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The Heart of Iowa Nature Trail traverses classic Iowa farmland along the former route of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road. The trail transitions from smooth crushed limestone in the west to a rougher grass and dirt surface in the east, with a couple of on-road detours. While a hybrid bike is a minimum requirement for cyclists, those riding fatter tires might find the trip more enjoyable.
The trail connects the former depot towns of Slater, Huxley, Cambridge, Maxwell, Collins, and Rhodes. Most provide services to trail users. They originally served as stops on the Milwaukee Road’s east-west railroad link between Chicago and Omaha until the company abandoned the railbed in 1982. The conservation boards of Story and Marshall Counties have maintained the trail since 2003.
Beginning at the junction with the paved High Trestle Trail on First Avenue in Slater, you’ll follow signs for the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail through town to a trailhead park on the eastern outskirts.
After heading across open farmland for a few miles, you’ll encounter a permanent on-road detour for 1.3 miles that turns left onto 535th Avenue, right onto West First Street, and then right onto South Fifth Avenue.
Back on the trail, the trek continues as before, with a crushed-stone surface and brief stretches of asphalt at road intersections. After skirting the southern edge of Cambridge, the trail crosses the South Skunk River on a newer trail bridge with overlooks. You’ll likely notice the crushed-stone surface start to lose its firmness; hoof marks point to heavy equestrian use.
Upon the approach to Maxwell, you’ll cross a new trail bridge over Indian Creek. Turn right onto Army Post Road at the old concrete bridge abutment and then left onto State Route 210/Main Street to enter town on this 0.6-mile detour. A right turn onto Broad Street regains the trail at the Legion Park soccer fields.
The route east out of Maxwell is much the same, although you’ll lose some tree cover along this stretch. The trail segment ends in Collins at a trailhead with ample parking on Railway Street. The farming community celebrates vintage tractors the second Sunday of September for the Go CAPOOT (Collins Area People on Old Tractors) Tour.
There is no sanctioned detour to a 4.4-mile-long orphaned trail segment east of Collins that features one of the trail’s highlights, the massive Hoy Bridge. Heading east from 730th Avenue, the trail crosses Clear Creek on the 212-foot-long, 60-foot-high reinforced-concrete arch bridge built in 1912. A path down the embankment offers a creekside view. You’ll arrive in Rhodes in another mile, where the trail abruptly ends, awaiting a future extension east.
Note: Story County allows hunting and trapping in November, December, and January between 520th and 535th Avenues, between 597th and 640th Avenues, and between 670th and 680th Avenues.
To reach trailhead parking in Slater from I-35, take Exit 102 onto westbound SR 210. Go 5.4 miles, and turn right onto Linn St. (County Road R38). Go 0.5 mile, and look for the Trailhead Park and Arboretum sign on the right. Turn left onto the path in the back of the parking lot, and go about 200 feet to the trail. The western trailhead is 0.5 mile to the left along the trail at First Ave. N and Greene St.; a right turn heads toward Collins.
To reach the trailhead in Collins from I-35, take Exit 102 onto eastbound SR 210. Go 9.5 miles, and turn right in Maxwell to remain on IA 210/Fifth St. Go 4.7 miles, and turn left onto US 65/First Ave. Go 0.6 mile, and turn right onto First St. in Collins, and then go about 400 feet and turn right onto Second Ave. Trailhead parking is straight ahead after crossing Railway St. in one block.
To reach parking at the western end of the Rhodes section from I-35, take Exit 102 onto eastbound SR 210. Go 9.5 miles, and turn right in Maxwell to remain on SR 210/Fifth St. Go 4.7 miles, and turn left onto US 65/First Ave. Go 1 mile, and turn right onto 310th St. in Collins; then go 3 miles, and turn left onto 730th Ave. Look for a small parking turnout in 0.1 mile on the right.
To reach trailhead parking in Rhodes from I-35, take Exit 102 onto eastbound SR 210. Go 9.5 miles, and turn right in Maxwell to remain on SR 210/Fifth St. Go 4.7 miles, and turn left onto US 65/First Ave. Go 1 mile, and turn right onto 310th St. in Collins; then go 3 miles, and turn left onto 730th Ave. Go 1.8 miles, and turn right onto 295th St. Go 3.3 miles, and turn right onto S. Main St. in Rhodes. Go 0.1 mile, and look for parking on the left at the junction with W. Kimball St. The endpoint is located less than a half mile northwest at E. Jefferson St.
If you are on a fat bike this one should be on your list. There are large sections of crushed limestone, some very short sections of pavement and some good deal of trail that is not groomed well.
On my fat bike the "not groomed well" sections make me very happy.
The only complaint I would voice is that it is not marked well. Riding east from Slater I had to cut it short in Maxwell as I lost the trail.
Note: this is for gravel bikes and fat bikes. For roady-racers try the High Trestle trail
I started on the east end of the trail at Rhodes. Good grief the trail was rough as heck---hoof marks were bad. After a couple miles of beating myself to death riding to the east, I turned around and headed west only to find that less than an a mile west of Rhodes, the trail was destroyed from four wheel drive trucks---mud,deep ruts and water holes. Totally impassable! I drove to Collins and tried again---this time it was loose gravel and soft sand that made the ride west of Collins a challenge---no fun, just work. The next day I drove to Slater, to try the west end of this trail. Even though it was raining, the trail (crushed limestone) was a smoother ride. I won't go back to the Heart of Iowa trail in the near future and maybe never given my age. Lots of work needs to be done east of Cambridge and the equestrians, 4x4 and farmers with heavy equipment need to quit destroying the trail.
We rode from Collins to Cambridge. There were a few spots between Collins and Maxwell that were in need of repair, but it looks like they are trying. There were several spots of very loose gravel and a few mud holes. All in all it was a fun and exciting ride. :D
Rode Slater to Maxwell on October 25th, 2014. Beautiful low-traffic trail with lots to recommend it. Our out of town guest was really impressed!
Towns, services, 'social stops' and benches are nicely spaced. Still a few holes in the center of the trail between Huxley and Cambridge, looks like equestrian damage. Bike lane portion is bike friendly.
The Water Street Bar and Grill in Cambridge was a nice surprise. Bar owner Scott is very welcoming and the eats looked top notch. He has a full Moscow Mule menu!
The bridge over the Skunk River is very picturesque and certainly photo worthy.
Some loose gravel east of the Skunk, no problem for fatties or MTB but all others beware.
Thanks trail people!
We rode our road bikes on this trail from Slater to Maxwell in October, 2014, and were disappointed. Basically, the trail still hasn't been repaired since the flood of 2013. The stretch from Slater to Cambridge is OK but the stretch from Cambridge to Maxwell is passable but full of mud holes and dangerous loose gravel.
This is a great trail for those of us who are looking for less groomed trails. Please don't down-rate trails just because they're not paved; we're not all looking for 8 foot wide Army Corps of Engineers golden paths. This site has a filter that lets users exclude non-paved trails, and it prominently indicates the Surface of the trails in the database.
In the past year, the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail has seen some significant improvement with the completion of the bridge over the Skunk River. One can now travel from Huxley to Maxwell essentially without leaving the trail surface. Just a couple more gaps remain. This trail follows the former main line of the Milwaukee Road that once crossed Iowa carrying the Hiawatha and other notable trains. Lots of history all along this trail, and the adjacent High Trestle Trails and Raccoon River Valley Trail (west of Perry) which all have segments built on this former railroad ROW.
Connection from Cambridge to S-14 done, 2 new bridges, one over the north/south Union Pacific tracks and one over the Skunk River. ( ribbon cutting June 4 2011, National Trails day) This part I think will be most scenic, crossing the river and through the cut to the east. Maxwell area had some flood damage to the trail last summer ( August 2010) at least 210, the closest road, has fairly low traffic if you find the trail impassible.
I'd rate if higher if paved, a couple gaps need closed too.
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