Sat, Mar 13, 2010 | by RAGBRAIShare
Here’s a look at some of the sights and activities the towns along this year’s RABGRAI route have to offer.
Talk about a photo opp: This year’s route for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa might as well have been planned by the folks at the state tourism office. The trip’s 10,000 riders will pedal past some of Iowa’s most iconic sights, including West Bend’s Grotto of the Redemption, the sailboats on Clear Lake and Dyersville’s Field of Dreams.
This year’s 442-mile trip, scheduled from July 25 to 31, rolls along the third easiest route in ride’s 38-year history, according to the number-crunchers at RAGBRAI headquarters. The mileage is exactly the same as last year’s trip through Iowa’s southern hills, but the terrain is much smoother. This year’s route, the fifth-flattest in RAGBRAI history, climbs a total of 14,527 feet, compared to last year’s 22,806 feet, which ranked 10th in terms of overall climb.
Of course, those numbers don’t mean hooey if you’re too chicken (or sensible) to tackle the trip on two wheels. The good thing is that the route’s attractions – the quirky landmarks, the Main Street cafes, the wide-open skies – are there year-round, accessible via all kinds of transportation options that don’t require pedaling.
So get out and explore . . . whenever you’re ready.
RAGBRAI riders start pedaling east from the city where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark once headed west, and traces of its early days are still evident. Turn-of-the-last-century brick storefronts house busy shops and restaurants on Fourth Street, and the renovated Orpheum Theatre stands nearby, an opulent reminder of the Missouri River city’s storied history.
These days, the community of 85,000 boasts all kinds of attractions: a network of bike trails (RAGBRAI warm-up, anyone?), an amphitheater, a casino, an art center and a museum dedicated to Lewis and Clark.
VARINA, POCAHONTAS, ROLFE
The route’s three stops in Pocahontas County were founded when the railroad came through in the late 1800s, but their names were borrowed from a chapter of history from nearly 300 years earlier, when the Native American princess Pocahontas married the Englishman John Rolfe in colonial Virginia’s Jamestown settlement. The newlyweds lived on Rolfe’s tobacco plantation, known as Varina Farms.
A 25-foot statue of Pocahontas stands alone (sorry, Rolfe) on Highway 3, on the east edge of the town affectionately known as “Poky.”
“The statue’s our big draw,” city clerk Joan Dewall said.
Other landmarks include the historic Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, the Rialto Theater, a Main Street bowling alley in what used to be a Ben Franklin store, and the Home Plate Grill, where the steaks are “fantastic,” Dewall said.
In Rolfe (along the Karras Loop), it’s hard to miss the 12-foot statue of the Iowa State Cyclone “Cy” mascot and the giant Clydesdale rocking horse that stands next to farmer Dan Allen’s “Bud Barn.”
It’s also worth noting, especially for the hungry RAGBRAI hordes, that Pocahontas County is where the late Lorin “Chris Cakes” Christiansen started his legendary pancake business, which has served millions of syrupy short stacks at fundraisers and festivals across the Midwest. The company’s Web site, chriscakes.com, places the current pancakes-served count at 34 million – enough to pave a syrupy pancake highway from Los Angeles to Springfield, Ill.
The town’s main photo op is the famous Grotto of the Redemption, the massive conglomeration of rocks and semi-precious stones that depicts nine scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. The Catholic priest Paul Dobberstein started building it in 1912 and kept on building for the next 30 years. (RAGBRAI Riders can see more of his handiwork later on this year’s route, at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Wesley.)
But as the T-shirts in the gift shop say, West Bend is “not just another Iowa rock pile.” Visitors can say hi to the flock of trumpeter swans that have settled in the Grotto’s pond – and will likely have a fuzzy new group of cygnets come July – and stop by the Grotto Cafe for the Cardinal Chicken, the Bishop Burger or its spicier counterpart, the Padre Burger. They can tour a replica of a prairie sod house, an old country school and a history museum that opened a few years ago.
Many Iowans know that the term to describe something extraordinary as a “doozy” originated a few years after brothers Frederick and August “Augie” Duesenberg built their first race car in 1904 and 1905 in a Des Moines garage. But the real trivia buffs know that the history of the famous Duesenberg Motor Co. has roots in Garner, where Augie Duesenberg ran a bicycle repair shop before moving to Des Moines.
The town of almost 3,000 just a few miles west of Clear Lake celebrates its most famous tinkerer with the annual Duesey Days festival in early July.
The rest of the year, locals gravitate toward the historic art deco Avery Theatre, Matt’s Place bar and grill, the Mexican restaurant Ay Jalisco and the slide-equipped aquatic center that opened three years ago.
“When my grandsons from Olathe (Kan.) visited, they said, ‘Wow! You have a much better pool than the one back home,'” longtime resident Verne Brunsen said.
On the middle days of the ride, expect plenty of water to splash in and some genuine Americana.
At Clear Lake, a big natural lake awaits, and this tourist town knows how to host visitors. You might want to jump in at City Beach, right at the end of Clear Lake’s nifty main street of eateries and coffee shops. The water will be clearer, thanks to a $9 million lake dredging in recent years. You can take a boat ride on an authentic stern wheeler paddleboat called Lady of the Lake (cruiseclearlake.com).
Keep your cameras ready as you head into Swaledale on County Road B60. Along a mile-long stretch before town, farmer brothers Orv and Dale Caspers have created a little countryside poetry reminiscent of the Burma Shave signs of yore. The two put up sequential signs 18 years ago that bring a chuckle, such as “If you are worried/About growing old/Watch Orv’s signs/’Stead of the road.” The brothers are gearing up for some new messages for RAGBRAI riders.
Down the road in Rockford, at the Fossil & Prairie Park Preserve and Center you can not only look at 365 million year-old fossils but take them home for a souvenir to recall a time when Iowa was a shallow sea. “We haven’t run out yet,” said park naturalist Heidi Reams. “Every time it rains it unearths more of them.” The park is one mile west of Rockford on County Road B47.
Farther south, expect to be inspired by the people of Parkersburg, the town leveled by a tornado in 2008. The town lost 288 homes in the tornado but 250 have already been rebuilt or are under construction. “We want to be a disaster-recovery model for other towns,” said Chris Luhring, the former police chief. “We are hoping to have displays set up to see what it actually looked like.”Twelve businesses also rebuilt and new ones opened, including Matt’s Bar and Grill and Legend Trail Clubhouse.
More water fun awaits in Waterloo. A RAGBRAI campground is located near Lost Island Water Park, the biggest in Iowa. The park features nine slides and five other water attractions with more new slides expected by this summer. The Isle Casino is nearby if you want to try to get hot again.
The fun in Waterloo spreads out along one of the state’s finest trail systems, the Cedar Valley Trail with 106 miles of hard surface, and near another RAGBRAI campground, where you can visit the Cedar Valley Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, a showcase of Iowa plants, trees and flowers.
Visitors will find the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Manchester Fish Hatchery three miles or so from the center of Manchester, Friday’s overnight town. About 400,000 to 500,000 fingerling rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout make their way from here to cold water spots across the state. “It is really an interesting place to stop and see, especially for anyone who has kids,” local economic development official Jack Klaus said.
The final day’s trek to Dubuque will bring riders through Dyersville, famous for being a location for the movie “Field of Dreams.” Long before that spot became a popular tourist stop, the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in downtown Dyersville was attracting scores of visitors. One of only 52 basilicas in the United States, St. Francis Xavier is one of the few Catholic churches in the region where the Mass is said in Latin at noon every Sunday.
It just so happens that RAGBRAI will pull into Dubuque as the annual Dubuque County Fair comes to a close. From afar, Iowa’s eighth-largest city may not look that much different than it did in 1993 – the last time the ride ended there. But upon closer inspection, there’s so much more going on here, including a vibrant restaurant and nightlife scene.
What’s more, about $400 million has been spent since 2000 around the Port of Dubuque on the Mississippi River. One of the main attractions along the riverfront is the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, where a $40 million addition is scheduled to open in June. The expansion will accommodate more interactive areas for young visitors complete with a 32-foot-long flowing river and a bicycle-powered water cycle exhibit. There will also be new IMAX-like theater that will show three-dimensional films with 4D special effects.
– By Michael Morain, Mike Kilen, Tom Perry, Register staff writers