ABOUT THE LOOP
After serving as a railroad right-of-way beginning in the 1800s, the Raccoon River Valley Trail now attracts more than 350,000 Iowans and tourists every year.
The Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) uses the former right-of-way of a railroad built in the late 19th century to connect the city of Des Moines with the Iowa Great Lakes region in the northwest part of the state.
The first rail company involved was the Des Moines Western Railroad Company, which became part of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad. The line opened in 1881 as a narrow-gauge railroad. But a decade later, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad – known in short form as the “Milwaukee Road” – had taken it over and widened it to standard gauge.
For more than 50 years, it was a popular rail line, taking many vacationers from central Iowa right to the shores of Storm Lake, the Okoboji’s and Big Spirit Lake. By 1952, however, when the easy availability of automobiles had changed the public’s preference in traveling, passenger service on the Milwaukee Road was discontinued.
The line continued to be used for freight trains for another 35 years, but by the middle of the 1980’s all rail service was discontinued. The Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIECO) purchased the right of way in 1987.
CIECO, the Iowa Trails Council, and the Conservation Boards from Dallas and Guthrie counties came to an agreement later that year to allow the development of a multi-use trail on the right-of-way. Initially the idea was that the power company could reclaim the route for development of a new railroad, should a need develop for a new power plant to be built along the right-of-way in west central Iowa.
However, no such need ever developed. In 2001, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation helped the counties, which now included Greene County, complete the purchase of the right of way from CIECO with money from an Iowa Trails grant from the Department of Transportation. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which is nonprofit group based in Des Moines that operates statewide, has been an instrumental partner in the RRVT expansions over the past three decades.
The trail received its name from the branches of the Raccoon River that frequently appear alongside the trail or under its bridges. Work on developing the trail commenced in 1987 and the first section of the RRVT opened in 1989. By 1990 the 34-mile route from Waukee to Yale was completed. A 12-mile addition from Jefferson to Herndon was completed in 1997 with Greene County Conservation joining the consortium owning and operating the trail.
Other trails in Iowa were being developed at the same time, but the RRVT was unique as it was a paved trail, unlike most other trails in Iowa which were crushed limestone.
In 1999 a five-mile extension was completed east from Waukee to connect with the Green Belt Trail in the Des Moines suburb of Clive which in turn connects to the many other trails in the metro area. In that same year another five miles of the trail was finished, connecting Herndon to Yale.
In 2006, a nonprofit group, the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association was formed and tasked with fundraising and promoting the trail. The association remains in place today, helping not only with trail promotion, but expansion and trail quality as well.
Branding the trail was a big task for the both the association and the counties but help came in the form of students. The Iowa State University College of Design took on the development of the trail’s logo as one of their design projects. There were three or four different teams from the class that worked on the design project, and they all submitted their ideas for the logo design. In the end, most of their ideas were combined into one: the raccoon emblem, the color scheme and the diamond shape that the raccoon is placed on.
It was 2007 when the former railroad right of way, now called the “north loop”, was purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad. Six years later this stretch of the trail was completed, making the RRVT an expansive and seamless trail loop, 89 miles in length with the distinction of being the longest paved loop trail in the United States.
In 2015 The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs designated the RRVT as one of Iowa’s Great Places. Iowa Great Places are designated to support new and existing infrastructure that cultivates unique and authentic qualities of neighborhoods, communities and regions in Iowa.
A national honor was afforded the RRVT in 2021 when it became the 35th trail in the United States to be elected a Hall of Fame trail in a nation-wide vote conducted by the Rails to Trail Conservancy. The Rail-Trail Hall of Fame inductee is selected annually during a public vote. Hall of Fame trails are an elite group recognized for outstanding scenic value, high use, trailside amenities, historical significance, excellence in management, maintenance of the trail, community connections, geographic distribution, and community value.
In the last few years, a cascade of exciting projects has been rippling down the trail, enhancing the experience and luring in new travelers and supporters. As improvements along the trail—including new signage, public art, depot restorations and other amenities—developed over time, pride in the trail grew and, with it, a realization of its benefits, spurring related positive changes in the trail towns.
In Waukee, a stunning art piece enlivens the trailhead there. Created by David Dahlquist, the Waukee Railroad Pergola “In the Shadow of the Rails” is both futuristic and historical with its colorful red, white and black design that looks like a railroad path above a trail user. It is lighted at night and is a tribute to the rail heritage of the trail communities. Each of the trail cities has a smaller model of this work, providing a culturally relevant and unifying art theme for the trail.
In nearby Adel, a lighted bridge welcomes bikers, joggers, walkers and families into the city. The bridge’s 66 color-changing LED lights are lit each night at dusk with the color changed monthly. Almost every city on the trail has some artwork ranging from restored depots in Redfield, Dawson, Jefferson, Cooper, Minburn, and Perry; a big bike in Perry, a trailside garden and covered shelter in Panora, and a shaded trailhead with restroom facilities in Dallas Center.
Signage has been a staple of the RRVT almost since its inception. Mileage signs are in each town, giving the distance to the next two towns in either direction. There are also signs noting historical points of significance along the trail. And signs still remain from the days when the trail was a railroad.
Connecting the RRVT to other trails in Central Iowa continues to be a top priority and perhaps the biggest trail connection of all time in Central Iowa should be done by the end of 2024. Connecting the RRVT to the High Trestle Trail will link two of the premier recreational trails in Iowa. This new connection of two major trails will create an 86-mile loop and 118-mile loop, allowing trail users more options than ever before. Dubbed the “Let’s Connect” project the route will span 9 miles between the cities of Perry and Woodward.
The RRVT has given new life to a number of small towns that were economically damaged when the railroads ended their service. Many thought that their towns had met their end because the railroads were such a storied contributor to the economic base of the communities. However, the trail has given them more people than the trains ever brought, and they’ve learned to cater to them in different ways. The RRVT continues to serve and connect the same original rail communities as it did over 150 years ago when the trains first rolled across the prairies of Iowa.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association relies on the support of individuals and organizations to keep our historic trail in good shape. Our partners and sponsors understand the value of having scenic, historical and nationally recognized opportunities for Iowans and tourists to enjoy our state while supporting our local businesses. We hope you'll consider joining us by partnering with us financially as a friend or sponsor!