Bicyclists, hikers blaze recreational trails as improvements debut

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A runner on April 9 uses the Sac and Fox Trail in Cedar Rapids at sunset. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Lisa Breitfelder of Cedar Rapids, left, talks with her friend Cindy Zevenbergen of Marion while walking April 9 along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail near Boyson Road. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

An individual bikes April 10 along the trail at Cedar Lake in Cedar Rapids. A segment of the trail is under construction, but still offers a trail around the lake for trail and bike users. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Two people skateboard April 10 along the trail near the McGrath Amphitheatre along the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

A broken bridge sits April 3 along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail near Robins. A new span could be installed by Memorial Day. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

See what’s new this season and what changes are in store as recreational users flock to the trails

With plenty of new changes along the myriad paths in Linn and Johnson counties this year, one thing is clear: Nobody is trailing behind with making improvements to the Corridor’s trail system.

For mountain bikers, casual bicyclists, hikers and nature walkers alike, plenty of changes are debuting with warm weather this spring, and more are in store.

What’s new this season?

One of the changes trail users will notice this season started with a bang.

On Jan. 20, a garbage truck struck the Cedar Valley Nature Trail bridge on Fishel Road, closing the area of the trail between Lafayette Road and E. Otter Road. The affected area is about 3.5 miles north of Robins and 7 miles south of Center Point.

But the bridge won’t be out for long, according to Linn County Conservation, which estimates it will be replaced by Memorial Day. A bid has been awarded for $119,000. At 20 feet long and 10 feet wide, the small size was likely a factor in being able to schedule a replacement so quickly.

“This bridge is unique because it’s a low laying, former railroad bridge that was converted. It’s not a large span,” said Ryan Schlader, community outreach specialist for Linn County Conservation.

While there are no designated detours for the bridge outage, signage in outlying areas of the trail leading to the bridge are posted with maps to show cross sections and other avenues for bikers and hikers.

“We really want people to observe the closure and signage we have up. Even if they don’t see people working there, the area may be unsafe,” Schlader said. “We’ve had bike tires go through concrete that was newly poured or through private property that they weren’t allowed to.”

New, hard surfaces comprise the bulk of changes trail users will see around the Corridor on paths previously made of crushed limestone or other material. Last year, hard surfacing from Center Point to Urbana was completed on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail — a 6-mile stretch accomplished thanks to two Iowa Department of Transportation grants.

“That’s pretty significant; we don’t usually do 6 miles at one time,” Schlader said.

Morgan Creek Trail within Morgan Creek Park has been completed with hard surfacing, he said, from Worcester Road through Morgan Creek and Cedar Rapids, connecting to Cherokee Trail. The trail is slated to connect the northeast and northwest side of Cedar Rapids following the Highway 100 right of way.

Last year, trail paving was completed through Thomas Park in Marion on the CeMar Trail. The former railroad bridge over Indian Creek opened in July.

A side path project — a large sidewalk in the right of way — started construction along 10th Avenue in Marion last year. The $2.7 million project is about half done, according to Kesha Billings, associate planner with Marion’s Planning Division.

Construction of a new bridge over Marion Boulevard, a $1.6 million project about half finished, will soon display decorative columns by metal artist Cara Briggs-Farmer to act as a defining gateway for Marion. The bridge, paid for mostly with a federal grant, will complete a connection from the Grant Wood Trail to Uptown Marion.

“It’s going to be visibly pronounced for both pedestrian and vehicle traffic,” Billings said. “Nobody’s quite sure when they’ve left Cedar Rapids and entered Marion. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a city boundary between us and Cedar Rapids.”

On the single-track trail front, the Linn Area Mountain Biking Association is fundraising to complete a trail system parallel to the Sac and Fox Trail, which is currently multiuse.

“One of the things people like most about (single-track) is that it’s a little more immersive experience,” said Rob McKillip, president of the Linn Area Mountain Biking Association. “We like the trails to be more like forests and less like open parkways.”

As municipalities continue to work clearing waterways after the derecho, he said more trees have come down, posing issues for some trail systems.

Changes in store

This spring, Schlader said, trail users will be able to enjoy a paved section from Center Point to Urbana on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, once repairs are completed.

North of Urbana, an unpaved section of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, cleared of much of the brush that has inhibited drainage, will eventually be paved. Once those last few miles in Benton County are paved, the Cedar Valley Nature Trail will be entirely hard surfaced.

Late this summer, paving will commence on the Grant Wood Trail’s 2.5 miles from Marion to Oxley Road. A vision for the future is to extend the trail farther east. One city in particular trail Linn County Conservation would like to connect it to is Springville, Schlader said.

Closures are anticipated to come soon to the upper area of Wanatee Park as contractors come in to reestablish woodland areas and restabilize Wanatee Creek. As erosion is repaired along tributaries, affected areas will be closed until early summer.

In the fall, more development will extend hard surfaces on Morgan Creek Trail to Covington, with the eventual goal of getting to the Cedar River.

The Indian Creek Trail, awarded to a $1.7 million bid in February, should begin work by the end of April, Billings said. The trail will use green space along Indian Creek to connect the Boyson Trail north of Eighth Avenue to the future Tower Terrace Road side paths. With 140 working days, the project could extend into 2023.

In Johnson County, a 2.5-mile extension of Clear Creek Trail to Kent Park should be completed in the next two to three years, according to Johnson County Conservation. The section, planning for which started three years ago, is a “vital connecting link in the overall trail’s vision” to connect Oxford and the Amana Colonies, said Director Larry Gullet.

“The initial thoughts have been 20 years in the making,” said Brad Freidhof, conservation program manager for Johnson County Conservation. “These trails are really about connecting communities and amenities. Kent Park is one of the premier parks in the state of Iowa.”

Making the best of the trails

As warm temperatures stabilize and spring rain subsides after Easter, trails will be abuzz with activity. With plenty of paved trail miles and more in the works, the Linn County Trails Association wants to find more folks to take advantage of what they have to offer.

“We need to get people who don’t necessarily use trails often out on them,” said Diane Handler, membership committee chair for the association. “It can be walking, running, biking, Rollerblading — whatever.”

Currently, they tend to be underutilized by folks who don’t regularly bike or hike. But if an estimated 50 percent spike in users prompted by the pandemic sticks around, that could soon change.

Regular trail users are excited for Cedar Valley Nature Trail’s northward pavement and work underway to eventually connect Cedar Rapids to Mount Vernon with a former railroad corridor known as the Lincoln-Interurban Trail.

“As we put the pieces together, we’re very excited,” she said.

And as more pieces are put together, she said the environmental and health benefits of an active lifestyle immersed in nature still is prominent in local minds — pandemic or not.

“There are so many more connections in the city where people can jump on a bike and go to a restaurant, or walk down to something,” Handler said.

As trail-building cities and counties vie for competitive grant funding, the benefits of making Eastern Iowa trail accessible make for a healthy economy, too.

“In the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see a dramatic improvement in the bicycle activity in town on bike paths,” McKillip said. “It’s really exciting.”

“People love trails, and we need more of them,” Gullet said.

A broken bridge, caused by a garbage truck, sits along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail near Robins. A bid has been awarded for $119,000 to replace it. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

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