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The paved Chichaqua Valley Trail crosses 27 miles of central Iowa farmland between the northeastern Des Moines suburbs and the rural community of Baxter. The trail’s name, pronounced chee-chak-wah, is derived from a Native American word. Pioneers mistook it to mean skunk, but actually it refers to the aroma of wild onions that grew along the Skunk River, which the trail spans.
The trail follows the original route of the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, built in 1885. Other railroads to subsequently use the corridor include the Chicago, St. Paul, & Kansas City Railroad (1886–1892), the Chicago Great Western Company (1892–1968), and the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Company (1968–1984). Abandoned in 1984, the route became one of Iowa’s first rail-trail conversions in 1987. A 6-mile extension ushered the trail into Des Moines in 2015.
Although the trail is paved, the inconsistent surfaces at the eastern end of the trail make for rough traveling between Baxter and Mingo. The trail surface is much smoother and trailside services are more frequent west of Mingo. The trail crosses gravel roads every few miles, but the crossings are easy, and for most of the trail there is no noise but the wind rushing past. You can gauge your progress by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City.
Beginning at Mally’s Weh-Weh-Neh-Kee Park (meaning “good place”) in the former coal-mining community of Berwick, the junction with the Gay Lea Wilson Trail is 0.8 mile to the west and the trail end is 0.3 mile beyond that. Heading east, you’ll leave behind suburban sprawl and pass farms before arriving at Bondurant in about 5 miles. The town completed the trailhead park, featuring a replica train depot for restrooms and drinking water, in 2013.
You might spot wildlife and wildflowers as the curvy route passes through the Santiago Creek greenbelt east of town. In about 7 miles you’ll cross the Skunk River railroad bridge that dates to 1885 and enter the Chichaqua Wildlife Management Area.
The trail takes a serpentine course through the creek drainages and river valleys that is uncharacteristic of the straight routes charted by many Midwestern rail-trails. The next three small towns—Valeria, Mingo, and Ira—don’t offer much in the way of food or refreshments over the next 15 miles.
Arriving at the end of the trail in Baxter, you’ll be greeted by a restored 1913 wooden caboose that also contains historical displays and restrooms. Baxter offers cafés, taverns, and markets to replenish weary travelers.
To reach the southwestern trailhead at Mally’s Weh-Weh-Neh-Kee Park from I-35, take Exit 89, and go east on Corporate Woods Drive toward the driver’s license center. Go 0.8 mile, and continue on the road as it becomes SE 72nd St./NE 62nd Ave. Go 0.9 mile, and turn right onto NE Berwick Drive/County Road F52. Go 0.5 mile, and turn right into Mally’s Park. Go about 200 feet, and find parking on the left. Follow the path heading northwest to the trail from the parking lot. The endpoint is located 1.2 miles southwest at NE 29th St.
To reach the northeastern trailhead from I-80, take Exit 149, and go north on NE 112th St./County Road S27. Go 5.8 miles, and turn right onto US 65/SR 330. Go 5.9 miles, and turn right onto County Road F17 W. Go 7.2 miles, and turn left onto Southwest Ave.; then go 0.4 mile, and turn right onto W. State St. Go 0.1 mile, and look for parking on the left.
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