About this Itinerary
The Raccoon River Valley Trail heads northwest from the outskirts of Des Moines along an abandoned railroad right-of-way through a wide range of Iowan-landscapes. From suburban neighborhoods to wooded stretches, prairie, farmland and small rural communities, this 88-mile paved path connects Clive to Jefferson with a 72-mile interior loop option. The 'north loop' of the Raccoon River Valley Trail begins in Waukee and runs northwest through Dallas and Guthrie Counties. The trail splits at a T-juncture in Herndon with a branch extending north through Greene County to Jefferson and another dipping southeast into Polk County to return to Waukee. Towns along the route offer limited services and amenities.
To use the Raccoon River Valley Trail, you must pay a nominal fee (only those over 18) per day, or you can buy a yearly pass. All proceeds go to the conservation boards in the four counties through which the trail travels, and the money is used for trail maintenance and improvements. You can get a permit in many offices and businesses along the trail (look for the signs), or you can put your fee in one of many lock boxes found along the route. We suggest a two-day itinerary for this rail-trail, beginning in Clive with an overnight in Jefferson. Out-of-town visitors can make their homebase in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, approximately 10 miles from downtown Des Moines. There are a number of hotels, including La Quinta Inn & Suites, Country Inn & Suites, and Courtyard Des Moines. From here, cyclists can get to the Raccoon River Valley Trail (or east to Des Moines) by connecting to the Clive Greenbelt Trail. Bicycle rentals are available through Des Moines Park and Recreation’s 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. The Des Moines International Airport is 14 miles southeast of Clive.
Day 1: Clive–Jefferson (50 miles)
The Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) parallels the busy Highway 6/Hickman Road for five miles between Clive and Waukee where there is a trailhead, parking and restroom facilities. At the trailhead (junction of Highway 6 and Route 22), head northwest to begin the ‘north loop’ (if you remain parallel to Highway 6 you are on the ‘south loop’). The trail is immediately encased by farmland, remaining this way for six miles to Dallas Center. The rail-trail cuts through the center of this small town to quickly re-enter the greenbelt. The Raccoon River lies several miles to the west. Imagine the expanse surrounding the trail in the late 1870s and early 1880s when the first rail lines were being built by the Des Moines Western Railroad Company to carry rail traffic between Des Moines and the Great Lakes region. Settlers were just arriving to farm the land that was largely vast stretches of prairie fields.
Today, the RRVT still passes through prairie remnants and wooded patches though trail-users will be well-acquainted with farm yards and perhaps farm animals by the end of the trip. Six miles from Dallas Center, the path cuts through another small farming town, Minburn. Plans are underway to restore the 1914 brick rail depot and move it to the trail as a trailhead, café and local museum. Perry, seven miles farther, is mid-way through the day’s miles and a good place to stop for lunch and stretch the legs. Before reaching Perry, however, the RRVT crosses 150th Street. Take a right here and a quick left to the Dallas County Conservation headquarters and Forest Park Museum and Arboretum, a 17-acre complex of walking trails and museums. Enjoy re-established prairies, wildflowers, native trees and shrubs as well as museums that exhibit central-Iowan natural and cultural artifacts.
Perry’s renovated rail depot, now a welcome center, is 1.5 miles north of the museum and right on the trail at 1st Avenue and Willis Avenue. It houses railroad memorabilia (including a caboose) and provides information about Perry and area attractions. If your bike needs some tune-up attention, head to nearby Raccoon River Valley Bicycle and make sure to notice the metal sculptures across the street from the shop. The “Reconfiguration Arches” are an interpretation of Perry’s history and consists of farm equipment, mining tools, railroad items and other donated metal pieces. Continue north on 2nd Street to find numerous restaurants.
At Perry, the trail slices west, crosses the North Raccoon River on a 600-foot trestle and passes through Dawson and Jamaica on its way to Herndon. At Dawson, there are restrooms, a resting area and water at the old Milwaukee Railroad Depot (circa 1889). This depot is noteworthy as one of the few remaining Milwaukee depots still with its original integrity; look for the interpretative displays in the old baggage room. Thirteen miles from Perry is the community of Herndon. You will know you’re there when the trail crosses Herndon Road and suddenly hits a T-junction. Take a right, due north, to begin your last 12.6 miles of the day. You continue through much the same rural landscape as before. Besides an occasional country road crossing and the farm activity that you might see or hear around you, the peaceful ride may feel like a solitary one, so much so that you might miss Cooper (five miles from Herndon) if you are day-dreaming too much. There are water and restrooms here.
The trailhead in Jefferson is on the east-side of town at another old Milwaukee Railroad Depot. Get your bearings and head to your night’s lodging to check-in and perhaps rest up before exploring further. Chances are you won’t have to go far, particularly if you stay at one of the rooms or guesthouse provided by Trailside Lodging (across from the depot). Also nearby is Jefferson Trailhead Campground where there are a few sites for tents and trailers. Other camping options outside of town include Henderson Park, Squirrel Hollow Park, and Spring Lake State Park.
There are quite a few eateries on W. State and W. Lincolnway streets including the local Uptown Café (open for lunches daily and dinners on Fridays and Saturdays), and Homestead Coffee and Bakery, which offers sandwiches and salads as well as coffee and baked goods. Throughout your time in town, you’ll likely hear bells chime the time of day and even play a concert or two. This musical treat is coming from the Mahanay Bell Tower, a 14-story carillon tower with a 120-foot observation deck on top (open daily from Memorial – Labor Day). Jefferson celebrates their tower each year with the Bell Tower Festival.
To learn more about regional history, go to the Greene County Historical Museum (open Wednesdays and Saturdays) or to RVP~1875, a historical furniture shop where Master Furniture Maker Robby Pedersen creates furniture with tools and techniques from the 1800s. Boating down the Raccoon River is a popular past-time around here and, if interested, the Greene County Chamber and Development can get you set up with a canoe-rental and shuttle service.
Day 2: Jefferson – Clive (56 miles)
After a eating a good breakfast and replenishing your water and snack supplies, get back on the Raccoon River Valley Trail to return to Herndon the same way you came yesterday. This time, however, stay straight through the T-junction at Herndon for five miles to Yale. Panora,the next town on your ride, hosts a historical complex less than a mile off the trail: the Guthrie County Historical Village, which consists of 12 buildings displaying regional life in the early 1900s. Also, there is PJ’s Drive-In, alongside the trail on E. Main Street, which serves up ice cream as well as burgers and sandwiches. Linden, with trailside facilities, is six miles farther.
On the northern edges of Redfield, the trail briefly sidles up to Mosquito Creek and the Big Bend Wildlife Area lies several miles west. Though the Raccoon River Valley Trail is mostly surrounded by a rural landscape of farm land and fields, wildlife and state recreation areas are scattered not far away throughout the region. The river corridor is teeming with wildlife, such as river otter, wild turkey, wood duck, raccoon and osprey. Oak-hickory forests, wild honeysuckle and woodland horsetail are just a few of the hundreds of unique plant species that make these lands their home.
If you haven’t eaten by the time you get to downtown Redfield (mile 34.8), you will surely be ready for a lunch break. There is a concession stand (June-Oct.) at the Redfield Rail Depot, or consider a picnic lunch at Hanging Rock Park, located just south of town. Cradling the Raccoon River, this park features a massive outcrop of sandstone and is a popular place for fishing channel catfish. Your timing could land you in Redfield during the town’s annual carnival, the Old Settlers Celebration, where there is street dancing, parades, craft shows and the promise of good times.
From Redfield, the rail-trail veers east toward Adel and you cross the Raccoon River one final time. In August, you might ride down the town’s scenic brick streets with runners participating in the annual Sweet Corn Festival 5K run, or you might just park your bike in the town square and enjoy some of the festival’s delicious, free corn on the cob (heading to the beer garden is always an option). Take your time, enjoy the charm of small-town life and postpone reaching the end of this rail-trail adventure.
In Waukee, six miles beyond Adel, the two ends of the interior loop of the Raccoon River Valley Trail merge once again to take you to Clive, where you began only one day ago.