2014 Iowa – Day 12 – Ankeny to Ledges State Park: Hiking trails and rail trails

Friday May 30, 2014, 39 miles (64 km) – Total so far: 501 miles (806 km)

Someone needs to grab the sky over Iowa and give it a good squeeze. The atmosphere could do with a good wringing out. The blanket of humidity is tucked up tight as far as I can see, the atmospheric insulation already becoming oppressive as I slip down the rail trail at 6am. The skin on my arms is already shiny with sweat. The moisture beads on my forehead and soaks the liner inside my helmet.

In the first 10 miles out of Ankeny, I pass about 10 cyclists and joggers. Some of them are seriously training on skinny tire road bikes. Others are just out for their morning exercise. But it seems the 10-mile mark is the general turn-around point. From then on, I only see one guy until I get to Madrid.

The guy I do see is on a road bike and is in full lycra. He is probably in his 50s and has pulled off the trail onto a gravel driveway leading into a field. His bike lays prone at his feet. He is just concluding a mobile phone call as I close in. I slow down, thinking he might have been phoning for help since it doesn’t appear that he has an underseat bag or anything to carry a patch kit. I ask if he’s okay as I slow almost to a stop.

He replies with frustration, “No. I’m not. I’m just doing work. That was a work call.”

I call back, as I start to pedal onward, “Okay, just thought I could lend you some tools or a patch kit if you needed it.” I can’t fix demanding jobs or workaholics. Flat tire – I could have helped with that.

Onward I go on the High Trestle Rail Trail – a bike path 25 miles long between Ankeny and Woodward. Union Pacific first proposed abandoning this section of line in 2003. In 2005, they pulled up tracks and the land was purchased for this rail trail.

Heading out of Slater toward Madrid on the High Trestle Trail.

Sheldahl does not yet seem to really be on board with the rail trail idea though. The grass grows tall alongside the edge of the trail through here. A porta-potty appears to be about the only trail facility, and it is sitting at a precarious angle among tall weeds. There is no welcome sign on the trail or really any acknowledgement of it.

Slater, however, is fully embracing the trail. It advertises that it has a library and a park and free wifi on the trail corridor. A bar with bike racks and outdoor seating faces the trail and welcomes cycling patrons. Madrid steps it up even further. It has flush toilets, a large parking area and trail information as you come into town on the trail. Signs at each road intersection direct you to services and shops with distances from the trail given. There is a place to rent bikes in town. There are two bars with outdoor seating right along the trail.

Madrid is only 2.5 miles east of the trail highlight – the half mile-long bridge over the Des Moines River. It is one of the largest rail trail bridges in the world. There are already several people out walking or riding along the trail. The cutest is a young girl about 3-years-old in a bright pink sundress pushing a stroller that she might otherwise be riding in. With her is probably her great-grandfather (because he is probably old enough to be my grandfather) whom is incredibly patient with their super slow pace and jagged route from side-to-side on the path. The little girl can’t see where she is pushing, so she’s heading in almost every direction but straight. It is absolutely darling though, and that comes from someone who doesn’t really like children!

Riding across the High Trestle Trail bridge.

The bridge is very impressive. It is not really a trestle – the old trestle bridge was abandoned in 1971 when the Saylorville Reservoir was built not far downstream. The trestle bridge could not withstand the water of the reservoir and its currents when full, so they installed a bridge on 22 concrete pillars. When UP abandoned the rail-line, they took all of the bridge decking with them to re-use. Consequently, this section remained unfinished for several years while funding was obtained to build the decking you now see. This bridge was only opened in 2011.

The bridge is 2530 feet long with the towers on either end a half-mile apart. The towers are meant to look like river banks with coal seams running through them. Along the bridge are metal arches which are meant to represent cribbing in a coal mine, reflecting the coal mining history of the area. As you move along the path, it is as though you are moving through a mine tunnel and back in time. Or so the interpretive panels explain. There are panels all along the bridge explaining geology, ecology and local history. It is also mandatory that you stop and look over the edge and give yourself some vertigo. The bridge is 13 stories tall, sitting 130 feet above the river.

The High Trestle Trail runs from Ankeny up to Woodward. Just outside of Madrid you ride across the 13-story high bridge that spans the Des Moines River Valley. This is the east side.
The metal arch spiral things are meant to look like cribbing in the old coal mines that used to dominate the area. It is meant to take you back in time as you cross.

I stop to eat my sandwich at picnic tables located at the western end of the bridge. I am amazed by the number of people I see on recumbents – at least eight. I only see two people on upright bikes. Everyone waves at each other as they pass.

On the western side of the bridge looking back east from the picnic area.

I head back across the bridge to Madrid. In town I stop at a convenience store for a chocolate milk. The cashier comes out to have a cigarette while I down the milk. She can’t understand how I can drink milk when it is so hot already. “Doesn’t it curdle in you”? I laugh and tell her that I have been asked that before but don’t understand how milk doesn’t seem appropriate on a hot day, but ice cream, just another form of milk, is deemed okay. It’s her turn to laugh. “I hadn’t thought about it that way”!

She is curious about the bike and what I carry in the panniers. She can’t believe I have a tent, sleeping bag and clothes all stowed away. She’s lived here her whole life and can’t really imagine a life outside of working at the gas station in Madrid. She thinks I’m a little bit nuts. “Some people might think you are inspirational. I think you are just crazy. But there aren’t enough girls with guts, so that’s good to see”. New customers arrive so she has to snuff out her cigarette and head back inside. As she goes, she says, “Good luck to you, you crazy lady”.

I head north on Hwy 17. The road is freshly paved and has a shoulder. I turn off in about eight miles for Ledges State Park. The campground is just inside the front entrance and has electric, non-electric and walk-in loops. All of the reserved sites have people arriving tonight, and there are already a bunch of campers here. It’s a Friday night and the park is incredibly close to large population centres. The walk-in sites are about 2/3 full, so I just grab an attractive non-electric site instead that is about a ¼ mile closer to the water and toilets than the walk-in sites.

Camped beneath a trinity of oaks.

The crew and I spend the afternoon nearly exhausting the park’s trail system. The trails aren’t very well-maintained and there are a bunch of social trails branching off everywhere, but we enjoy traversing the deep ravines and along the tall bluffs with views of the Des Moines River. I only see one guy out on the trails – an attractive, fit guy in his 50s who asks me where I’ve come from and if I have any clue where I am. He doesn’t have a map. I share mine – he takes a photo of it to use and heads off in the direction I’ve just come from.

Out for a hike at Ledges State Park. The guys would hang here all day if I’d let them.
Guys hanging out on the ledges the park is named after.
The creek meandering through the ledges.

The real attraction for most visitors, however, is the road that runs through the creek between the ‘ledges’. I am amazed at how many people are down here. The porta-potties and trash cans are very full. There are people parked in all sorts of places. Every bend in the creek and every part accessible by road is filled with people frolicking in the water. Wherever the road crosses the creek, the cars actually have to drive through the water. These sections are crowded with kids jumping from the causeway into the creek. Whenever a car approaches, the kids stand on the concrete pads of the causeway and swing their arms in huge circles, motioning the cars through. The drivers speed up and spray the kids with the wake off of the cars. It looks like immense fun for kiddos under 12.

Very popular place to come play in the creek that runs through the canyon between all the ledges. I cannot imagine how over-run this place would be on a hot, summer day. Those kids are lined up where the road runs through the creek. They wave the drivers through, who floor it and soak the kids with the spray off the car wake.

Late in the afternoon, the guys and I head back to our campsite. We’re hungry and thirsty. It has been hot and humid today. This park has been scenic, and it was fun to hike the trails, but it just looks so over-used everywhere. I would not want to be the park manager here trying to protect the vegetation, water quality and creek banks but also trying to provide the recreation activities everyone is here to experience. Popularity and resource protection can be a very dangerous mix that is hard to balance. At least all those people are pretty courteous in the full campground tonight. Everyone gets quiet shortly after 10pm and I sleep deeply without waking the entire night.

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