About this Itinerary
Linking the exurbs of north Des Moines to the rural community of Woodward, the 25-mile High Trestle Trail cuts a dogleg through Iowa farmland. Since opening in 2011, this pathway, connecting four counties, five towns and miles of farmland, has quickly become a popular addition to the 670-plus-mile Central Iowa Trail System. Flat and paved, with several access points along the route, it is a great trail for bike enthusiasts of all ages.
The High Trestle Trail (or the Ankeny to Woodward Trail) is named for the thirteen-story-tall half-mile-long bridge that spans the Des Moines River and is the highlight of the trail. The trestle stands as a magnificent work of art that pays homage to the region’s cultural and natural history.
Fly into the Des Moines International Airport, five miles south of downtown Des Moines. You will begin at the southern trailhead in Ankeny, approximately 20 miles from the airport. When seen on a map, the trail resembles an upside-down “L.” It is possible to do the 50 miles round-trip in a day as the trail is wide, flat and there are plenty of places along the way for food and refreshments. Keep in mind that the entire trail passes through numerous towns, and some sections may be busier than others. There are rest stops with benches and restroom facilities dotted along the entire length.
If you need to rent a bike, start the trail in Madrid after finding your bike of choice at Trailside Rentals. They have a variety to choose from, including recumbent trikes, beach cruisers and hybrids. Wheelchairs are also available for rent.
In Ankeny, stay at The Courtyard Des Moines, four miles from the High Trestle Trail. Begin your morning with a strong cup of joe from Café Diem or goodies from the Ankeny Farmer’s Market (held every Saturday, May-September). The trailhead is nearby on Southwest Maple Street (under the water tower) and there is a Park & Ride parking lot. On the first stretch of the dog leg, south-north from Ankeny to Slater, you will roll through farmyards and fields, passing through the communities of Oasis and Sheldahl. This 12.2-mile section is fairly exposed so be prepared for the elements, including sun and wind.
The High Trestle Trail was historically a rail corridor serving two different railroads. The segment north of Ankeny was the first built in 1866 by the Iowa and Minnesota Railway. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (better known as the Milwaukee Road) began work on the east-west section from Madrid to Woodward in the early 1880s. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, the railroad continued to extend its reach into America’s Breadbasket. Evidence of Iowa’s vast agricultural industry is still obvious on the trail today, and as you meander through miles of crop fields and farmyards dotted with grain elevators and livestock you’ll get a feel for it.
By the time you reach Slater, you might be tempted to put your feet up for a while and swap stories with your fellow riders. The Nite Hawk Bar and Grill (Greene Street) is a popular bicycle hangout offering a full service menu as well as noon and evening specials that change with the season.
From Slater, the trail heads north, quickly doglegging west, to join the rail bed that was part of the old Milwaukee Road. This 12.7-mile stretch includes a number of small bridges and some wooded areas, as well as plenty of soybean and corn fields. Seven miles down the trail, the town of Madrid offers plenty more options for eating, resting and socializing. One that will be hard to miss is the Flat Tire Lounge, another popular stomping-ground for cyclists, as its deck is just feet from the trail and there are always rows of bikes parked outside. If passing through on a Saturday morning, consider popping in at the Madrid Historical Museum (open Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to noon) to learn more about the region’s farming and coal mining heritage. The museum showcases a life-size replica of a portion of a coal mine.
From the museum, it is only three miles to the spectacular High Trestle. The original rail route down the valley floor and across the river was steep and treacherous for rail cars and resulted in several train wrecks. In 1912, the railroad built the first trestle bridge spanning the Des Moines River. In the 1970s, it was replaced with a sturdier one, better fit to carry rail traffic on a Milwaukee Road line (the line was retired in the 2000s). The original piers from this second bridge remain to support the current pedestrian deck of the High Trestle Trail Bridge.
Today, the unique artistic features of this pedestrian bridge are indeed impressive. Designed to weave in the local mining history and regional geology, two 42-foot-tall towers stand at the entryway, with dark bands representing coal veins found in regional limestone deposits. Six overlooks, each with an interpretive panel, provide a place to pause and take in the beautiful views of the Des Moines River valley while learning a little more history. To top it off, 43 steel cribbings arch over the entire length of the bridge, artistically rendering the sensation of moving through a mine shaft. The arches are each lined with blue LED strips brilliantly lit after dark and making a night visit a must.
If you do return at night, be sure to bring a light as the trail is unlit and the closest parking lot is on QF Lane, a half-mile from the bridge. For accommodations nearby, check out the historic Hotel Pattee in Perry, eleven miles west of Woodward. They have 40 individually decorated and themed rooms featuring some aspect of Iowan history and it is located just a block from the trailhead for the 70-mile Raccoon River Valley Trail (should your biking legs be itching for more).
Woodward, and the end of the High Trestle Trail, is another 2.5 miles farther west from the bridge. If you are in need of repast before making the return trip, Cayanne’s Café and Gifts (Main Street), two blocks south of the trailhead, welcomes riders with bike parking, air conditioning and a large selection of sandwiches, soups and pizza. The Whistlin’ Donkey Sports Bar and Grill (North Main) also caters to cyclists and offers some camping options.
Today, you have the whole trip to do again, in reverse! If you have time on your return journey, visit the Snus Hill Winery (you’ll see a sign directing you there a few miles after Madrid). Just over a mile detour from the trail, this family-owned business is pretty darn enticing— sit on their decks, relax and soak in the pastoral Iowa charm while sipping wine made from their French and American grape varietals.
Back in Ankeny, after you’ve cooled down and your legs don’t feel as if they are still pedaling, you will eventually start to think about wining and dining (again). Consider going to Des Moines for the evening, only a 10 minute drive. There are loads of great restaurants to choose from. If you have time, unwind with music from the Des Moines Symphony. In addition to their regular schedule, they perform a free Yankee Doodle Pops concert on the grounds of the State Capitol every July. Allow time for a leisurely stroll through the Pappajohn Sculpture Park at the entranceway to downtown Des Moines. Admission is always free and it is open until midnight.
From the High Trestle Trail in Slater, you can connect to the 32-mile Heart of Iowa Nature Trail for another day of biking.
Drive a short distance north to the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad. The railroad enthusiast will enjoy a train ride through the Des Moines River Valley with options for picnicking and dining. The ticket price includes admission to the The James H. Andrew Railroad Museum & History Center which features railroad artifacts, a theatre and library, and railroad-related children’s activities.
In nearby Ames, architectural buffs can explore a 12-block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In this Old Historic District, architectural details of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are well-preserved and range from the brackets of the Italianate, the ornateness of the Queen Anne, to the horizontal lines of the Prairie style.