Chichaqua Valley Trail - Bridging the Gap - CycleBlaze

April 18, 2020

Chichaqua Valley Trail

Though it’s April and past Easter, the weather has reverted to March-like conditions, with snowstorms and daytime temperatures in the low-to-mid forties.  It’s been a week since my last bike ride and I was determined to take advantage of today’s sunshine and warmer, but not warm, temperatures. The only drawback was a forecast for southwest winds of 20-25 mph with gusts up to 35 mph. 

Sussing out the wind speed and direction is as much a part of my pre-cycling checklist as filling water bottles and making peanut butter sammies. As eager as I was to get out and ride, I knew that this was not the day for long stretches on open Iowa roads. The best option was an out and back on the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a 27 mile-long rail trail running northeast from the outskirts of Des Moines. One of the first of Iowa rail trails, the Chichaqua roughly parallels the Heart of Iowa Trail, but is farther south. I decided to start at the eastern terminus, in Baxter, which would take me into the wind on the way out and hopefully provide a tail wind on the return.  The fact that the trail itself was mostly tree-lined added to its appeal.

 The drive to Baxter traversed an increasingly varied terrain – farmland for sure, but a few more rolling hills and spots of woodlands. I arrived at the Baxter trailhead a little before eleven and headed off toward Bondurant, 22 miles in the distance. The winds were pretty fierce but were lessened by the woods alongside the trail. In a bit of mixed blessing, the trees were just beginning to bud so I was able glimpse the surrounding countryside while being somewhat sheltered-in-motion. Fields rising on both sides of the trail were covered in the emergent green of springtime. On occasion, a small farm lane appeared and offered a more expansive view of distant cropland.

I soon arrived in the un-incorporated community of Ira, population 16. There were three prominent features of Ira: a town park adjacent to the trail that was home to a small playground and the community center; the Bucklin Service and Supply that sold and rebuilt used cars and parts; and the Ira Salvage Yard, owned by Bucklin Jack. I was the only soul moving about on this sunny Saturday, and I soon moved on.

Old railroad caboose at the Baxter trailhead on the Chichaqua Valley Trail
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On my way, heading toward Bondurant
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The woodland strip flanking the trail provided glimpses of the surrounding countryside and some buffer from the winds
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Small farm lanes opened up views of the surrounding pastureland and more distant cropland
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A little emerald isle in a sea of brown
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Welcome to Ira - population 16
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Ira Community Center
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I ❤️bicycling
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The small park in Ira is home to both the Community Center and this small playground
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Bucklin Service and Supply - the only store in town
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Ira Salvage Yard had plenty of junkers but nary a junkyard dog
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Beyond Ira, the trail continued southeast through the woodlands along Turkey Creek before opening up as it curved east towards Mingo. Cultivated fields often extended to within a few yards of the trail, separated only by low hedgerows. Farm sheds and grain bins appeared trailside while distant farmhouses could be seen at road crossings. Despite the wind, it was an incredibly serene ride. Small mammals and birds were abundant and the roar of the wind was occasionally pierced by the sound of peepers, or the chirps from cardinals (as well as other birdsongs unknown to me). I crossed Indian Creek and rolled into Mingo (pop. ~300) just past noon. It seemed like a bicycle friendly town – drivers in the few passing cars smiled and waved. There were a couple of establishments where, on a normal day, a passing cyclist might find a burger and/or a brew. Now, all shops were closed save the Post Office, where a young woman in a mask was disinfecting the doors. Such is the state of cycling in a pandemic. 

West of Ira, the landscape began to open up
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Outbuildings and grain bins began to appear alongside the trail, along with a horse or two
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Old bins and farm machinery
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Crossing Indian Creek
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Downtown Mingo
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The Mingo Town Hall also houses the Post Office - entrance around back
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"You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning"
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A quick snack in Mingo
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The next section of the trail was probably my favorite, despite the strengthening winds. The trail rolled through a varied landscape of cropland and green pastures - populated with outbuildings, cattle, and the occasional tree or junk car awaiting a trip to Ira’s Salvage Yard. I made a short detour to swing through the town of Valeria. Though it seemed to be a rather sad little town that had seen better days, the current population (57) was only slightly lower than the 1920 population (70). There was no commercial center - just a church in disrepair and city hall located in a small clearing at the end of a dirt road. At least there were no loose dogs!

My two previous rides on the Chichaqua Valley Trail had started in Bondurant and ended in either Mingo or Valeria. Therefore, I knew that the final two miles into Bondurant took me across an open landscape and alongside a four-lane highway before winding through the outskirts of town to the trailhead. It is not a particularly interesting stretch, and would be even less so cycling into a 25-mph headwind. In addition, traffic on the trail had picked up as I neared Bondurant, the most populous town on the trail. I made the executive decision to turn around shortly before reaching Bondurant.

Road crossing along the Chichaqua Valley Trail
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Hillside cemetery outside Valeria
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Cattle sunning
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Valeria City Hall
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Valeria Church in need of roof repair. Note the side of snow - a reminder of the nice spring weather we've been having
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Waiting for a trip to the Ira Salvage Yard?
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Turn-around point
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The return ride to Baxter was at times exhilarating, at times a balancing act. A strong tailwind would push me effortlessly along, I was flying. Suddenly, the trail would turn or the wind would shift and I would find myself in a brutish crosswind, leaning to keep the bike upright and heading down the trail. I was riding Stella, my road bike. She is a Trek Madone that is tricked out with a lot of fancy gear, at least fancy gear circa 2010. She had been a RAGBRAI demo bike, and although the price was greatly, greatly reduced I considered her way too fancy for me. Six months later, my LBS loaned her to me for a weekend tryout and I found her joy to ride. Nonetheless, her light weight and high-profile wheels can make for a different kind of exhilaration in high crosswinds, one bordering on terror.

I stopped infrequently on the return and was soon back in Baxter. After a quick tour of the town I headed home, a bit wind battered but most definitely a happy girl.

On the return to Baxter
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Returning to Baxter, and a rare sighting of another cyclist.
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A closer look at Stella
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At the corner of Main and State Streets in downtown Baxter
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Many of the brick buildings in Baxter appear to have been recently refurbished
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Today's ride: 41 miles (66 km)
Total: 199 miles (320 km)

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Rachael AndersonYou are tough! We’ve had some days bicycling in 15+ headwinds and crosswinds and they are hard. Especially because my eyes and nose are constantly running and it’s cold. I also have allergies that make it hard to breathe. I’m with you, I always make sure we are thinking of wind direction but the predicted wind speed is usually significantly less than the actual wind speed.
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1 month ago
Susan CarpenterTo Rachael AndersonThanks Rachael! I'm in awe of your climbing accomplishments! We don't have many hills here in Iowa and I've always considered the wind as our flatlander challenge. If you're not willing to ride in the wind, you will miss out on the springtime cycling.
I do wear a buff, which doubles as both a wind break and a snot rag. Nowadays, it can also be pulled up as a makeshift mask, if needed.
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1 month ago
Kathleen JonesLooking at the bike propped against the building in Ira, my first thought was, "What has happened to Vivienne!" but then realized it wasn't her. And later on I learn that no need to worry about Vivienne at all since she is at home and Stella is your steed this time. Whew.
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3 weeks ago