In the second of this three-part series on bicycling, I am going to reveal a few of my old-time favorite places to ride in Southeast Iowa, within a 60-mile radius of Fairfield. As a veteran rider with the Fairfield Bike Club for over 20 years, I have come to know these back county roads like my own backyard.
Unbeknownst to many, Iowa has a large network of clean, paved, relatively unlittered, and well-maintained back county roads that are a real joy to ride on. (If you only have a mountain bike, the network of dirt or gravel roads is even greater). Being a prime agricultural state, Iowa has many more miles of paved back county roads per capita than most states. Translated, this means less motor-vehicle traffic for the cyclist per mile ridden.
The famous RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) over the last 25 years has grown to become the largest organized (overnight) bicycle tour in America. It annually draws over 12,000 cyclists, half of whom are now from outside of Iowa. RAGBRAI varies each year, going from west to east across the state using the quieter and more charming back roads.
I must confess that Iowa is much prettier touring by bike than car, especially when taking these back county roads. The landscape—flowers, trees, prairie, farmland, and houses—is more easily appreciated as are the cultural and community values of Iowans and many of their quaint little towns.
This list of suggested rides was prepared based on at least one of the following criteria: a loop trip with varied scenery, usually hills (sorry, out-of-shape hill-haters), a park or town to enjoy lunch or other recreational activities, or a hiker-biker (only) trail system through forested areas on single track or wider limestone trails.
The mileage on these rides varies, so you can start with the shorter trips and work up to the longest all-day rides. Keep in mind the directions given below are general, so bring a good road map with you.
Because I live in Fairfield, all of these suggested rides begin in my hometown. Cyclists living elsewhere could drive here to enjoy our fine local parks and trail system. On the longer one-way rides, of course, you have the option of starting from either location.
Jefferson County Trail System – 5 miles
This is an ideal trail for those starting out recreational cycling. Most of the trail system is wide limestone (not single track), but keep in mind there are many hikers, so bicyclists should give them the right of way. Always use a bell or verbally alert hikers that you are approaching from behind. Saying “passing on your left” is a good idea.
Chautauqua Park is a good starting point. Ride over two bridges to Walton Lake and golf course, then meander along some nice lakes and farmland until you reach Pleasant Plain Road. Cross over and continue around the reservoir through pine forests and out to B Street. Here the trail breaks for about a quarter mile, so head north on B St. and pick up the trail again by North Campus Village. Heading west along the north border of the Maharishi University campus, you will come out on Highway 1. Cross over and continue on the west side of campus until you reach Gear Avenue and the golf driving range.
Jefferson County Park
Three miles southwest of Fairfield lies Jefferson County Park, a real hidden gem with a lake, campground, picnic areas, and an impressive large network of single-track forest trails as well as a wider dirt road heading south toward Libertyville.
The Lockridge Loop – approximately 38 miles
From Fairfield, go southeast on Glasglow Road (W46). It makes a large 16-mile semiloop back around to Route 34, ending up 10 miles east of Fairfield. (Be careful crossing Route 34). As you come into Lockridge heading north, turn left at the intersection and go west through town, then make a right and go under the bridge. You will be on W40, which becomes Germanville Road. When you come to a T intersection, a sign for Fairfield will indicate 11 miles to go. Turn left and take Salina Road (H28) to Pleasant Plain Road (W21) on the east side of Fairfield.
Iowa City/Fairfield – approximately 65 miles, one way
Unless you desire to stay overnight, the best way to plan this one-day/one-way trip is to arrange with friends or family to drive by car or van and pick you and your bike up at the end of this ride. These directions are for the Fairfield to Iowa City trip. If you’re coming from Iowa City, simply reverse the directions.
A one-way trip allows you enough time to ride in about five hours (or even less with a strong tailwind), starting early in the morning and arriving around noon so you have time to pick a good restaurant and shop around.
Here are the best directions to avoid Route 1 (except for a mile on Route 78) and not add on extra mileage. Kirkwood Road east out of Fairfield joins Pleasant Plain Road (W21) heading north to intersect with Route 78. Go east one mile to Brighton and then continue on Route 78 before turning left (north) on W47. This county road will run into W55. Keep heading north into Washington and on the north side of town, you will pick up W61 to Riverside. Then proceed east on Route 22 for a few miles before turning north on old route 218 (not the new superhighway 218). It has little traffic and heads straight north into the south part of Iowa City.
Tour of Van Buren County – approximately 75 miles
This big all-day loop trip is for the in-shape hill-lovers. Alternatively, you can also arrange for friends or family to drive to Keosauqua State Park and bring you back (a 30-mile, one-way trip). This round-trip route winds through some of the most scenic parts of Van Buren County at the southern edge of the state, including the Des Moines River Valley.
From Fairfield, take Glasglow Road (W46) southeast and go 10 miles to W30. Heading south on W30, the first town you will arrive at is Stockport. Take a short rest stop. Continue heading south from Stockport to Route 16, turn left (east) and go about 3 miles. Then turn right (south) and go 8 miles on W40. When you come to a fork, bear right on J40 (heading south), and follow signs into Bonaparte (the first tourist town and a major rest stop). After leaving Bonaparte, take the winding, hilly J40 along the Des Moines River 5 miles to another tourist town—Bentonsport. (This is worth a short stop just to see the old-fashioned mom-and-pop country stores with their many antiques). Continue on J40, crossing a new bridge over the Des Moines River to Route 2, then turn right and head straight into the town of Keosauqua. You can stop for food and drink across the bridge before heading back into the state park to enjoy the beach at the lake or the Des Moines River near Ely Ford.
Be forewarned, though, that some of the steepest hills within a 50-mile radius of Fairfield are here in Keosauqua State Park. Leaving through the back end of the park, you will hook up to J40 again, heading west for several miles until you come to county road V64. Turn right (head north) for about 8 miles and cross the Des Moines river again, arriving at the twin towns of Douds and Leondo. Douds has a grocery to buy food and drink. It is also a major rest stop. Keep heading north through the hilly, winding V64 until Libertyville. You are now only 8.5 miles from Fairfield. When you arrive home, enjoy a shower and get some rest. You deserve it!
South of the Border Century Ride to Kahoka, Missouri – Round trip 100 miles
This ride is for a most fit and experienced rider or racer. I have ridden dozens of century rides over the last 20 years, some of them in organized events like RAGBRAI and TOMRV (Tour of the Mississippi River Valley, which draws 1,500 riders from all over the Midwest). This ride can take anywhere from 5 to 12 hours, depending on your physical condition, the number of stops you make, and how long you stay at each stop. It is wise to go slower than usual for the first 50 miles in order to save energy for the last 50.
Follow the same routes to Bonaparte as in the previous Van Buren ride. Bonaparte is the major pit stop and the little-more-than-midway point to Kahoka. You will probably be ready for lunch, but on a century ride, one has to be careful not to eat too much. It’s far better to snack on high-carb foods, eating a little every hour and drinking plenty of fluids throughout this challenging ride.
After heading south of Bonaparte, crossing the Des Moines River bridge, you will come to Route 2. Follow it southeast toward Farmington for about 5 miles until you come to route 81. Turn right and head south. Within a few miles on Route 81 you will be crossing into Missouri. Keep going all the way to Kahoka (about 12 miles)—exactly halfway. Have a nice rest, some good food, and be ready to ride back the same routes. May the tailwinds from the south be with you, and may God bless.