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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. As of 2019, the trail has been paved for 2.5 miles between 535th Ave.(Huxley) and Slater.
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.
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