2.5 miles east of the trailhead.
For overnight accommodation, there are over hundred hotels in the area. Bed & Breakfast fans will want to consider Butler House on Grand, next door to the Des Moines Art Center and Greenwood Park, or the 1900 Inn which is only a couple blocks from Drake University. Both are located a few miles north of Water Works Park.
Parking is available at the trailhead along Valley Drive/George Flagg Parkway near Park Avenue in Des Moines. Heading south, the trail travels alongside both Frink Creek and SW 46th Street to curve around the western edge of the Des Moines International Airport. Soon after, the trail crosses Highway 28 and enters the Willow Creek Golf Course—so be aware of car traffic and then golf balls. After leaving the golf course, the Great Western passes under Interstate 5 and farm land begins to fill in the vistas all around you, though the trail is often lined with trees and an occasional country road or home interrupts this otherwise pastoral stretch.
In 1893, the trail’s namesake, the Chicago Great Western Company, began operating the rail line that ran between Des Moines to St. Joseph, Missouri; the Great Western rail-trail as we know it today was established about 100 years later. Near Orilla (mile 5.5) and Cumming (mile 8.5) you might still see a few old railroad mile markers. The halfway point of the trail is the rural community of Cumming.There are restrooms at Cumming Avenue and a picnic shelter and water fountain farther south on Coolidge Street. Stop in at Cumming Tap, right off the trail, to enjoy beer, peanuts and camaraderie with other cyclists.
In the remaining eight miles to Martensdale, the trail continues its gentle route through green fields and wooded river valleys. Watch for birds and small mammals that make the prairies and wetlands their home. The trail runs near Badger Creek for a brief time and a trestle bridge takes you over the creek, where it joins the North River. There is water and another picnic shelter at Gear Street, a mile farther.
The southern trail terminus is in Martensdale; there are restrooms at the trailhead. At one point this town was in the middle of three railroads and saw as many as 30 trains running through per day. Today, the pace of life here feels much slower than it may have been in the early 20th century, but you can still wander down Iowa Avenue, find a couple eateries, stretch your legs and take in some rural Iowan-town charm before heading back north the way you came.
Today, spend some time enjoying Des Moines. The city caters to walkers, cyclists and those who love to get out and explore. In almost any direction you want to go, the Des Moines Bicycle Collective has mapped out a self-guided walking/biking tour to guide you toward historical, artistic or scenic corners of this town. Public Art in the City, along the Principal Riverwalk, and the Hilly and Historic Neighborhoods tours are just three of many that cater to most tastes and interests (even shoppers have their own route). Des Moines is also in the center of a large network of regional trails. The John Pat Dorrian, Neal Smith, Inter-urban and Trestle to Trestle trails are just a few. All this is to say, if you want to do more riding after the 16-plus-mile Great Western, there are plenty of opportunities in the greater Des Moines area.
Neither will visitors to Des Moines have trouble filling off-bike time. The city has a rich cultural life with museums, galleries, performing arts venues and summer-time festivals such as the Des Moines Arts Festival or the Des Moines WineFest. Last but not least, the Iowa State Fair, held in Des Moines each year, is an amazing, eclectic gathering of it all.
As might be expected from a large city in an agrarian Midwestern state, the food culture does not take a back-seat. Restaurants featuring local and seasonal food are plentiful and the Downtown Farmer’s Market, open each Saturday, May through October, provides an avenue for hundreds of local vendors to display their bounty. You can enjoy live music while sipping Iowan-wine at Jasper Winery, located about 1.5 miles east of the Des Moines’ trailhead on George Flagg Parkway. And there are plenty of other options for drink and food, including locally-brewed beer at Raccoon River Brewing Company and French-inspired cuisine at Django; they are next door to each other in the Western Gateway part of town. If you end up here, make sure to visit the Pappajohn Sculpture Park at 13th and Grand Avenue. In the Historic East Village are Zombie Burger + Drink Lab (whose burger menu will never be called dull) and Alba which features a locally-grown and seasonally-based menu. And this is just the tip of the food-iceberg. Let the Des Moines Visitor’s Guide help you sort out what to eat and where to go.