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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Dear Iowa, It's Not Me, It's You - Davenport, IA to Onawa, IA

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Iowa... headwinds, hills, and bad roads. Iowa was a challenge all the way from the Mississippi River in the east to the Missouri River in the west. I was ecstatic when I was finally done with this state.


Jun 4

Mileage: 77.0 miles

Odometer Start: 3247.4

Odometer End: 3324.4

Avg Speed: 11.8 mph

Max Speed: 39.5 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 29 mins

Davenport, IA to Dubuque, IA

I had camped at Scott County Park the previous night and was feeling refreshed after my first shower in several days. I broke camp first thing in the morning and headed north toward Maquoketa Caves State Park. My plan was to stop at this park, visit the caves, and spend the night at the park campground.

At the first small town I encountered, I grabbed a good substantial breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Once I got back on the road, I received my first introduction to the torture that Iowans refer to as "roads". I preferred to take the back roads up to the town of Maquoketa (pronounced Ma-Coke-uh-ta) so that I could avoid the busy Hwy 61.

All of the back roads turned out to be gravel. Riding on gravel roads is difficult and dangerous on a bike with medium-sized tires. Hitting a patch of loose gravel at speed can cause your tires to slide in unexpected ways. Once your tires start going sideways, you are probably going to hit the ground and leave some skin behind. I had no intention of giving Iowa a chunk of flesh with which to remember me.

In addition to the gravel, Iowa is not flat. This was an unpleasant surprise to me. I had always thought of Iowa as flat. In fact, there are rolling hills almost the entire way across the state. I spent the morning learning this unfortunate fact while climbing and descending an uncounted number of hills. The worst part of the experience was the fact that the hills are steep going up and steep going down. However, it is impossible to enjoy the descents because of the gravel. I was forced to moderate my speed on the downhills in order to avoid crashing on the loose gravel. Many of the hills were sufficiently steep that I practically had a death grip on the brakes to keep the bike rolling at a safe speed. All of these factors combined to make for a pretty disappointing morning.

The entrance to Maquoketa Caves State Park.

I reached Maquoketa Caves State Park and stopped by the ranger station that was adjacent to the entrance. I inquired about open campsites and learned there was no chance of getting a spot for the night. Once again, I had lost track of the day of the week and showed up on a Friday afternoon. It seems that this park is sufficiently popular that the campsites are all reserved several months in advance.

This put a wrench into my original plan. It was already mid-afternoon and all of the camping or hotel options were several hours away. This meant I would not have time to visit any of the caves.

After spending a few moments evaluating my options, the only real choice was to continue riding up to Dubuque. I did a quick survey of hotel options in the city and realized there were not a lot of open rooms. I had to resign myself to staying at the Days Inn. I know that things are not going to plan when I end up at a Days Inn. On the upside, at least I could look forward to a shower and a bed at the end of the day.

The ride into Dubuque was a mix of gravel and paved roads. The best part of the afternoon was when the road turned northeast for about 20 miles. For the first time on the entire trip, I had a decent tailwind. Tailwinds are a glorious thing. Suddenly, I was riding 25 mph on flat ground instead of the usual 13 to 15 mph. That gave me an appreciation for why most people start a cross-country ride at the Pacific Ocean and ride east.

Dubuque is a surprisingly hilly place. The bulk of the city rests within the Mississippi River flood plain, but the streets and neighborhoods climb up the hillside as it moves away from the river. These hills are steep and not bike friendly. My hotel was located at the top of the hill next to US Rt 20. If I wanted to get to my hotel, I had to get to the top of the hill. Dubuque, Iowa has the distinction of being 1 of the 2 places on the entire trip where I encountered a hill that was so steep that I could not pedal the bike up the hill. I had to get off and walk the bike in order to make it to the top. (The only other place where a hill was too steep to pedal up was a gravel road in eastern Ohio).


Jun 5

Mileage: 0 miles

Odometer End: 3324.4

Avg Speed: 0.0 mph

Max Speed: 0.0 mph

Riding Time: 0 hrs, 00 mins

Dubuque, IA

I took the day off in Dubuque. I had heard good things about the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and wanted to give it a look.

Visiting the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, IA.

Dubuque is a pleasant town right on the banks of the Mississippi River. Dubuque also appears to experience devastating floods every couple of decades. There is a marker at the museum that shows the high water marks from various floods. Some of these flood levels easily reached up to the 2nd floor of buildings.

One interesting thing that I learned at this museum is that the Mississippi River has a series of dams, levees, and floodwalls along the length of the river. These are designed to mitigate flooding and allow for better control of the volume of water that flows downstream.

It never occurred to me that the Mississippi River had been dammed. I grew up believing the legacy handed down from Mark Twain that suggests the river is wild and untamed. In truth, there is a system of 29 dams with locks on the Mississippi that are used to manage the amount of water that flows downstream and help control flooding.

The museum also housed a smallish aquarium that displayed the various fish, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and otters that call the river home.


Jun 6

Mileage: 69.4 miles

Odometer End: 3394.0

Avg Speed: 11.4 mph

Max Speed: 36.2 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 02 mins

Dubuque, IA to Winthrop, IA

I left Dubuque on the Heritage Rail Trail. This trail loops north out of the town and then swings west following a small river out towards Dyersville. This was a quality trail... flat, paved, and with water & toilets at regular intervals.

The most interesting fact about this trail is that it passes near the base of one of Iowa's 3 ski resorts (At least... I think there are 3. I did a quick Google search and I only saw 3. If you are interested in skiing in Iowa, then I encourage you to spend more time researching it. And yes, just in case it wasn't clear, that was snark). The Sundown Mountain Resort is located 10 miles west of Dubuque (15 miles if you use The Heritage Trail). It is home to 21 ski runs, 4 ski lifts, and a massive 475 ft elevation drop from top to bottom. In retrospect, I can't believe I didn't stop and get a picture of the ski lifts.

The Field of Dreams with the house in the background and the large gift shop in the red barn.

Dyersville happens to be the home of The Field of Dreams baseball diamond where the movie was filmed. Aside from the large gift shop and concession stand, it more or less looks exactly like it did in the movie. For me, the biggest surprise was the large hill that occupies most of right field. I did not notice that in the movie.

The Heritage Rail Trail runs through wooded areas and is generally shady and protected from the wind. Once I left The Field of Dreams, I was back out into open farmland. I started to feel the full force of the headwind without the trees to serve as a windbreak. The wind was blowing almost straight out of the west and was in my face the entire afternoon. It was a struggle, but I made it to a small county park near Winthrop. You can legally camp in these small parks. These parks generally have a small lock box where you can fill out a registration form, include a couple of dollars for the fee, and then pick a campsite. I had this park to myself for the night.


Jun 7

Mileage: 65.1 miles

Odometer End: 3459.0

Avg Speed: 12.0 mph

Max Speed: 28.5 mph

Riding Time: 5 hrs, 23 mins

Winthrop, IA to Reinbeck, IA

The rear wheel was giving me problems today. I had 2 flat tires on the back wheel before lunch. I used both of my brand new tubes to fix these flats and needed to get some new replacements. Fortunately, my path was going to take me through Waterloo where there was a bike shop. As luck would have it, that bike shop was closed on Mondays. The nearest other option was a 15 mile detour up in Cedar Falls. There wasn't much to be done, I couldn't keep going without some replacement tubes so I made an unexpected visit to Cedar Falls.

The good news is that this bike shop had self-sealing tubes. In fact, that was the only option. They did not have any regular tubes in the size I needed. That is unusual. Normally, bike shops have regular tubes, but the self-sealing ones are hard to find. Self-sealing tubes are great because they will usually prevent the tire from going completely flat. They weigh a bit more than regular tubes, but the benefit is that you don't have to remove the wheel from the bike except under extreme circumstances. On most occasions, you can just put a bit more air into the tire and be on your way. Replacing the tube is usually a 30 minute repair, whereas just adding a bit more air can be done in less than 5 minutes.

The roads out of Cedar Falls were not great. They were busy and had very small shoulders. I was not comfortable on this road, but I was careful and successfully made my way south to Hudson and then headed southwest to Reinbeck.

The city park in Reinbeck did not offer the usual campsite options, so I had to get creative. I found a frisbee golf course tucked away in the back of the park. It was out of the way, had not been mowed recently, and appeared to be generally unused. I figured the odds of anyone actually coming back there overnight were pretty small, so I decided to set up camp there for the evening. I was alone all evening and got a great night of sleep.


Jun 8

Mileage: 101.4 miles

Odometer End: 3560.6

Avg Speed: 12.5 mph

Max Speed: 31.1 mph

Riding Time: 8 hrs, 03 mins

Reinbeck, IA to Madrid, IA

Once again, I ended up spending a lot of time on gravel roads this morning. I didn't have much choice since all of the roads heading in my direction were either gravel or carrying a high volume of traffic with no shoulders. I sucked it up and started pedaling on the gravel. Gravel is just exhausting and unpleasant. It requires uninterrupted focus for the entire time that you are riding. This makes it difficult to pull your eyes off the road and actually appreciate the scenery... not that there is a lot of scenery in Iowa. (Although, I suppose that corn fields do qualify as scenery... technically).

As I got down toward Marshalltown, I finally reached pavement on Hwy 14. I was greatly relieved to be back on a paved surface, especially since I knew this road would be paved all the way into the city. After a few miles of riding, I crested the top of a hill at an intersection and I could see that the shoulder disappeared after this point. This highway carries a lot of traffic and I was not willing to continue on this road without a nice wide shoulder. Of course, the alternative was to get back on a gravel road. There was nothing to be done, I was forced to log more miles on gravel.

This gravel road pushed me a bit west of Marshalltown and I ended up having lunch in a small town called Albion. From here, I made my way south to a bike trail that parallels Iowa Hwy 330. This was a nice bike trail that was paved and separate from the road.

This was a bit more nature that I anticipated on The Heart of Iowa Nature Trail.

When I reached the small town of Rhodes, I picked up the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail. This is another rail trail, but the riding surface fluctuated between a nice compacted limestone and a less-than-nice single track dirt path. On the upside, I was off the roads and this trail connected with the High Trestle Rail Trail in Slater.

I had specifically created my route across Iowa to include the High Trestle Rail Trail. This is a really nice trail that is well-known for the "high trestle" that crosses the Des Moines River just west of Madrid, IA. This bridge is basically an art installation with an interesting light display that is worth visiting after dark.

The eastern end of the trestle on The High Trestle Rail Trail.

Madrid was only about 100 miles from Reinbeck. That was further than I prefer to ride in a single day, but it was close enough to reach if I stretched. The issue that I was wrestling with is that if I rode all the way there, I would be tired, I would also arrive late in the day, and I was not confident about camping options in the area. However, if I stopped short and arrived at the high trestle on the following day, I would arrive early in the morning and it would be very inconvenient to stick around all day to wait for nightfall so that I could see the bridge in the dark. I opted to ride all the way to Madrid.

My standard level of luck was holding and when I arrived at the bridge there was a sign explaining that the lights were temporarily out of service for maintenance. That problem was solved... there was no point in sticking around until dark if there are no lights on the bridge. I made my way to nearby Swede Point Park and found a spot in the campground.


Jun 9

Mileage: 78.5 miles

Odometer End: 3639.5

Avg Speed: 11.8 mph

Max Speed: 33.0 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 38 mins

Madrid, IA to Manning, IA

The next morning, I made my way back down to The High Trestle Trail and spent some time hanging out on the bridge. The bridge is 13 stories high and spans the Des Moines River just west of Madrid, IA. The river isn't huge, but the bridge is 1/2 mile long in order to span the water and the associated flood plain.

The bridge on The High Trestle Trail.

As I made my way west from the bridge, I ended up on gravel roads again. I rode a minimum of 25 miles on gravel on this day. Honestly, it was probably a good bit more than that. I had reached my limit on gravel roads at this point. They just never seem to stop and once you add a couple of hills to the mix, they are just miserable. Today, the hills seemed like they would never end.

In addition, I had a really close call on this day. I was on yet another section of gravel roads and I let my speed get away from me while I was heading down a hill. I hit a section of loose gravel and I really thought I was going down. My back tire slid out from under me and I almost lost control. Somehow, I kept the bike upright and was much more careful about my speed going forward.

The view from the bridge looking north.

Much later in this trip, while in western Montana I ran into another cross-country cyclist. We were commiserating about Iowa and he told me a story about his experience in this region. He explained to me that at one point he was having a really hard day, his frustration led him to begin counting the number of peaks and valleys on one of these roads. He told me that in one 25 mile stretch of riding, he climbed 40 of these small hills. This tracks with my experience. We both hated riding in Iowa.

Looking east across the Des Moines River and The High Trestle Rail Trail.

You might be asking yourself why I spent so much time on gravel when there must be paved roads available. One of the first things I learned riding in Iowa is that many of the paved roads and highways have huge shoulders that appear to be nice and safe when viewed through the rose-colored lens of Google Street View. However, once you actually get on these roads you quickly realize that many of the shoulders are not paved. Instead, they are comprised of loose gravel that is essentially unrideable. The shoulders in Iowa are not intended to be used by bikes... or cars. The shoulders on Iowa roads are there to accommodate large farm equipment. You will have no problems if you want to drive a large farm combine down the road. A bike? Not happening.

I am not ashamed to admit that I was really unhappy in Iowa. I was moving west and making progress, but by this point I was done with this state. Most people think of Iowa as being the easy part of the ride. For me, this was the worst leg of the entire trip. The state is home to relentless headwinds, unending hills, and horrible gravel roads.

I reached the little town of Manning in the late afternoon. I stopped by the local grocery store and bought a couple of tasty items for dinner. There is a county park right next to the town that had a campground and that was my destination for the evening. The campsites sat up on top of a small hill that had a nice view of the surrounding area. It also had showers which was a nice bonus. I went to bed with a full belly and actually clean for the first time in a couple of days. I slept well that night.


Jun 10

Mileage: 81.0 miles

Odometer End: 3721.8

Avg Speed: 12.4 mph

Max Speed: 34.5 mph

Riding Time: 7 hrs, 06 mins

Manning, IA to Onawa, IA

When I woke up this morning, I knew that the end of Iowa was within my reach. I was either going to hit the state line today or tomorrow. It quickly became apparent that the momentous occasion was not going to happen today. Once again there was an entire morning spent on gravel roads, riding into a headwind, and climbing hills.

I reached the town of Defiance around mid-morning and grabbed a bite to eat at the convenience store. While I was taking a break, I studied the map to figure out where I could stop for the night and plot the route I would take to get there. I decided to aim for Lewis & Clark State Park near Onawa, IA. It is located just east of the Missouri River.

This sums up Iowa... gravel roads & a cornfield. I'm surprised there isn't a hill in the background.

My spirits were definitely raised when I realized that the roads that I would travel to get to the state park were all paved. I was finally done with gravel roads in Iowa. I can deal with the rolling hills with no problem. The gravel, however, is a different story. Just in case I have not made it clear up to this point, I despise the gravel roads in Iowa.

I stopped in the town of Dunlop for a hydration break and the cashier at the convenience store recommended a small restaurant on Main St for a bite to eat. The "Dairy Sweet" restaurant was supposed to have good sandwiches, shakes, and ice cream. It's like they were reading my mind.

A reproduction of a keelboat of the type used by Lewis & Clark at Lewis & Clark State Park.

I rode down the street to the restaurant, parked my bike out front, and headed inside. I held the door open for 2 women that were headed inside at the same time. They saw my bike and me still wearing my helmet and asked me where I was coming from and where I was going. I explained that I started at the Atlantic Ocean and was headed for the west coast. It took a moment for them to comprehend what I just told them. Once they recovered, they had a lot of questions that I answered as best I could. After our conversation, we went to our separate tables and ordered our food.

When I finished my meal, I flagged down the waitress and asked for my check. I was informed that it had been taken care of. I hope that the reason the women bought me lunch was because I was friendly and answered their questions. More importantly, I hope they didn't buy me lunch because they thought I was destitute. There are a lot of less expensive ways to get across the country than riding a bike. Regardless, I went over to their table and thanked them profusely for the kindness.

They were still mystified how someone could ride their bike all the way across the country. I tried to explain that the absolute hardest part of the trip was riding past the end of your own driveway. This is something that is true for a lot of things in life. The truly hard work for something of this nature is clearing out all of the obstacles that you erect for yourself. There will always be a reason not to do something big... your job, a mortgage, problems at home... taking the first step in a challenge of this nature requires a significant amount of dedication. Once you are out the door, the hardest part of the trip is behind you.

I made it to Lewis & Clark State Park by late afternoon and managed to get a campsite right next to the lake. As I finished setting up camp, a woman walked up to me with a bottle of water and some snacks. She was from the massive RV at the campsite on the opposite of the road. She said they had watched me pull up on my bike and set up camp and were awestruck that I seemed to have everything I needed strapped to my bike. The water was cold and very refreshing. The bicycle really does make people friendlier.


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