Jefferson sits at the top of the Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT), giving the community and Greene County a front-row seat to the trail’s increasing popularity.
Traffic on the trail has increased from last year when the final stretch was added to the RRVT, making it an 89-mile ride when the Greene County trail spur is added, says Dan Towers, director of Greene County Conservation.
“We don’t have comparative numbers from (electronic) trail counters because they are shared with other counties and trails, but we will be collecting trail numbers in 2015,” he says. “I do see more riders along the trail this year, though.”
Towers says he hadn’t thought many riders would extend their trip from the top of the loop at Herndon, on up the spur to Jefferson, but they have. Part of that may be that Jefferson is one of the larger communities on the trail. There are places to stay, restaurants and much more.
In fact, some businesses have cropped up because of the trail. They include a bicycle shop, a bed and breakfast and a house where people can sleep.
There also is a small campground next to the trail in Jefferson, the only one of its kind that borders the trail on the RRVT loop and spur.
Winter usage has increased as well.
“In the winter, we now allow snowmobiles to ride the trail,” Towers says.
He says the county did not allow snowmobiles at first because there was concern that the sound would bother landowners who live along the trail. Then, three years ago, a local snowmobile club requested permission to use the trail.
“They are a great, organized group who have a groomer and other equipment to keep the trail nice for snowmobiling,” Tower says.
The Greene County section of RRVT begins at Jefferson and connects to the large loop at Herndon in Guthrie County, passing through Cooper and the countryside in Greene County to arrive at Herndon.
From Herndon, riders may either go east toward Jamaica, Dawson and Perry or go straight to Yale and then on to Panora. Either direction takes riders through small towns. The southern-most town on the trail is Waukee.
At Waukee, riders can choose to connect to Des Moines-based trails or loop around to the west or east and end up back at Herndon, then on up to Jefferson.
Jefferson Mayor Craig Berry and Chuck Offenburger, a Greene County resident, take frequent rides along the RRVT. They have both been active in creation of the trail, working on improvements and being part of the Cyclists of Greene.
Berry says he particularly likes the full moon rides the club hosts.
“Every month on the full moon we get together here and take a ride, usually to Herndon and back,” he says. “There is often a group of 30 or more riders.”
Michelle Fields, an avid cyclist from rural Scranton who also loves to rollerblade, says she often uses her lunch hour to skate from Jefferson, where she works, to Winkleman Switch.
Historically, Winkleman Switch was created because there was too steep of a grade to get trains through the river valley. Also, it was the place area farmers loaded cattle to ship to Chicago, Towers says. The only thing there now is a parking lot and access to the RRVT, which follows the railroad right-of-way.
Fields says she skates the six-mile roundtrip from Jefferson to Winkelman Switch and back to get daily exercise.
“The furthest I’ve gone on rollerblades is 12 miles. I think I could probably do 24 in one trip, but I can go further on my bike,” Fields says.
On a recent evening, she did some roller-blading at and near the trailhead in Jefferson, which is the renovated train depot. Her daughters came along and rode their bikes.
Youngest daughter Allison, 7, had just learned to ride her bike by herself four days earlier. She was zipping up and down the trail and around the depot with little effort and lots of energy.
Occasionally she would stop at the water fountain for a drink break.
Her older sister, Kaitlin, 10, says she likes to ride the trail to see the trees and flowers along the trail. She also liked climbing on top of the very big rock that sits at the Depot.
“I think the bike trail is really pretty in the spring,” she says.
While Michelle and her daughters were at the trailhead, they paused to pet a miniature Australian shepherd puppy being walked by Jefferson resident Zach Beekman.
He and wife, Ashley, use the trail frequently for walks. Their property backs up to the RRVT.
“We’ve never had any trouble with trail users,” Zach says. “We don’t hear noise from the trail at all when we are in our house.”
The little town of Cooper is the only other town besides Jefferson on the portion of the RRVT that runs through Greene County. Although small, Cooper does provide riders a rest stop and a restroom.
RRVT exceeds expectations
At the time Greene County and Jefferson were working on building the trails, Towers says he and others knew it would be well-used because it linked riders into the Des Moines-area trail system.
“At that time there was no High Trestle Trail; it was the only central Iowa trail,” Towers says. “Ours was the only trail that went out into the country. We knew it would attract metro riders looking for a longer ride.”
He believes RRVT has exceeded expectations.
“Riders consider Jefferson as part of the loop now, even though we are a trail spur,” he says.
Now that the entire RRVT Loop and trail system are connected, Offenburger says he has noticed many more people along the trail since last year.
“What we have seen has been tremendous,” he says. “It used to be when I would ride bike and walk in Herndon, I would never see anyone on the trail. Now there are almost always cars in the parking lot, people on trail, sitting around on trail benches and visiting.”
Trail use has also gone up because of events along the trail, such as the Market-to-Market Relay, a 75-mile running competition that brings 2,200 runners to Jefferson where the race begins.
A new ride this year — the bacon-themed Baccoon Ride — did the 72-mile loop from Waukee. That brought 3,000 registered riders and many more who were not registered, Offenburger says.
These special events, along with more amenities along the trail, Jefferson and Cooper, are drawing thousands more people than couple of years ago, he says.
In June, the Greene County Medical Center had a corporate outing on the trail with people walking, running and riding bikes.
“Those kinds of things are just taking off, and there’s more call for them all the time. There was an event almost every weekend that involved the trail,” Offenburger says. “This has become a tourist destination.”
The High Trestle Trail
The future plans for the RRVT — which could have a huge impact on Jefferson, Cooper and the communities along the trail — include connecting the loop to the High Trestle Trail in Woodward and adding art to the scenery along the way.
Offenburger, an inaugural member of the RRVT who now volunteers for many events related to the trail, says initial cost estimate for the High Trestle Trail connection is about $5 million.
“The goal is to build an off-road trail as scenic as can be made between Perry and Woodward,” Offenburger says. “One thing that has happened is that with the popularity of the RRVT in the last eight years, as well as the High Trestle Trail, there is a lot more support for recreational trails. Our trail is considered to be among the most successful trails in the country.”
Recreational trails such as the RRVT and the High Trestle Trail are tremendous economic drivers and have a very strong impact on the communities they run through, he says. Current rider traffic on the High Trestle Trail is between 10,000-15,000 per month.
Offenburger also says there is interest from member towns and the trail board to possibly install works of art along the trail.
“We want to do a coordinated, unified art installation of public art theme along the trail,” he says.
Artist David B. Dahlquist of Des Moines, who designed the notable High Trestle Trail Bridge, is part of the art plan. He has been picked to create a piece relevant to “In the Shadow of the Rails.” It will be more than 300 feet long, use steel, lights and stone as well as ceramic glaze in a railroad theme.
“It will be a million-dollar installation, and they hope to be building it next year. We plan to play off that theme along the Raccoon River Valley Trail system,’’ Offenburger says. “We are really excited about it.”