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The Dragoon Trail
The Dragoon Trail follows the path of the first U.S. Dragoons through central Iowa. Dragoons, for the uninitiated, were highly mobile troops – the country’s first mounted military units, in fact – who could explore places quickly and find potential military posts. This is how Fort Dodge came to be, as well as Des Moines, Pella, and several other Iowa cities. In the summer of 1835, they set out on a path to scout much of today’s Iowa shortly after the Black Hawk Purchase of 1832, which put the area under U.S. control.
In 1933, the State of Iowa opened the Dragoon Trail, a scenic drive along the Des Moines River that follows the historic path of this unit. The Dragoon Trail covers about 200 miles, passing cultural, historical, natural and scenic attractions including Ledges State Park, the Kate Shelley High Bridge, Dolliver Memorial State Park, the Iowa State Capitol, and more.
The Dragoon Trail begins on the south side of Fort Dodge, which traces its history as a fort back to the 1850s and as a city to 1869. With about 25,000 residents but serving as the commercial center for much of northwestern Iowa, Fort Dodge has a sizable downtown and options for shopping, playing, and soaking in some culture. The Blanden Art Museum was the first public museum of art in Iowa when it opened in 1932, and it supports an impressive collection of American, European, and Japanese art.
Oleson Park features a large bandshell, zoo, splash pad, woods, and hiking trails. The bandshell hosts the annual Shellabration rock concert in late July/early August and draws national rock and classic rock acts; blues acts from across the country also perform at the annual Blues Under the Trees music festival, also in summer. The city has a long history of gypsum mining, and Gypsum City OHV Park used recycled land from old gypsum mines to develop and maintain motorcycle and ATV trails. Downtown, check out the historic Webster County Courthouse, which dates back to 1902 and helps locals and visitors keep proper time thanks to the clock tower. Check out the “ghost mural” off Central Avenue too, which is a collage of old advertisements that once frequently adorned the sides of brick buildings in cities across the country.
The Best Western Starlite Inn is situated on the northwest side of town, right at the crossroads of Highway 9 and U.S. 169.
To get to the start of the Dragoon Trail, head south on U.S. 169 to the southwest side of town and connect to the Fort Museum & Frontier Village, an interactive site where you can walk around and through historic and re-created structures depicting the early days of both the original fort and city. The starting point for the Dragoon Trail, is right here, marked with a monument, flags, and signs – which are consistently well-marked throughout the trail path.
Directions from the Dragoon Trail official site: Fort Dodge to Stratford
Directions: Kenyon Road; Avenue C; Avenue B; Dewey Place; Lainson Avenue; Riverside Trail; Webster County Road P-59; Webster County Road D-33 through Dolliver Memorial State Park; the former Iowa 50 to Lehigh; Webster County Road P-73; gravel roads (320th Street, McGuire Bend Road, 320th Street again, and Washington Avenue); Webster County Road D-54.
Along County D-33 as you approach Lehigh, check out Dolliver Memorial State Park along the western banks of the Des Moines River. High cliffs and deep ravines mark this area, including a 100-foot high bluff exposing sandstone cross-sections, petrified wood, and minerals. Two portions of the park are on the National Register of Historic Places; a boat ramp with river access is available, and an interpretive trail lets you explore the creeks, ravine, beds, and blufftops. Two lodges provide amenities for a rest stop.
Via P-73 and D-46 out of Lehigh (just off the Dragoon Trail officially), you can access Brushy Creek State Recreation Area, which offers a 690-acre lake with great fishing over and above the opportunities in the Des Moines River. There’s also a swimming beach, 45 miles of multi-use trails (everything from mountain biking and cross-country skiing t horseback riding), hunting, and even a shooting range.
Continuing on the Dragoon Trail official route, follow the signs and angle over toward Stratford, a town of 740 set right where the Boone River valley meets the Des Moines River valley. The “Stratford Stride” is an annual bluegrass music festival that takes place every July and draws quite a few visitors.
Directions from the Dragoon official site: Stratford to Boone
Hamilton County Road D-54; Iowa 175; gravel roads (River Road, 394th Street, 396th Street, and Vasse Avenue) in southern Webster County; gravel roads (Juniper Road, 118th Street and J Avenue) in northern Boone County; Boone County Road E-18; gravel Juniper Road north of Fraser; Kale Road in Fraser; gravel 156th Street and 166th Drive out of Fraser; Boone County Roads R-21 and E-26 north of Boone; Story Street in Boone to U.S. 30.
Continue of the ziggy-zaggy path of paved and gravel roads past Fraser to Boone. Boone started as a coal-mining town and grew with the railroad; it was first platted in 1865 as “Montana” and changed to its current name in 1877. Nineteen years later it became the birthplace of Mamie Doud, who became better known as Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States from 1953 to 1961 during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The house where she was born is on Carroll Street just west of downtown.
Being a big railroad town, train lovers should check out the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, which runs excursion and dinner trains from the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum & History Center. The Museum features plenty of trains and train memorabilia to get you in the mood for a ride.
Trivia: You know those Casey’s General Stores you see all over Iowa and much of the Midwest and Plains states? The first one ever opened in Boone in 1968. Over 1,700 locations have opened since.
The Dragoon Trail runs through the heart of Boone and intersects with the famous original route of the Lincoln Highway – the first coast-to-coast automobile highway in the United States – right in the downtown area. Today’s version of the Lincoln Highway is the four-lane U.S. 30, which we cross on the south end of town near Boone Speedway, a 1/3-mile banked oval track the south side of town along U.S. 30 that holds Saturday night races and hosts Super National events on a regular basis.
Directions from the Dragoon official site: Boone to Des Moines
From U.S. 30 in Boone: Boone County Road R-23 (old Iowa 164) into Ledges State Park; Boone County Road E-52 and a series of gravel roads (P Avenue, 260th Street and Peach Avenue) east of the park; Boone County Road E-57; Boone County Road R-26; Boone County Road E-62; Iowa 210 to Madrid; Iowa 17; former and current Iowa 415 through Polk City; NW 84th Avenue west of Ankeny; NW 37th Street; Horseshoe Drive past the Saylorville Lake Visitors Center; NW 37th Street again; NW Toni Drive; NW 66th Avenue; NW 26th Street; Morningstar Drive to Aurora Avenue on the north edge of Des Moines.
Following R-23 south of Boone, after about four miles you reach Lodges State Park, which also has a 100-foot sandstone gorge. Lodges was one of Iowa’s first state parks, noted for its beauty despite some areas prone to periodic river flooding. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built numerous structures here in the 1930s; some remain, including a beautiful pedestrian bridge made of a variety of stones and hiking and walking trails – over 13 miles of them.
From Ledges State Park, you follow a series of roads, many gravel. County E-57 brings you back over the Des Moines River to the west side, where R-26 brings you past Buffalo Ridge, a series of hills along the river, to E-63, which brings you to Iowa Highway 210. Highway 210 goes back across the river to Madrid. Madrid, though matching the name of the Spain’s capital, was ironically founded by Swedes.
Today this small city of 2,500 is home to the Snus Hill Winery (2183 320th Street, 515-795-3535), the Iowa Arboretum, a historical museum, and the High Trestle Trail, which runs from nearby Ankeny to Woodward, and crosses the river here. Built in the 1970s and retired in the 2000s from train service, this trestle runs nearly half a mile long, towering 13 stories over the Des Moines River. The design of the bridge reflects the area's mining history and including nighttime decorative lighting. The piers ended up being informally known as "Iowa's Stonehenge."
Past Madrid, with Iowa 17 and 415 as part of the Dragoon Trail, you come across Saylorville Lake and head into Polk City. Saylorville Lake is a reservoir developed for flood control on the Des Moines River, and the lake rages from its normal 9.3 square miles to nearly 26 square miles during major floods. The Saylorville Dam is over a mile long and 105 feet tall. Big Creek State Park lies north of Polk City and offers plenty of recreation and amenities.
Following the Dragoon Trail, Iowa Highway 415 crosses the lake, and on the through Polk City and into Ankeny where you’ll find the Saylorville Lake Visitors Center, which is home to not only a series of indoor displays and information about the reservoir, but is also home to one of the largest butterfly gardens in Iowa. Ankeny is also home to the Best Western Metro North, right along I-35 off Exit 92, just off the Dragoon Trail route. In town, check out the Historic Uptown Shopping District for plenty of shops, boutiques, and more. From Ankeny, follow the Dragoon Trail signs as we head into the big city, Des Moines.
Directions from the Dragoon official site: Through Des Moines
Aurora Avenue; 6th Avenue; Birdland Drive; Saylor Road; Penn Avenue; University Avenue; East 6th Street; Robert D. Ray Drive; Locust Street; Penn Avenue in front of the State Capitol; Grand Avenue; 3rd Street (SB) and 2nd Avenue (NB); Court Avenue and Walnut Street (NB); Water Street across the Raccoon River near the mouth; SE 1st Street across the Des Moines River; Scott Avenue; SE 6th Street; Hartford Avenue; SE 22nd Street; Evergreen Drive; SE 34th Street; and Army Post Road to U.S. 65.
Des Moines is Iowa’s capital and largest city, a burgeoning center of government, financial services, and insurance – in fact, it’s been named the third largest “insurance capital” of the world. The city was named after the Des Moines River, where the Dragoon Trail basically follows – as you surely know by now. What is now the city was established initially by the Dragoons; by 1843 a fort was constructed. The city’s original name was Fort Des Moines, supposedly from the French “from the monks”, although there are some colorful stories to the contrary. It was shortened to “Des Moines” when the state capital was moved to the city in 1857.
Today, Des Moines has over 200,000 people; suburbs like Ankeny, West Des Moines, Clive, Urbandale, Altoona, and more bring the metro population to 580,000. Downtown Des Moines is filled with beautiful buildings and plenty of attractions.
The Iowa State Capitol lies just east of downtown, perched on a hill offering panoramic views. Completed in 1886, it’s the only five-domed capitol building in the United States; the central dome rises 275 feet and is covered with 23 carat gold. Elaborate columns and cornices extend around the exterior, and wide varieties of Iowa wood along with 29 types of marble are used extensively in the interior. There’s also a new glass floor section. Monuments and memorials adorn the grounds around the building. Tours are available Monday through Saturday, either self-guided or organized; call (515) 281-5591 for scheduling or details.
Trivia: the Iowa State Capitol’s golden dome is gilded in 23-carat gold; the thickness of this gold is only 1/250,000th of an inch!
The view of downtown from the Capitol is spectacular. The skyline is dominated by the 801 Grand, which rises 45 stories/630 feet and is the tallest building in Iowa; other buildings downtown house major companies, condos and apartments, and a vibrant shopping district. The Dragoon Trail runs along the Des Moines River between the heart of downtown and the Capitol; but be sure to stop and check out sights. It also goes through East Village, an eclectic district filled with historic buildings, boutiques and art galleries, “hip” eateries, and more.
Along with the Capitol, there are plenty of things to see and do. Along the Des Moines River close to the Dragoon Trail route, stroll the Principal Riverwalk. It connects downtown and many of the sights and attractions in the city. They include the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden with its beautiful domed conservatory and gardens; the Wells Fargo Arena hosting plenty of sporting events, concerts and more; Pappajohn Sculpture Park, four acres of sculptures and more featuring artwork by 22 of the world’s most celebrated artists; the Science Center of Iowa, offering a ton of interactive, science-related experiences; for history, the State Historic Museum shares plenty of stories and memorabilia on Iowa and its people; or for sport, take in an Iowa Cubs game at Principal Park, with baseball action of the AAA-affiliate for the Chicago Cubs, with the State Capitol visible past center field.
Des Moines Art Center, the historic and castle-esque Salisbury House & Gardens, a 42-room historic house museum on 10 acres of woodlands inspired by King's House in Salisbury, England.
You can cut west on I-235 and check out the campus of Drake University or head to Clive and check out Living History Farms, an interactive, 500-acre outdoor museum, featuring working farm sites, 19th century town replicas, and interactive exhibits. The Best Western PLUS Des Moines West Inn & Suites are right there off I-35/80 just north of I-235 and just south of US-6 to offer high-quality accommodations.
Or, on the east side of town, Adventureland Amusement Park offers plenty of rides and fun in Altoona, within sight of the Best Western PLUS Altoona Inn. Both offers easy access to and from Des Moines and the Dragoon Trail, being located where I-80 and U.S. 65 meet.
From Des Moines, let’s head back to the Dragoon Trail and continue southeast along the Des Moines River.
Directions from the Dragoon official site: Des Moines to Lake Red Rock:
U.S. 65 northward to SE Vandalia Road/Polk County Road F-70; Iowa 316; a series of gravel roads (Dubuque Street, 40th Avenue, Erbe Street, 60th Avenue, Gear Street, and 85th Place) in Marion County; Marion County Road G-40; Iowa 14 across the Mile-Long Bridge over Lake Red Rock; Marion County Road G-28; and Marion County Road T-15 across Red Rock Dam.
•Alternate: Iowa 14 southward from County Road G-40 to business Iowa 92 in Knoxville; business and old Iowa 92 east of Knoxville; and County Road T-15. The main and alternate routes both end at the Lake Red Rock Visitors Center at the south end of the dam.
Following the Dragoon Trail through Adelphi and Runnels, we cross again south via Iowa 316 and gravel roads to Pleasantville. If the name of this town of 1,700 makes you think of the 1998 movie Pleasantville, not only is the name the same, but when it was released in theatres there was an online competition to give entrants a chance to visit the Iowa town of Pleasantville. The city even uses “The Real Pleasantville” sometimes to continue this connection.
From Pleasantville, we recommend the alternative route that takes you to Business Iowa 92 into Knoxville. This also-pleasant city of 7,300 is the seat of Marion County. Like many cities in central Iowa, coal mining and the railroad have played prominent roles in Knoxville’s history. Today, it’s also known for racing. Knoxville Raceway notes itself as the “Sprint Car Capital of the World” and the raceway features a .5-mile semi-banked dirt oval where frequent races are held from April through October, including the Knoxville Nationals every August, considered the premier sprint car event in the country.
On the same ground is the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum, which is open seven days a week to showcase and honor drivers, owners, mechanics, manufacturers, and more involved with sprint car racing. The museum features a nice variety of restored ‘big cars’, supermodifieds, and sprint cars, all part of an 8,000 square-foot exhibit space that also contains trophies, photos, plaques, helmets and other memorabilia. Knoxville is also home to a microbrewery, the Peace Tree Brewing Company, which has its tap room open Wednesdays through weekends for tasting and tours.
From Knoxville, follow “old” Highway 92 to County T-15. This will lead you to Lake Red Rock and the Red Rock Dam, completed in 1969. Lake Red Rock is a reservoir that, with the completion of the dam, became the largest lake in Iowa. Built to help control flooding on the Des Moines River, the Red Rock Dam along County T-15 is where you’ll find the Red Rock Visitors Center, which is essentially the end of the technical Dragoon Trail.
HOWEVER, you have options. First, head to Pella and check out this town of 10,000. If the name is familiar, perhaps that’s because of Pella Corporation, a major national manufacturer of windows and doors. The Vermeer Mill in the city’s downtown is the tallest working windmill in the United States, towering 134 feet high as it busily grinds wheat into flour right in town. Pella has an Opera House, is the home of Central College, and even was the boyhood home of Wyatt Earp before he headed for the OK Corral.
TWO OPTIONS FROM PELLA
Option A: Central Iowa and Grinnell
From Pella, you can had east and north via County G5T to Iowa Highway 146 and head north to Grinnell, where you can check out the Grinnell Historical Museum, offering up exhibits that include a very early refrigerator and other artifacts from the local carriage company. The Iowa Transportation Museum is housed in the former Spaulding Manufacturing Company, which made those carriages and even attempted to become a major automaker until it failed in the late 1910s. The Museum now salutes influential people in transportation, both in Iowa and nationally, and displays some collections. Grinnell College is also in town – and has been since 1846 – and remains a highly-rated liberal arts college across the nation.
Trivia: In 1889, Grinnell College and the University of Iowa played each other at Grinnell College in the first football game played west of the Mississippi River.
Grinnell is also home to the Best Western PLUS Pioneer Inn, named after the Grinnell College Pioneers. It’s a great place to finish up a trek along the Dragoon Trail after exploring central Iowa, the Des Moines River valley, and plenty of places that make Iowa great!
Option B: Fairfield
From Pella, follow Highway 92 to Oskaloosa and U.S. 63 to Ottumwa, where you can hook up with U.S. 34 for the ride into Fairfield. A burgeoning city of 9,500, Fairfield is a unique place where start-up companies are growing at a rate where some coin the term “Sili-corn Valley” to describe the area. It’s a thought-provoking and relaxing place, being home to the Maharishi University of Management since 1974 and is considered by many as the “world’s largest training center” for Transcendental Meditation techniques. The Fairfield Arts & Convention Center hosts many events, and regular art walks and other cultural opportunities abound.
Consequently, Fairfield is a great city to relax in after a long tour of central Iowa. Kick back at the Best Western Fairfield Inn and figure out where else you’d like to explore Iowa. Click around for more options – there are more tours close by.