Above, the 25-mile High Trestle Trail north of Des Moines is part of an extensive rail-to-trail network for bikers and hikers in Iowa. The trail features a 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River near Madrid. – Brent Bohlen photos
by Mary Bohlen
If you are into power trips, you can’t find a better place than central Iowa.
While presidential candidates lusted for political power as they stomped across the state last winter, smart travelers prefer the power of horses, steam and pedals abundant in the area around Des Moines, west on I-80 from Chicagoland.
State capital Des Moines has plenty of political power even in an off-election year, but nearby attractions such as the Living History Farms, the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad and the High Trestle Trail are sure to provide more family fun.
Iowa’s agricultural heritage comes to life at the 500-acre Living History Farms in Urbandale, a Des Moines suburb. The interactive, outdoor museum features a primitive 1700s “Ioway” farm, a 1850s pioneer farm, a 1900s horse-powered farm and a reproduction of an 1875 town.
In the town, visitors board a tractor-pulled wagon that takes them under I-80/I-35 to the three farms, once the site of a state work prison. Jump off the wagon to see an interpreter milk a cow, horses graze in the pastures, chickens peck at feed and hogs wallow in mud. Inside the 1900s farm house chock full of old household gadgets, costumed workers explain rural life at the turn of the century. You can check out vegetable gardens, orchards and crop rows.
The town features some original buildings among the school, church, working blacksmith shop, general store, law office, doctor’s office, vet clinic and millinery. The Flynn mansion and barn are on the National Register of Historic Places and decked out in period furnishings. Special events include barn dances, historic baseball with the Walnut Hill Bluestockings, Victorian meals and harvest days.
The Living History Farms are open daily May 1 to August 28 and Wednesday through Sunday from August 31 to October 21. Be warned that ticket sales end at 3:30 p.m. with the full site closing at 4 p.m., even in the summer. Adult admission is $15; the cost for children 2-12 is $9.
Forty-five miles north of Des Moines is the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, which offers daily trips on steam or diesel-powered trains from Memorial Day weekend to Halloween and special excursions earlier and later in the year.
At the Boone depot, choose your original train car for a slow-moving trip through the woods along the Des Moines River. A highlight is crossing on the 156-foot high Kate Shelley High Bridge, which the railway claims is the tallest single-track interurban railroad bridge in America. A volunteer conductor points out other sites along the way.
Cars include an outside platform with seating, an open-window basic coach car and a more plush first class coach with air conditioning. You can take your own snacks on the daily 1:30 p.m. trip or 4 p.m. Saturday trip, enjoy a dinner train on Friday and Saturday evenings, opt for the dessert train on Saturday afternoons or choose a picnic train on Sunday afternoons from late May through October.
Children will love the chance have a day out with Thomas the Train September 17,18, 23, 24 or 25, ride the Pumpkin Express in October or share their wish lists on the Santa Express in late November and December.
Tickets, which run from $22-$32 for adults and $9 to $17 for children 3-12 on the regular runs, include admission to the small railroad museum next door to the depot. There, you can learn about railroads’ role in war, view artifacts from passenger trains’ golden days and even research train history in the library. The museum is small and of interest even to non-railroad buffs.
Iowa once teemed with rail lines and has turned hundreds of miles of them into biking and hiking paths. Running from Woodward to Ankeny, just north of Des Moines, is the High Trestle Trail. The 25-mile trail passes through several small communities, but the real high point is the 13-story, one-half mile long bridge over the Des Moines River near Madrid.
The bridge has artwork at each end, six overlook points and night-time lighting on the beams arching over it. The concrete-asphalt trail is open year-round with parking lots near several entrances so families, hikers and casual cyclists can hop on and off.
Back in downtown Des Moines, you can bike along the river and stop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden for a break inside a geodesic dome filled with greenery. The Iowa State Capitol, the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium and a 20-piece outdoor sculpture garden are across the river and make for other interesting stops.
For more information, visit www.iowatourism.com, www.LivingHistoryFarms.org, www.bsvrr.com and www.madridiowa.com/high-trestle-trail. You also can contact the Central Iowa Tourism Region at 800-285-5842.
Mary Bohlen is a Springfield freelance writer and editor and former journalism professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She enjoys exploring new places and writing the monthly Midwestern travel column with Mary C. Galligan of Chicago.