Decorah's new destination trail opens

Posted: September 27, 2012
Decorah's new destination trail opens

Some trails become destinations. The High Trestle Trail from Ankeny to Woodward proved that over the last two years. People flocked to it from all over Iowa and beyond. The Iowa Great Lakes Trail in northwest Iowa is another, winding around Iowa's clearest bodies of water.

Now another paved Iowa trail can make a solid argument, just in time for fall biking: Decorah's recently completed Trout Run Trail.

The scenic loop around the northeast Iowa college town is less than half as long as the High Trestle or Iowa Great Lakes trails, but its 11 miles pack a long list of highlights that include public art, bluff vistas, riverside views and challenging switchbacks. It also runs past an often-visited trout hatchery and the famed nest of the Decorah eagles that millions have viewed on a live online camera.

It wasn't easy to build in this most rugged of Iowa topography, taking 12 years and $8 million before officials could finally cut the ribbon at a trail celebration Sept. 23.

You can park a couple of blocks north of the charming downtown district that includes a nationally known Norwegian-American museum, restaurants, taverns and ice cream shops and begin by skirting the Upper Iowa River, one of the best rivers in the Midwest for bluffs and clear waters.

You will pass parks along a tributary creek, then the fish hatchery and eagle's nest, before entering a series of switchbacks in the hilly countryside south of Decorah. Heading north into town, across the last link of trail to be finished late this summer (a pedestrian bridge over busy Highway 9) you will see more pleasant river views. A cut right through a limestone bluff takes you back to your start.

The trail started with that western stretch many years ago, when the little-used gravel Dug Road was converted to a 1.8-mile trail. Officials noticed people would drive dozens of miles just to stroll on that small trail along the river.
A trails group formed in 2001 with visions to expand it to the fish hatchery, said Mike Huinker, a Trails of Winneshiek County board member. The vision expanded in 2005 — a full loop around the outskirts of town — when Vision Iowa grant money became available.

Decorah was already a lure to river paddlers, trout fishermen and mountain bikers, who were attracted to 16 miles of single track on the north side. But Huinker said the biggest challenge was convincing 24 landowners of the value of a multiuse asphalt and concrete trail that would wind through their property. A nearby example proved handy. Just to the north, Lanesboro, Minn., had become a tourism magnet, largely thanks to its Root River Trail.

They realized they had to build an expensive bridge over the busiest highway in this northeast Iowa hub and blast away thousands of tons of limestone to cut through a bluff north of the highway.

Organizers also led an effort to install public art along the trail.

These amenities, plus three additional branches of the trail that go to neighborhoods and Luther College, added to the cost and required raising $1.3 million in private donations to add to county, state and federal grants.

"It was relatively easy," said Brenda Balk, director of the Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That speaks volumes about Decorah."

The trail is truly a destination now, said Andrea Chase, trails coordinator for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and it's not surprising it took 12 years to complete, considering the tight funding for trails.

"We should not forget that this is not just a paved path around town. This is a sculpture park, a fitness facility, a transportation corridor, an outdoor classroom and an economic resource," Chase said. "When you think of the work that it takes to create just one of these amenities, and realize that Decorah has integrated them all into an 11-mile multiuse trail, 12 years doesn't seem so bad at all."

The project has already added to the quality of life for residents.

Case in point: Joe Sheridan, 62, of Decorah. At 255 pounds and on two blood pressure medications two years ago, his doctor urged him to lose 10 pounds.

Back problems meant walking was difficult, so he bought a bike. Two years later, he has pedaled 8,000 miles on the Trout Run Trail. His back is stronger and feels better, he's off his medication, and he lost 60 pounds by biking 182 days this past year. With the trail complete, he now makes two loops around it nearly every day.

"There are so many things to see. Some trails are former railroad beds and are flat, but we've got great scenery and some challenging switchbacks and cuts," he said. "On that first switchback the other day I passed a lady and she said, ‘Look at that view,' and I said, ‘Yes ma'am. It's here every day.' I think it will be a magnet to bring people here just to see our scenery. Already, I've noticed everyone is bringing their bikes."

Source: Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register, Sept. 7, 2012

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