High Trestle Trail


The shining star of Iowa's trail system, the High Trestle Trail runs for 25 miles through five towns and four counties. The trail includes an iconic, 1/2-mile, 13-story high bridge across the Des Moines River valley, one of the largest trail bridges in the world.

The High Trestle Trail was one of INHF's most complicated trail projects, but numerous donations and grants, paired with incredible public support, made the project possible.


The birth of rails-to-trails projects like High Trestle Trail dates back to the early ’80s, when the idea to convert discontinued railroads into community trails gained support through public policy and private collaboration all across the country. It was then that INHF began helping Iowa communities identify and organize the intricate pieces involved in “rails-to-trails” projects with such Iowa legends as the Heritage Trail, Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Raccoon River Valley Trail and Wabash Trace Nature Trail.

Iowans’ enthusiasm over the state’s growing trail network sparked INHF’s immediate interest in tackling the 25-mile High Trestle Trail project back in 2003, when Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) first proposed discontinuing the stretch of train line between Woodward and Ankeny. In 2005, UPRR sold the corridor to INHF with significant donation of land value. A steering committee formed, which included representatives from the nine public agencies along the route. Working together with the steering committee, we started down the long, arduous road to transform the railway into a trail. 

From rail to trail

Building the trail included many initial tasks, such as inventorying the site, finding seed money and negotiating the purchase of the land. The Union Pacific Railroad arranged a bargain sale of the entire 439-acre corridor to INHF, which we later transferred to the partner agencies. 

But there was a problem: UPRR needed to reuse the steel I-beams for its new bridge near Boone — an unfortunate loss for the trail project, but an important resource for rail transportation in Iowa. So UPRR dismantled and removed the bridge decking, but left 22 massive, 130-ft. tall concrete piers, later dubbed Iowa’s Stonehenge. We were left with a giant chasm across the Des Moines River. 

With guidance from INHF and the steering committee, the project garnered enough state and federal grant funds to begin construction of the trail in 2005. The engineering firm Snyder and Associates designed it. Polk County Engineering oversaw construction. And the first two “bookends” were built in Woodward and Ankeny. 

Then in 2006 Congress provided a big boost with a $5.5 million appropriation for the project. Combined with the other state and federal grants and over $3.2 million in donated land value from UPRR, the project had enough funds to construct the remaining 20-plus miles of trail or the bridge, but not both. The steering committee chose the trail so that people could begin enjoying it and its stunning river views. We believed the bridge would be rebuilt in time. Those 20 miles of trail opened to the public in the fall of 2008. The final fundraising task to complete the bridge and scenic overlook was all that remained. 

Building an iconhtt bridge

Inspired by artistic trail bridges in Fairfield, Iowa, and Tucson, Arizona, and funded by a small grant from the Iowa Arts Council, the steering committee sought an Iowa artist to develop the bridge concepts. RDG Dahlquist Art Studios was awarded the design contract and worked with Shuck-Britson, the bridge engineers, to execute it. Then came the crowning moment in our fundraising efforts: Vision Iowa awarded the project $1.75 million! Working with an incredible committee of private leaders and many INHF members and donors, we did it! We were able to build the High Trestle Trail Bridge.

Awards and Recognition

  • Mid American Trails and Greenways (MATAG) Project Award in October, 2011
  • Trails and the Arts Award in April, 2013
  • High Trestle Trail bridge was the recipient of 2011 AIA Iowa Chapter Excellence in Design Merit Award, 2012 Sectional Lighting Award, Iowa/ Minnesota Illuminating Engineering Society, 2012 National Lighting Award of Merit, Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, 2012 Product Innovation Award, Architectural SSL Magazine; and Public Art Network’s “Year in Review,” number 12 of over 400 international projects.
  • Listed as one of BBC's "eight amazing footbridges" in 2015