Cycling in Ice Cream Town

We traveled to northwest Iowa yesterday so that Jan could buy some yoga gear she found on Facebook marketplace.  It was also an opportunity to explore some new territory.  The gear was in Sioux City and so we stopped there first before heading on to Vermillion South Dakota.  That was my idea.   We’d never been to Vermillion and I knew it was a smallish college town.  I wanted to see it and I’m glad we did.  It feels different than Iowa, even though it’s less than 20 miles from the state line as the crow flies.  Definitely has a much more “western”  feel to it.  Felt a little like Laramie to me.   

After Vermillion, we headed due east towards Le Mars.  This was our ultimate destination and I wasn’t sure we’d make it.  The Missouri is still significantly above flood stage at Sioux City, and it was a sure bet that the Big Sioux River that forms the border between South Dakota and Iowa would be, too.   It didn’t disappoint.  What normally is a relatively insignificant blink-and-you’ll-miss-it river had flooded the entire valley and was several miles wide.   In some spots it came right up to the edge of the road.  Between the Missouri and the Big Sioux, it was some of the most spectacular and devastating river flooding I’ve ever seen.  This year is definitely one for the ages.

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Big Sioux river valley. We’re about a mile from the river here.

In spite of it all, we eventually rolled into Le Mars, a community made famous by its largest local employer…Wells Blue Bunny.  Le Mars is a prosperous community of about 10,000 that calls itself the ice cream capital of the world.  Unlike a lot of towns in this part of the world, it has grown continuously since the end of World War II.  They’ve never experienced a decline in population.

Le Mars is a stone’s throw from Sioux City, and so I presume many people commute to jobs there.  Maybe not.  It appears that there’s plenty of work for people in town, too.  This is Iowa’s ice cream town.  It’s kind of a big deal, too.  You know how some communities place pianos or wildly painted cows all over town?  Here it’s ice cream cones.  They were everywhere and gave Le Mars an identity all its own.

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They were closed.   Shades of Wally World!

But ice cream would have to wait.  We came to Le Mars to check out the Le Mars Recreational Trail.  It’s a nine mile long trail that loops around the town from northeast to southwest.  Along the way, it connects homes to stores, offices, public buildings and more.  It’s a recreational resource that does double time as a nascent transportation corridor.  It offers local residents a way to get around by bicycle if that’s what they want to do.  I suspect that few currently do, but maybe that will change.  If you build it, they will come.

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Trail map.

We rolled into town from the west on Iowa State Highway 3 and parked at West Floyd Park on the banks of the Floyd River.  We had some concern that this river would also be flooded and there was plenty of river mud to contend with, but thankfully no flood waters here.  That said, there is a section of trail missing as it passes under Business Route 75 that limited us to the southern two-thirds of the trail.

All in all, the trail was about what I expected for this part of Iowa, which is to say a well thought out, quality experience.   The surface is mostly concrete.  It’s wide and smooth and absolutely delightful for cruising.  There were plenty of shelters along the route, which is good as the weather changes quickly out here and can be quite severe.

There were a few surprises as well.  There’s a section of trail towards the southern end that parallels a dirt road.  The trail portion is paved. I’ve never seen that before.  The tunnel that passes under US 75 near the southern trailhead was well lit and safe.

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Southern trailhead at Key Avenue.
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The trail parallels a dirt road near the southern terminus.  I thought this was really nice.
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The tunnel under US 75 was well lit.
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These shelters were a common sight along the trail and help offer cyclists some protection from bad weather.
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Connectivity to local businesses is very good.

That said, the trail follows the Floyd River and (as is often the case with “recreational” trails) is prone to flooding.  From West Floyd Park to Business Route 75, the trail was coated in river mud, clearly indicating a recent flood.  Thankfully, it was no problem for the wide-ish tires we brought with us.  There’s also a missing link where the trail passes beneath BR 75.  It appears that the flood might have taken it out, as you can clearly see the trail in the distance where it rises out of the floodplain.  Still, the ominous warning sign made passage here a moot point.  We turned around and called it a day.

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So close and yet so far away.

That’s not a bad thing.  We got in close to ten fun miles and didn’t even feel slightly guilty about heading over to Iowa BBQ Company for a meat-fest.  This is seriously good Texas-style BBQ, well worth a trip in its own right.  The brisket was melt in your mouth good.  The  jalapeño cheddar sausage was reminiscent of the sausage I used to enjoy at Riley’s BBQ in Blanco, deep in the heart of the Texas Hill County.  Would I would drive the 240 mile round trip again just to eat here?  You betcha I would.

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The Iowa BBQ Company alone is worth a trip to Le Mars, whether you come by car or bike.
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The mac and cheese came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint.

So all in all, it was a very good day.  On the drive back to Jefferson I found myself thinking about Le Mars and what they have here.  In a sense, there was nothing special about this trail, and yet if I lived here I’d park the car and use it to go just about everywhere.   Other towns in this region have similar trails.  Sioux Falls comes to mind.  When we visited South Dakota’s largest city last autumn, we discovered a similar trail that loops all the way around town.   I understand that Decorah, in the Driftless region of northeast Iowa, has a similar loop.  We plan to visit later this summer.  I never get tired of exploring communities like these and learning a little more about how they help residents integrate cycling as a part of a healthy lifestyle.

 

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