Hiking the Rolling Prairie Rail Trail
Franklin and Butler Counties, Iowa
October 10th - 11th, 2015
Enjoying the outdoors in the Midwest can sometimes mean being exposed to some great, unknown experiences. It can also men, and maybe more often does mean, taking advantage of what comes your way. And because the Midwest is largely private land, this means accepting whatever public land you can get onto as good, public land which often comes in the form of vacated railroad Right of Ways, laid out to bring hordes of people west, stopping every 5 or 10 miles to load up on water for engines and grain for market, but now surpassed in efficiency by trucks and cars for moving commodities and people.
Various groups, nationally spearheaded by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, have been working to take these right of ways and convert them into bike trails. The logic is great as these paths are already graded and ready to be paved (a casual biker, like a train, doesn't do well going up a slope greater than 5%) and they connect existing places. In the rural Midwest especially, these trails can serve as valuable drivers of tourism and economic growth as bikers want amenities like cafe's and bars to make a trip complete. The Rolling Prairie Trail, between Coulter in Franklin County and Shellrock in Bulter County, Iowa, is one of the these trails, spearheaded not by the Rails to Trails Conservancy by the County Conservation Boards, with a goal of making this nearly 40 mile trail an attraction for Iowa's very active bicycle community.
However, in the time between being a path for trains and a path for bikes, this trail, like most, sits as just a very long, narrow, conservation easement; open in most places to hunting and all places to hiking, though without a designated “trail”. And because it was once a railway, there are few houses near the trail. All of which combined to make it a perfect east overnight for me and my friend Steve. As the date grew closer, the unseasonably warm weather also meant it would be a great chance to try hammock camping.
My wife and I picked Steve up from work on Saturday afternoon and made the trip south to Hampton quickly. Despite not being the end of the trail, Hampton is the largest town on the route, and getting on the trail as late as we did (4:38 pm) we didn't want to risk walking through here later when we might violate the city's park curfew. Plus, this got us to the secluded areas much faster. With our backpacks and hiking book, I'm sure we looked odd to the joggers and bikers we passed, but by a mile or so out of town, we were alone.
Like most Rail Trails in the Midwest, Rolling Prairie is generally arrow straight, however decades of lack of use have at least allowed nature to reclaim some of the sides and trees and bushes now give us a little change of scenery. Also changing was the path under our feet, from paved to hard pack gravel to dirt with smatterings of railroad ballast. At some points, the ballast grew large, even melon sized; this feature is probably the most difficult and off-putting aspect of the whole trail.
I had anticipated this first section of trail would be more well trodden and have more signs of use, but in all reality, it was not that different from the more remote sections we would cross later on. Except in one regard. Roughly three miles out of Hampton the trail crossed a road and there was a “road closed” sign across the walking section. Beyond, the trail looked more well maintained than behind, so we assumed it had no impact on us and was to keep people from accidentally turning here, being as there was an intersection just a few yards away. Of course, we went around the sign and enjoyed the well packed trail. A half mile ahead, the reason for the road closed sign became evident, and it did impact us.
As I would later learn, in 2013 the Franklin County Conservation Board received a gift from the North Iowa Community Endowment Fund to install functional bridges over creeks in this section of trail. And this, a 100 ft long wooden beauty, made our walk much easier in the starting to fade sun. Wide enough for an emergency vehicle or trail groomer pulled by a snowmobile, but filled in enough to allow crossing by bikes and people. No skipping from tie to tie for us this night. Instead we could stop and take some pictures of the setting sun, a tractor in the distance combining corn, racing the same dark we were. We would cross another shorter, though just as attractive bridge just a short distance away where we stopped to relax and watch cows watch us.
Shortly thereafter, we passed through Hansell, a town of under 100 people 5 trail miles from Hampton, and exactly the sort of place that will benefit most from the trail when completed. But for now, it's just a grain elevator and a place we breeze through, aware of the sinking sun and a barking dog we are not quite sure is fenced in.
Out goal for the night is a conservation area adjacent the trail where we can hang our hammocks out of sight, because even though we are within the law, we don't feel like dealing with inquisitive locals. Once it came safely into view, though, we felt it was okay to pause and view the blazing sunset behind us. The uninterrupted Iowa horizon giving us a nearly 180° view of orange and red and purple.
We regretted, a little, waiting so long, as it was pitch black by the time we did make it to the trees. But after a short amount of fumbling, first through what I was afraid might be a marsh but was just grass, then over a berm into the trees, we found a suitable place to hang out hammocks, without cover tarps in the 50° warmth, and set about making supper. The dehydrated chili was, as should be on any long hike, much more delicious than it could possibly be on a normal day. We crawled into bed by 9, having hung our food a hundred yards away and were treated to quite the show of stars through the trees.
In the dark, in the openness of a hammock, the small Iowa woodlot did take on a more unearthly wilderness than I expected. Of course, this being October in Iowa, a combine ran most of the night, and a grain dryer all of it. Buy beyond that, the natural world made itself much more known. Paws crushed leaves and scratched bark. At one point, something suddenly, I don't know, screeched (?) an cawed in a nearby tree, loud as if startled, but made no other noise then or the rest of the night. We spent some time wondering aloud what it could be, but eventually drifted to sleep.
A brisk but not brutally cold, sunny morning woke us. No sign of our mystery beast, though we did realize walking another 50 feet would have given us much better options for hanging hammocks, We ate a quick breakfast of cold oatmeal and were on the trail by 7:30 or so.
We quickly cross the next road, the county line, and the difference on the trail is stark. Franklin County, where we are coming from, has maintained most of the trail to a level of passibility throughout. Butler County, where we are entering, has opted to focus on certain sections more in-depth, this western edge is not one of them. The trail is thickly covered with tall prairie grass, brambles and bushes. The ground looks intentionally broken up to dissuade passage. We push on. Eventually trails made by deer, or hunters, become passable, and human activity is obvious. A washing machine in the ditch hints why the county might have made the trail impassible. ATV trails and a bridge hand-made from a pallet hint that plenty of people don't care.
Here, we again feel more isolated though, with the thick trees and a slight ridge to the north blocking our views. We saw some wildlife, a deer, a pheasant, an maybe most interesting, a black skink, a sort of lizard native to Iowa, which was warming itself in the sun at the mouth of its burrow. We also saw indications of an older type of agriculture, with hog huts hidden deep in the woods, from a time when pigs were free range instead of manufactured. And, at a home just outside Dumont, horses, now pets instead of instruments of farming or transport.
And at Dumont (population 633) we stepped off the trail to poke around, refresh our water, and make comfort adjustments to boots and packs. I am quite sure anyone who say us thought we were homeless hitchhikers, but to their credit, said nothing. We walked through downtown and up to the city park, then wound through residential streets past the vacant school.
Dumont, at about 13 trail miles from Hampton, is another town that will benefit from a functional trail. They already have that small downtown with a cafe (to be fair, I'm not sure it is in business or not) and a bar, as well as space adjacent to the trail where a pavilion could be built. And there is at least a convenience store where we stopped to get water (the park water was off and we didn't want to try our filter against the heart of Iowa farm country water if we didn't have to) and snacks. Again, I'm sure we were discussed after we left.
Just outside Dumont we came to what I think will be the biggest roadblock to completing this trail, as well as the defining feature (again, this will be a good thing for this town!). 400 ft long, 20 ft over the confluence of two streams is a massive, but damaged rail bridge, this time with no fancy covering. The base seems sturdy, but some ties across are missing and other have been burnt or rotten beyond passage.
After some time surveying from solid ground, we took a few steps out. The bridge seemed solid, so I proceeded as far as the where the burnt gaps started, but Steve held back. It seemed he has having some vertigo issues, and felt crossing the span wouldn't be the est for him. He opted to follow the river to the road and meet on the other side, while I inched across.
The worst area was about 100 ft out, where 3 and 4 ties were missing at a time, and even the supports showed signs of having been burnt. Someone, it seemed like they were out here regularly, had laid ties over the supports perpendicular to their normal direction, so at least there were 6 inch balance beams to cross on (with ample hand holds). I slipped off my pack so as to improve my balance, and scooted it in front of me while I crawled almost on all fours. The opening gave me a good view of the impressive structure holding the whole thing up, a little comfort to know the whole thing probably won't collapse under me. I just need to stay on top. Massive pillars of wood two feet wide where they sink into the river at 10 foot intervals, with a trellis of equally impressive beams building up to the deck I should have been able to walk over much more easily than I was. Once I was past the gap though, walking became much easier, and at the middle of the bridge where the truss system transitioned from wood to metal, I was able to stop and take in the scenery.
I was standing above the confluence of a relatively large but unnamed stream with the West Fork of the Cedar River, which occurred in the middle of a woody cow pasture. Aside from some fencing and the bridge itself, I could see no sign of man, not even the cows. Even in October, most of the trees still had leaves here down along the river, and many prairie flowers still bloomed. The water here moved quickly, and there were an assortment of well worn logs washed up on the banks of braced across the pylons of the bridge. The water was clear, and I could see fish. I would later learn the West Branch is an official water trail, and now I can't wait to pass under the bridge I was walking over.
I continued to the other side, know I have some time to kill before Steve catches up but not wanting to make him wait. At the east end, I make a quick descent to the water to fill a sample bottle for a citizen-science project on micro-plastics in water, run by an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This sample, along with hundreds of others will be analyzed at a lab in Maine to build a model of how and where these pollutants are entering the world's waters.
Strapping the sample into my pack, I proceeded on what may haven been the most idyllic portion of the trail, a place someone clearly cared about and for. A think, brushy tunnel 10 feet wide and arched 10 feet tall as far as the eye could see. This was something out of a story book. Twigs were trimmed back cleanly and there was no debris or trash anywhere. But while it was pretty, it had a more urban park feel than wilderness, and so I was glad to leave it behind in a sense as well. It would be the last time on this trip I would have to worry about that.
I met Steve where the trail crossed the next gravel road. He looked hot and uncomfortable, and said he had to walk along the highway rather than the river because it was too marshy. We ducked off the road onto a much more overgrown and shadier section of trail, alternately following deer or ATV tracks, We passed a Christian Service Camp, but the most interesting thing we noticed was the rock we walked on.
It varies radically, sometimes every few hundred feet. Different sizes, colors, textures. Clearly it was fill from the construction of the rail bed, and the variety indicated they were bringing in whatever they could to fill fast enough to keep construction on schedule, not just relying on small local quarries.
When we wandered into Bristow, a down that despite being farthest from a completed trail was obviously excited and expectant. The new town welcome sign even had a metal bicycle on it, and was positioned where the main through road crossed the trail, visible to both driver and biker. On the far side of town though we found the trail was essentially non-existent. There was an obvious right of way, but no mowed path or deer trail or even shorter grass growing out of rocks. Nature had seemingly totally reclaimed this section. But it was barely lunch, and we wanted to take advantage of our time out, so we pressed on. Luckily the hidden ground was stable and level, and only after a few hundred yards we opted to stop for lunch in a small clearing rather than eat on the go where we couldn't walk without looking at our feet.
Not long after that then, the path did open up, and we were treated to something I had expected much more of, wide open views. This section of the trail was largely pasture, prairie and farmland, where the western end of the trip ad been more woodland and farms. The constant wind rustling through the blue stem and high, midday sun gave us much more in adventure feelings than the mostly distant farm houses took away. There were several short bridges to cross, again no problem despite being untouched since the last trains went over them, and we spent a fair amount of time deciding when we should tell our ride, Steve's wife, to pick us up.
About four miles from our chosen destination, after passing through a grove of trees near a home that had started to be cleared, apparently for the trail, we could see we'd have one more tree covered hill to surmount. It's rise on the horizon, with the cut of the trail right up the middle, was quite the landmark, though the ability to see we'd be making such a straight line all the way to the horizon did detract from the experience somewhat.
The rise was, as this was an old rail bed, gradual. I would suggest to anyone building a trail here in the future to use any adjacent public lands to create short, winding, more difficult trail to garner some more interest. But at least as we did go up, trees again became more present. There were signs of old culverts and stonework as well. Sumac was present here but nowhere else along the trail, and perhaps most oddly, there was an obvious spring that made our walk much wetter than expected, so much so that eventually a small stream formed adjacent our walkway.
This is the section of trail I would most like to return to and explore. The tipping point came near the peak, just half a mile from Allison, our destination. A short trestle bridge, maybe 20 feet across, was positioned over a seemingly man-made cut in the hill, below which was an exposed concrete culvert, complete with an ornate arch, that allowed a small creek to flow from one side of the hill to the other, as if the hill had been built over the creek, or the creek diverted from a different route.
Only now, too, as I remember and record this trip, does this odd location stand out as an especially important spot. Wilderness, the outdoors in general, in the Midwest is an awkward balance of actual unique features and nature holding strong against the crush of humanity, and the pure reality of human desolation. While Iowa is actually an urban state (more than half the population lives in cities) it also has townships with fewer than 20 people, or .5 people per square mile. We are not the endless loneliness of the Sonora, or the Great Basin, but nor are we the megalopolis New England, and we never were. But we were a much more crowded pace a century ago, like Appalachia or the Adirondacks, places that now have wilderness within them. And I think we need to look at Wilderness here in the sense of Eastern Wilderness, to an extent, not Western Wilderness as our position relative to the Mississippi River would dictate.
We should leverage our loneliness, and our remnant patches of tall grass and bottom lands and meandering rivers, and not be discouraged or dissuaded by an old shack or pilot mound station. There is great beauty and much to be learned from uninterrupted horizon of grass, but also from the first peoples to try and live here, among the “wild” and establish our modern culture. And besides, if we want our wilderness to be totally virgin of the human existence, I think there are some tribal groups we ought to speak to.
Past the oh-so-strange bridge, the trail descended quickly towards a highway. There had been a bridge here the last time I passed through, but it was narrow to go under for cars, so I assume they cleared it to widen the road for “safety”. Beyond the gap we could see the paved trail start and head into town, then on beyond our view another 15 miles.
When this trail is complete, it will be a slight loss from the limited isolated natural areas we have here, but such a gain for all the small towns it will touch. And it's a needed gain. Our ride meets us on the edge of the road, and on our ride home on this Sunday afternoon, we drive through town and town looking to have a beer and a burger, and in four towns, each of well over 1,000 people, we find none. Wilderness indeed...