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Rail Trails Proliferate Across Iowa & the Midwest

Map of the Rolling Prairie Trail System

A Rolling Prairie Trail System map shows the trail’s gently winding path through five rural communities.

When rail transportation in Iowa peaked in the early 1900s, the state was home to more than 10,500 miles of track. As automobiles became the preferred mode of transportation, many short-line railroads that crisscrossed the state became less profitable and were ultimately acquired by larger companies or abandoned altogether. Today, fewer than 4,000 miles of track remain operational throughout the state. Advocates are working to convert many abandoned rail lines into multi-use trails, reinvigorating rural connections and providing recreation and tourism opportunities for residents and visitors.

The Conservation Board in Butler County is diligently working to complete one such rails-to-trails project known as the Rolling Prairie Trail. When complete, the Rolling Prairie Trail will wind its way through five Butler County communities and connect to trails in Franklin County to the west and Bremer County to the east. After receiving an Iowa DOT State Recreational Trails (SRT) Program grant and acquiring the land for the trail’s path, the Butler County Conservation Board partnered with Snyder & Associates due to our firm’s extensive rail-trail development experience.

Aging Railroad Crossings Require Structural Retrofit

Our team identified a previously unknown drainage structure on the trail route during an initial site visit. This discovery helped avoid a potential drainage issue before the project was awarded. From there, our seasoned trail professionals were able to quickly begin the process of designing the 5.45-mile stretch of the trail connecting the city of Allison to neighboring Bristow. The Butler County Conservation Board had previously cleared and grubbed the trail path before the completion of the design. This enabled our team to begin their topographic survey and drainage analysis promptly, allowing planning and permitting to progress.

Trail water drainage

An in-ground drainage system manages stormwater and keeps the Rolling Prairie Trail safe and accessible.

The trail alignment for the Allison to Bristow segment included five paved gravel road crossings and one crossing of local Highway 14. Additionally, multiple existing bridges and drainage structures required attention ranging from complete removal and replacement to reinforcement and retrofitting. Our design team worked with Butler County Conservation to develop a plan for addressing each structure. The Butler County Conservation Board updated and reinforced the existing bridge structures, and our team handled the planning and installation of in-ground stationary drainage systems. We also provided construction observation and administration services during the trail project’s excavation, grading, and paving portions.

To comply with the conditions of the SRT grant, our team followed the DOT’s Federal Aid Policy Guide and completed coordination with multiple agencies. They also ensured that each trail crossing was ADA-compliant and included signage designed to alert drivers, bikers, and pedestrians of approaching intersections. Removable bollards were added to the crossings to prevent motor vehicle access to the newly paved trail yet allow county vehicles to enter and exit for routine maintenance. The crossing on Highway 14 includes all the same elements, with the addition of pavement markings indicating a crosswalk. Fencing was added to one steep crossing to keep trail users safe.

Rail-to-Trail Conversion Provides Unique Recreation Opportunities

Today, the Allison to Bristow stretch of the Rolling Prairie Trail provides users with access to Wilder Park and restaurants, campsites, and restroom facilities on each end. Trail users experience a variety of landscapes and scenery along the trail, including native prairies, forested canopy, and updated historic railroad bridges. Other trail segments provide access to Wolter’s Prairie Preserve, Heery Woods State Park, and multiple bicycle fix-it stations for unexpected breakdowns. The easy grade of this hard surface trail and the convenient amenities make it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.