Heritage Trail is a 26-mile multi-use recreational trail that follows an abandoned railroad right-of-way and extends all the way through Dubuque County, Iowa connecting the cities of Dubuque on the Mississippi River and Dyersville where the Field of Dreams baseball diamond is located. A newly formed regional planning group, the Dubuque Smart Planning Consortium, requested the Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program’s assistance. In October 2012, following several flooding events that destroyed sections of the trail including old railroad bridges, a CPAT offered the Consortium recommendations on how to make the trail more accessible and user friendly, how to promote the sustainability of the trail, and how to expand the recreational and economic development opportunities of the region.
I must admit that I was a little skeptical of what I could learn about managing the Heritage Trail. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn once we started working together with the CPAT. As we drove back to Dubuque after the CPAT’s public workshop in Dyersville (with over 100 people in attendance), the point was driven home when I was asked where our signs were along Highway 20 directing visitors to the Heritage Trail. It never occurred to me that someone might not know how to find the trail. That was the moment I realized this process would be good for our organization.
Heritage Trail CPAT member Jean Akers, AICP, on left, reporting out what she and her breakout group discussed during the public workshop in Dyersville.
One of the first lessons learned was to encourage more community involvement in the trail. We created a committee of staff, trail users, and the original founders of Heritage Trail to plan a week-long celebration of the completion of Heritage Trail – following years of repair from all of the flood damage. The events included birding hikes, a fishing clinic, bike ride, frog program, and the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new pedestrian overpass.
The community showed up to the ribbon cutting of the new pedestrian overpass ready to walk and bike. The overpass will provide safe access for trail users over a wide and busy highway.
Community involvement continues to be a priority for the department. We have sponsored or participated in many public events, including prairie seed collection, clean-ups, bike races, environmental education programs and fun runs to name a few. There have been several Eagle Scout projects completed recently on the trail, which include recycling containers, canoe accesses, trail head development, and prairie restorations.
Following the CPAT’s recommendations, we also addressed the trail identity crisis. The Conservation Department hired a graphic designer to come up with a new logo for Heritage Trail. The Conservation Board selected three designs and then asked for input from local bicycle clubs and original founders of Heritage Trail to select the final design. Thankfully, all involved were unanimous in the final selection. The logo is now on all trail signage and we have started selling Heritage Trail tee-shirts and water bottles which have been extremely popular.
The Conservation Board also hired a consultant to develop a “Wayfinding” plan for Heritage Trail. The plan was adopted by the Board early in 2015 and includes an “on trail” plan and an “on road” plan. The “on trail” signage is nearly all installed.
The road signs include signage for visitors to find the trail and warning signs for motorists, marking trail crossings with roadways. Several of the parking lots require upgrades to meet Department of Transportation guidelines before we can sign the state highways. We hope to have the upgrades complete later this year. We are also working with the new County Engineer to get the crossing signage approved and installed in 2016 as well.
There are many other projects in progress to improve Heritage Trail. The Conservation Department acquired two properties adjacent to the trail. Plans are now being developed for a campground adjacent to the trail at Heritage Pond. The second is a 91-acre tract near the center of the trail that will be managed as a wildlife area with hiking trails for now. Future plans may include camping cabins.
Trail maintenance continues to be a major focus. Improvements to the trail’s infrastructure have helped to prevent any flooding damage since the 2011 event. This has allowed staff to focus on maintaining the trail to the highest standards. Evidence of the progress made can be seen on recreational trail websites such as TrailLink.com.
Many of the trail’s old railroad bridges were heavily damaged during the floods. Many were repaired or completely replaced to be able to withstand future floods. Some sections of the trail with steep banks collapsed during the heavy rainfall and were completely rebuilt using flood mitigation techniques.
Finally, since the CPAT’s visit, we have started to work with the City of Dubuque more closely. Construction of a new parking lot/trailhead is out for bids now. This is a joint city/county project that developed out of the CPAT visit. The City and County also applied for a grant for infrared trail counters, which I’m happy to report was successful. We each now have seven trail counters (14 total) strategically placed on city and county trails to count trail users. We are also sharing staff and equipment to maintain trails. The county and city have both saved time and money with this sharing agreement.
Our community of regular trail users continues to enjoy Heritage Trail every day and we welcome and encourage everyone to come explore and enjoy it.
Brian Preston is Executive Director of the Dubuque County Conservation Board, which manages Heritage Trail. The Dubuque County Conservation Board was created in 1957. Since that time the Board members, serving without pay, have supervised the acquisition and development of over 2,200 acres of parks, preserves, and recreation areas for Dubuque County residents and guests.
Learn more about the Heritage Trail CPAT project.