Great Western National Recreation Trail, Iowa

From Polk County Conservation Board

A key connection between urban Des Moines and the surrounding rural landscape, this 16.5-mile scenic rail-trail offers trail users the opportunity to journey through Iowa history.

National Recreation Trail

Designated in 2008

• View more details for this trail
in the NRT Database

• Learn about the NRT Program.

The Great Western Trail, running for more than 16 miles, connects quintessential rural Iowa landscapes with the burgeoning urban areas of Des Moines. Smooth, crushed-limestone surfaces on the north end of the trail provide a gentle route through rustic farms and wooded river valleys, and asphalt surfaces on the south end allow riders to coast through green fields and down rolling hills. Nature and recreation enthusiasts can hike, run, bicycle, cross country ski, bird watch, and participate in countless other activities. The project was designated a National Recreation Trail in 2008.

A trip along the Great Western Trail is a journey through history. Built on a converted rail bed, the trail follows the same path that travelers took through Iowa in the early 1900s. In 1914, no point in Iowa was more than 12 miles from a railroad, and the Great Western Trail preserves pieces of Iowa’s history, passing through Lida, the site of a munitions derailment, and an infamous wildfire on Churchville Prairie.

Trail users can also learn about Iowa’s natural history, witnessing prairie and wetland remnants along the railroad bed. These relatively undisturbed natural areas provide habitat for Iowa wildlife, and they give bikers and hikers a chance to spot birds, small mammals, reptiles, and insects that aren’t found in the city. The recently paved trail, managed jointly by the Warren and Polk County Conservation Boards, preserves some of Iowa’s endangered plants, those plants that had been wiped out in other parts of the state as land-use changes were made.

Some of the initial funding sources for the trail’s development included the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and the Izaak Walton League, two important conservation organizations in Iowa. The jointly managed trail is heavily used by bikers, joggers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts, and it is prized in Martensdale and Cumming, two small rural communities that host trail facilities.

Trailheads and facilities

The Great Western Trail runs south from Des Moines to Martensdale, Iowa. The Great Western trailheads are located across from the Izaak Walton League Clubhouse on Valley Drive in Des Moines and at Inwood Street in Martensdale.

Restaurants and restrooms are available near the Des Moines and Martensdale trailheads and in Cumming. Picnic mini shelters and water are located at Gear Street north of Martensdale, Coolidge Street south of Cumming and a picnic mini shelter is located south of 72nd Avenue in Polk County.

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