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Your guide to driving national trails in Iowa

Loess Hills is an impressive vantage point looling over the Missouri River valley along the Lewis & Clark Historic Trail
Loess Hills is an impressive vantage point looling over the Missouri River valley along the Lewis & Clark Historic Trail. (Marion Patterson/correspondent)
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When returning from Kansas years ago, a sign along Iowa’s Highway 2 revealed we were following the Mormon Heritage Trail.

On this dreary cold day, we wondered why anyone would choose to travel this remote section of the state.

Mormons didn’t have a choice. Persecuted in Missouri and Illinois, they were religious exiles walking west, often in appalling weather, to find a peaceful home in what became Utah.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left Nauvoo, Ill., in the winter of 1846, where they had previously settled to escape persecution. They crossed the Mississippi River and walked across Iowa. Onward they trudged through Nebraska and eventually to the promised land of Utah. Mormons had to walk, but today motorists traverse their route in a car’s comfort.

Most people think of trails as places for recreation. Bicycling, hiking and cross-country skiing are a few of the many activities Iowans enjoy on thousands of relatively new trails scattered about the state. However, through a Congressional act passed in 1978, the National Park Service has designated several National Historic Trails to commemorate courageous Americans who walked and rode primitive wagons before the automobile era.

Fall is a great time to take in these driving trails for fun and to learn fascinating aspects of history.

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail is just one of many driving trails that roughly follow the route of past migrants. It stretches about 1,400 miles from Nauvoo, Ill., to its terminus in Salt Lake City. Along the way, motorists can stop at various historic sites.

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Close to one-fourth of the trail winds through southern Iowa’s undulating hills. We have enjoyed driving many stretches of the trail and visited key landmarks at Nauvoo and Bentonsport, Iowa. They helped us appreciate the dedicated Mormons who endured hardships to practice their religion in peace.

Probably Iowa’s best-known Historic Trail is the Lewis & Clark that follows the Missouri River. The Corps of Discovery rowed upriver, but today’s motorists drive on the riverbank. An impressive vantage point is from atop one of the Loess Hills looming over the river valley. Sioux City’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center offers interactive displays helping visitors discover how 19th century trails channeled hundreds of thousands of Americans westward in search of a new and better life.

Lewis and Clark polled and rowed their way up the Missouri River but later emigrants following the Mormon, Oregon and other trails walked across the future Nebraska along the Platte River before diverging toward Oregon, Utah or California. Western Missouri and Iowa were jumping off points for those hopeful refugees about to trudge across the Great Plains.

Americans in the 1800s had to walk, ride horses or ride in wagons pulled by oxen or mules. Once cars emerged in the early 1900s, people quickly abandoned muscle for machine powered transportation. The Good Roads movement was established across the Midwest to urge governments to build and maintain both highways and farm to market roads. For the better part of the 20th Century roads were America’s transportation and recreation focus.

That began changing as mobile and affluent Americans turned to the outdoors for fun. Iowa’s state parks were created after the First World War and our outstanding county park system was begun after the next world war. They enabled city dwellers to comfortably drive to natural areas for camping and picnicking. Motor trails were established on newer highways that often were built over, or parallel to, old foot and wagon paths.

More trails

The Mormon and Lewis and Clark are two of six trails in our state listed on the Travel Iowa website.

The others are:

— Dragoon Trail: This 200-mile-long roadway follows the Des Moines, Boone and Raccoon Rivers and commemorates an 1835 trek by U.S. Army dragoons. Dragoons were mounted infantry who scouted the area after the Black Hawk Purchase.

— The Cody Trail: Honoring Iowa native, Buffalo Bill Cody, this short, Eastern Iowa trail makes a great day trip culminating with a visit to the American Pickers Store in LeClaire. Its unusual collection is identifiable by an antique car out front. The store is open and follows CDC guidelines to keep staff and visitors safe. A few miles away is Buffalo Bill’s boyhood home.

— Historic Route 6 Trail: Most Eastern Iowans have driven the stretch of US Route 6 between Iowa City and the Amana Colonies. It is the longest continuous highway in America, stretching from Provincetown, Mass., to Long Beach, Calif. Cross country motorists defy the Chicago area’s dense traffic and pierce Nevada’s lonely desert.

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— White Pole Trail: Although we haven’t driven this western Iowa trail, it sounds intriguing with its references to Bonnie and Clyde and Jesse James’ robberies.

Other driving trails include the Great River Road along the Mississippi River and the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves north to freedom. The former offers scenery while the latter history. While not necessarily a marked trail, motorists can plot a route based on the website.

Bicycle and hiking trails

Late 20th Century trails were far different from the pioneer trails of the 1800s. They’re designed for fun and exercise, rather than paths followed by explorers and emigrants.

Names can be confusing. For example, the Lewis & Clark National Heritage trail is mostly a driving experience. Not so our many national recreation trails. Cedar Rapids’ Sac and Fox National Recreation Trail is the granddaddy of dozens of relatively new trails that cater to muscle powered activities.

In the 1960s, the former Bureau of Outdoor Recreation began designating national trails. The National Park Service now administers the program. In the early 1970s, the Cedar Rapids Parks Department established a muddy route on the newly acquired Cedar River Greenbelt. The Sac and Fox became Iowa’s First National Recreation Trail and remained lightly developed until it was improved and lengthened in 1990.

Many other trails soon followed, often amid strident controversy. When the Cedar Valley Nature Trail was proposed to link Cedar Rapids with Waterloo, it met strong political resistance, mostly from adjoining landowners who feared cyclists and hikers would commit crimes. Trail proponents persisted and today it’s one of Eastern Iowa’s most popular trails. Serious crime didn’t materialize.

Many Eastern Iowa trails were blocked and closed by tree wreckage from the August derecho. They are gradually reopening.

Even in the COVID-19 era, Eastern Iowans can enjoy carefully planned day and overnight trips to intriguing historic and recreation trails. They traverse quaint, restful bits of Iowa’s Americana.

Along the way are such interesting stops as the Dutchman’s Store in Cantril, the American Gothic Home in Eldon, the Kate Shelley High Bridge near Boone and dozens more.

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We can all use a bit of settling in this unusual year. As Roy Rogers and Dale Evans sang, “Happy Trails to You!”

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