MADRID — The High Trestle Bridge is pretty unforgettable.
Towering 130 feet above the Des Moines River in central Iowa, the pedestrian and bike bridge spans a half mile long and is the focal point of a 25-mile paved recreational trail heading northwest from Ankeny to Woodward and Sheldahl, Slater, Madrid in between. The trail bears the same name — the High Trestle Trail. Rust-colored metal frames arch over the bridge like box cribs supporting a mine tunnel in tribute to the old river valley coal industry.
Spaced a few dozen feet apart, each of the 40-some arches pivot slightly such that from the perspective of a bike saddle, it appears you are pedaling down a twisting corridor. Blue LED lights wrapping the arches come to life at night contrasting the contours of the bridge against the night sky. Six cropped out overlooks provide a place to stop and enjoy picturesque views. Even though I call Eastern Iowa home, I have family in Ankeny who enjoy cycling. The High Trestle Trail has been a regular part of my summer since it opened in 2011. A family bike ride earlier this month was my third time to the bridge this year.
A few things make it worth the trip.
First, the trail is built on an old railroad line, so it’s pretty flat. Even though it’s a long trail — 50 miles round trip from trailhead to trailhead — it’s not a grind. At a medium pace, say 15 miles an hour by bike, you can ride the trail back and forth in four hours.
While the trail is free of motorized vehicles, you still want to be careful and not go too fast because the trail gets busy. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter pinchpoints with other bikes, kids, joggers, rollerbladers and parents pushing strollers. Stop signs at road intersections are prevalent, especially at the southern end and near Madrid. Be sure to heed stop signs not only to avoid collisions, but also law enforcement has cracked down on blowing through.
Second, the trail and bridge are pretty convenient to access.
Free parking lots are located at five different access points along the trail, which makes it easy for people not from the area.
There’s parking at the south trailhead at West First Street in Ankeny and the north trailhead near the Whistling Donkey in Woodward. Slater and Madrid also have designated parking lots and a gravel lot sits a half mile east of the bridge, which makes it convenient to get to the High Trestle Bridge. Several points along the way have free bike fix-it stations with air pumps and bike wrenches.
Also, don’t feel you need to ride all 50 miles. Sometimes I’ll hop on from Ankeny to Slater (24 miles round trip) or Ankeny to the Oasis (about halfway between Ankeny and Slater, about 15 miles round trip).
Third, businesses have embraced the trail and cycling, which is good for business and trail users.
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The Firetrucker Brewery is near the trailhead in Ankeny. My fallbacks are the Uptown IPA or the 2 Alarm Red. A gazebo called the Oasis about seven miles north of Ankeny offers shade, seating, restroom, water fountain and a scenic view of farm country. Benches and clearings offer nature-based stopping points at several points along the trail, but the gazebo is the nicest. Next, pedal 5.6 miles north to Slater where the Nite Hawk Bar and Grill occupies the old city hall. The rear entrance faces the trail with an outdoor bar and big patio, bike parking and a specially designed water fountain for bottles. There’s typical bar and grill food with burgers, chicken sandwiches, wraps and appetizers, plus Iowa and craft beers alongside traditional domestic offerings and a spectacular Bloody Mary. The trail bends west 6.6 miles to Madrid past grain silos and elevators and into a tree-covered corridor and then old farm houses.
The deck of the Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid overlooks the trail and often is filled with cyclists. Built in an old Quonset hut, bikes hang from Flat Tire’s ceiling and patrons can rearrange tables to play bar games. Adjacent food carts offer ice-cold drinks and lunch food. Set off by two tall entryway pillars, the bridge is another 2.5 miles west of Madrid and it’s another three miles to the trailhead in Woodward, where a wooden signs points out businesses in town. The Whistling Donkey is the closest and offers food and drinks and a shaded patio.
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation calls the High Trestle Trail Iowa’s feature trail. It’s no surprise people travel from near and far, by bike or foot, to see it.