About this Itinerary
With more than 1,200 miles of multiuse trails crisscrossing the state, Iowa styles itself as the world capital of trails, and while other trail-rich states might well object to this mantle, the 63-mile Wabash Trace Nature Trail in the southwestern corner of the state—a 2011 inductee into Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame—certainly helps cement the grand claim.
Readers with an encyclopedic knowledge of geography may recognize Wabash as the river that forms much of the Illinois/Indiana border some 450 miles to the east. While not a drop of the Wabash River can be found in Iowa, the Wabash Railroad can—or at least it could. A spur from the main line in Missouri once cut through the bottom left corner of Iowa and through Council Bluffs on its way to Omaha. When the line was finally abandoned in 1987, the state of Iowa was quick to snatch up the 63 miles of railway corridor within its borders, removing the tracks and ties and creating a 10-foot wide rail-trail of crushed limestone in its place.
Adventurers from afar wanting to ride the Wabash Trace will be obliged to fly into Eppley Airfield in Omaha, just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs. If you’re renting a bike, you’ll have a few outfitters to choose from in Omaha, among them The Bike Rack and Greenstreet Cycles, which is closer to the Council Bluffs trailhead by several miles. If you’re staying overnight in Omaha, consider spending it at the Cornerstone Mansion Inn. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 17-roomgothic revival mansion was completed in 1894, converted to a bed-and-breakfast in 1985 and later to an inn; today it is Omaha’s only historic inn.
Once on the Iowa side of the river, your only bike rental option is the True Wheel Bicycle Co., about four miles from the trailhead. Lodging options include the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino and the Hilton Garden Inn, both about six miles from the trailhead. If you’re more of a roughing-it type, Lake Manawa State Park, about four miles away from the trail, offers tent camping for a nominal fee.
The Wabash Trace is open year-round with no restrictive hours. In addition to hikers and bikers, the trail welcomes cross-country skiers, but snowmobiles are not allowed. There is a nominal per-day fee to use the trail, or a bit more to purchase an unlimited-use annual pass; users will see fee collection drop-boxes at trail access points along the way, or passes can be purchased at bike shops. The 10-mile stretch between Council Bluffs and Mineola offers an equestrian option, too, along a path that parallels the main rail-trail.
The Trace spans four counties as it passes through several small towns strung out like beads on a 63-mile necklace. Southward from Council Bluffs, the towns are Mineola, Silver City, Malvern, Imogene, Shenandoah, Coin and Blanchard, the southern terminus. The longest stretch between towns is less than 14 miles, so you’re never too far away from civilization, but as you cruise through farm country often well outside of mobile phone coverage, it’s easy to feel isolated—which for some may be exactly what makes it so alluring. What you won’t generally feel, though, is sunburned: while farmland and open sky stretch for miles on end all around, the original 100-foot wide railway corridor was preserved and is often thick with trees, sometimes merging overhead to form a living canopy.
Hybrids, cruisers and full-on mountain bikes will have no problem handling the trail conditions, but you may want to leave the road bikes at home; like with any unpaved trail, recent rains can make for muddy trail conditions, and the transitions to the decking of the trail’s 74 bridge crossings can be rough, especially if a heavy rain has created washouts. It might go without saying when taking trails far out from urban centers that riders would be well advised to bring spare tubes and/or patch kits—along with the necessary tools and knowledge to use them. There are also several road crossings, some with high speed—but sparse!—two-lane state highway traffic.
The trail is accessible in any of the six towns it passes through (plus the terminuses, of course), but anyone wanting to experience the entire Trace is presented with a bit of a dilemma: There are neither shuttle services between Council Bluffs and Blanchard nor one-way bike rental options, so you’ll either have to make plans for a pickup at one end, or else be willing to take a round trip ride. Our favored route is a leisurely partway-out-and-back again loop that covers about 70 percent of the trail over the course of two days. If your timing allows for it, start the ride on a Wednesday so that you can join in the Thursday night Taco Ride on the way back (more on this later).
We start the day at the Rails West Railroad Museum. It’s housed in a restored passenger depot from 1899—the last survivor of a half-dozen such depots that once dotted the nearby landscape. In addition to historical exhibits on the eight railroads that served Council Bluffs, the museum features several locomotives and railcars outside and an extensive scale model inside.
From the museum, our destination is the Iowa West Foundation Trailhead Park, just three miles southward and easily bikeable. You’ll find it just past Lewis Central High School, and if you drive here, you can leave the car behind without worry as overnight parking is allowed.
You’ll barely have time to change gears before you come across Tastee Treat, a homey log cabin restaurant serving barbecue and ice cream. If only places like this were found mid-trail instead of at the very beginning! With the trailhead situated on the outskirts of town, it doesn’t take long to leave the last remnants of the city behind. Within seven miles, you’ll be in Iowa’s famed farmland amongst the Loess Hills, named from the German word meaning loose or crumbly. Composed of windblown silt created in the last ice age when glaciers ground down the underlying rock into flour-fine dust, these hills of silt form distinctive terraces that resemble the loops and whorls of a fingerprint when seen from above. Rising from 60 to more than 200 feet, the magnitude of the Loess Hills silt formations is unmatched by anyplace else in the country; they are home to some of the best remaining native prairies and woodlands in the state, providing crucial habitat to prairie creatures such as badgers, bobcats, foxes, pheasants, hawks and falcons.
Regular users of rail-trails know that their easy grades are a big draw, and the Trace is no exception. Averaged out over its entire length, it’s nearly flat, but numerous hills along the way give riders plenty of mild uphill challenges and corresponding opportunities to coast downhill—for a bit, at least. You won’t be doing much coasting, though; while there are a few short paved sections, the crushed limestone that makes up the majority of the trail surface quickly robs you of momentum. Most riders can probably expect average cruising speeds around 10-12 mph.
Before 10 miles have rolled by, you’ll pass the town of Mineola, host of the regionally-famous Thursday night Taco Ride. On warm evenings, this informal rolling party easily draws upwards of a thousand riders from nearby Council Bluffs and Omaha in what has become the longest running weekly bike ride in the United States. The tradition of camaraderie and, yes, some drinking began several years ago when a group of riders cycled from Council Bluffs to a bar in Silver City to take advantage of a Thursday taco special. When the bar closed, the riders switched to a steakhouse in nearby Mineola, Tobey Jack's, and the owners put tacos on the menu to accommodate the crowds. In winter, when trail conditions are less favorable, the ride is often shifted westward to a restaurant in Omaha. The ride is so popular it has its own website, so check it out and join in!
Keep your eyes open as you cross the first bridge south of Malvern; there you’ll see the remnants of a 1960s train derailment with ruined boxcars lying in the riverbed. In Imogene, the last town before our destination, you’ll find a welcoming bar, The Emerald Isle, as well St. Patrick's, a Catholic church listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around five hours, four small towns, and 45 miles after setting off, you’ll roll into Shenandoah, home to some 5,000 people and the largest town by far outside of Council Bluffs. It was named for the local valley’s perceived similarity to the more well-known Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Here you’ll find accommodations from comfy hotel rooms (Shenandoah Inn & Suites) to campsites (Sportsman Park). Those just passing through will find that the trail is on-street for short segments, and trail signage is weak. Riders will definitely want to plan their route through town beforehand.
Shenandoah was the boyhood home of the 1950s singing stars the Everly Brothers—and also where they got their first exposure on the local radio station. Trail riders can fuel up at the Depot Deli Restaurant housed in a restored railroad depot that also serves as the headquarters for the Wabash Trace Nature Trail. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the restaurant serves staples of American cuisine from ham and eggs to burgers and steaks and offers a rotating selection of local microbrews. It also features Everly Brothers memorabilia throughout.
If you want to get the kinks out after a few hours in the saddle, the American Legion Country Club and Golf Course offers 6,000 yards of play over the rolling hills of south Shenandoah. Both the full 18 holes and shorter 9-hole course are very reasonably priced and, assuming you didn’t pack your nine-iron in the saddle bags, you can rent clubs at the clubhouse.
If you’re in the mood for a more leisurely stroll, the Bricker Botanical Gardens are a tribute to Shenandoah's garden and nursery heritage—at one point, the city was considered the seed and nursery center of the world. Ever-changing displays are planted by the Shenandoah High School horticulture class. The facility is small but free and open daily year-round.
Or maybe you just want to veg out and watch a movie at the Legacy 3. With only three screens to choose from you won’t find any obscure indie films, but big-budget Hollywood films are always on tap.
Our proposed itinerary for the second day has you heading back whence you came, but those with an adventurous spirit who want to experience the entire length of the trail have about 18 miles to go before they can say they’ve seen it all. South of Shenandoah, the trail follows a rocky ravine before moving into more open country. About 12 miles further on, outside the small town of Coin, riders can see a reconstructed native prairie—one of America's rarest habitats—along the trail. From there, it's just another five miles to the end of the line.
Unfortunately for rail-trail users—and fans of railway history—the state of Missouri didn’t preserve the Wabash Railroad corridor that ran for hundreds of miles through the state, so the southern end of the trail ends abruptly at the Iowa-Missouri state line in the tiny burg of Blanchard. Home to around 38 people, the town offers respite for cyclists in a small pavilion area with access to campsites behind a community center, but there are otherwise no amenities available.
If you’re riding in warm weather and can time your trip back to arrive in Mineola around 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday, you’ll be in the thick of the Taco Ride crowd when the town swells to six or seven times its normal population. How often do you get to be surrounded by so many likeminded riders? Because the Thursday night gathering is informal, there’s no set start time, nor finishing time for that matter. Riders filter in and out of the restaurant from late afternoon to well into the evening. From Mineola, it’s a downhill-ish 10-mile jaunt back northward to the Council Bluffs trailhead.
If you have another day to spend in town, you’d be remiss to miss out on Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Long regarded as one of the country’s best, it recently beat out 274 peers worldwide to be voted the best zoo of all. It’s open 364 days a year, closing only on Dec. 25.It’s about eight miles from the Wabash Trace trailhead on the eastern edge of Omaha. Alternatively, if you haven’t gotten enough railroad history, check out the Union Pacific Railroad Museum which showcases artifacts, photographs and documents that trace the development of the transcontinental railroad and the American West; it’s about four miles north of the trailhead and admission is free.