Situated between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Iowa is a beautiful Midwestern state and an absolute paradise for mountain biking enthusiasts. With terrain characterized by rolling plains and cornfields as far as the eye can see, the state of Iowa promises a multitude of scenic trails; courses designed with every level of rider in mind, from the first-time novice to the very experienced, even professional cyclist.
In the following article we will take a closer look at the Iowa mountain biking scene by highlighting five of the state’s most popular and well-ridden trails, including a brief description about each of these courses and the various characteristics that have made them so attractive to the state’s recreational and competitive riders.
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Located in the town of Davenport, Iowa, the trail system at Sunderbruch Park literally offers something for everyone. Here riders will find a mix of well-marked trails that include two green-dot beginner trails, four or five (depending on the season) blue-dot intermediate trails, and four or five areas that are marked with black dots, representing terrain designed for advanced to expert riders only. Three of these black-dot areas are actual trail loops, while the rest of the advanced sections are technical/skill-based sections where riders can practice a variety of tricks.
As you begin your ride at the popular Sunderbruch Park, you will almost immediately be faced with a semi-grueling 100-foot climb, but don’t let that discourage you, as the pleasing assortment of above-named trails await you just on the other side of this ascent.
The two novice-rated or green-dot loops at Sunderbruch Park follow the edge of a beautifully scenic plateau. These courses feature a wonderful mix of wide meandering double track and some narrower single track, and while there are a few obstacles on the courses, such as rocks, roots and berms, there is nothing that will deter the beginner rider from proceeding.
The five intermediate loops, as well as the three black-dot, expert rated sections, branch off of the two beginner loops as they dip in and out of the park’s ravines. This unique layout offers riders a number of choices, allowing them to easily choose which loops to ride, skip, and/or repeat. All of these moderate to advanced sections feature plenty of roots, rocks, creek crossings, sand, berms and more—a good mix of obstacles that will rattle riders’ cages as they navigate the course.
The moderate-rated tracks at Sunderbruch Park have a few well-placed narrow bridges built into the course, while the advanced trails feature some tougher root and rock segments, jumps and drop-offs, and even a few skinnies. There are also some exceptional man-made impediments and features on the course, including a massive, wooden-bermed S-curve spanning a ravine, a deck and tricky narrow bridge, and a beautiful sitting/viewing area near the top of the course, which serves as a great place to rest and recharge while taking in all the beauty of the valley floor below.
Seven Oaks Trail
The Seven Oaks Trail, located in the small town of Boone, offers some of the best mountain bike riding in Central Iowa. A 7-mile course that is rated advanced (Black Diamond) for its high level of difficulty, the trail is both quick and technical, and just challenging enough to test even the most experienced rider.
With plenty of ups, downs and tight, twisty switchbacks, the Seven Oaks Trail is a cross country mountain bike course laid out among the Seven Oaks skiing, and snow tubing hills. The majority of the course can be found on the back side of the ski slope, where it twists its way through the gorgeous Iowa woods. Riders of Seven Oaks are forced to negotiate some leg-pumping ascents, rapid flowing flats, and some scary, hair-raising descents. Obstacles on this advanced course include rocks, roots, bridges, bermed corners, and technical switchbacks. There is a little bit of something to suit everyone’s preferences on this fun trail, which features narrow single track that winds through the wooded hills and valleys of the region, and crosses Coal Creek just west of Boone, and the Des Moines River.
Last year, in 2015, the Seven Oaks Trail was the third stop stop on the IMBCS Series circuit. Race Director and host Derek Brewer ran the event, which by all accounts was a smashing success. The course was so popular that it has now been instilled as a regular stop for the circuit, with the next race taking place later this year.
Sugar Bottom Mountain
Sugar Bottom Mountain and Recreation Area is located just east of North Liberty, Iowa and near the eastern shoreline of Coralville Lake. Overall, the 12-mile trail system located here is rated intermediate, but there are, in reality, courses for every level of rider.
Considered by locals to be the best trail system in Eastern Iowa, Sugar Bottom has a number of well-marked courses—tracks that are colorfully coded at the beginning of each trailhead according to their respective level of difficulty. The tougher trails on the course are all side loops of the easier trails, allowing riders to pick and choose the perfect course for them. Riders at Sugar Bottom will encounter a bevy of log jumps and tight switchbacks along the course, as well as some side-hill berms, jutting roots and rock gardens. As riders make their way along the “pine” section of the course, the roots become very large and frequent, so be prepared to be jostled about a bit. All in all, riders can tackle the entire trail system in just a few short hours, and because there are several different ways in which to ride the course, each new trip offers a bigger and better adventure.
The Sugar Mountain Recreation Area offers a number of great amenities. The parking lot is very large and there is no charge to park or to ride the course. However, small donations are always appreciated and go directly to track maintenance. There are two sets of restrooms at the park, a water fountain and soda and snack machines. There is a large covered picnic area with tables and benches, a bike wash station and a play area with slides and swings for children. Recreational opportunities afforded by the park include hiking and trail running in addition to mountain biking.
Located in the fairly large city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the trail system at Beverly Park is a five-mile, intermediate-rated mountain biking adventure that is guaranteed to please. Featuring riding that is fast and fun, the park offers a great mix of trails for all ability levels, and an almost unlimited number of technical skill features scattered throughout the trail system to challenge riders.
The Beverly Park trail system features a series of rolling hills, with no serious or grueling climbs. All trails are marked according to skill level—a level determined by the different terrain and obstacles on each of the courses. The course is comprised of narrow and fairly technical single track that winds through a native upland Burr Oak forest, offering beautiful views along the way. Obstacles on the more difficult sections of the course include large roots, rocks, gravel, berms, bridges and creek crossings, giving riders ample opportunities to master a number of skills and perfect their bike handling ability.
The trails at Beverly Park are sectioned into two distinct zones. The front side of the course is designed for beginner and novice riders, and even includes a kid’s loop—a great addition for those who prefer to take family rides. On the back side of the course, where the majority of trails are located, riders will find some of the more advanced and technical terrain and courses that are multi-directional.
Palisades Park is a breathtaking natural locale located high above the city of Decorah, Iowa and providing scenic views of the entire town below. Among other amenities, the park features a five-mile, advanced-rated course that has rapidly become one of the most popular tracks in the entire region.
As cyclists commence with their ride at Palisades Park they will initially encounter a fairly grueling climb, one that begins on grass and transfers to dirt about midway through. Once reaching the top of this ascent, the course transforms into a twisting, single track course with more than its fair share of rocks, roots and other impediments. Technical features, such as log piles and large downed trees, are fairly prevalent on the course’s Larson and Log Jam Loops, and the Dead Pet Loop has a dry creek crossing that demands all of the riders’ attention.
The trails here wind scenically along the Upper Iowa River and climb to the bluffs that surround it. The overwhelming majority of the terrain is tight single track, and each of the loops features some fairly difficult ascents that will test riders’ fitness levels. The trails meander throughout Palisades Park, where the bluffs offer splendid views of the town of Decorah and the surrounding area.
image credit: Scott County Iowa