RAGBRAI is more than just a ride: It’s the scenic, historic and quirky towns that line its route
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey, it’s been said.
But sometimes, it is a little about the destination.
The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is an opportunity for riders to test their endurance and commune with other bikers in an epic, seven-day adventure, while taking in Iowa’s landscapes.
But the towns riders pass through and the ones they lay their heads down in have almost as much to offer as the riding itself.
RAGBRAI riders will make their 426-mile trek July 25-31, resuming an annual tradition paused in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These towns along the route have natural beauty, architectural history and other attractions that riders just might want to circle back for after the ride is over.
Sunday, July 25 (Le Mars to Sac City)
Launch point: Le Mars is hosting the start of the ride for the second time — it also served in that role in 2005. It’s not hard to get the scoop on why RAGBRAI would return: Le Mars, home to the Blue Bunny ice cream plant, is Iowa’s unquestioned ice cream capital. What better way to start the trip than with some Rocky Road?
Overnight town: Sac City will have its debut as an overnight stop this year after serving as a pass-through town in 1975, 1995 and 2012. Staying the night there will give riders the opportunity to see a rare sight: the world’s largest popcorn ball, assembled by volunteers in 2016.Weighing a “popping” 9,370 pounds, it’s housed in its own special structure on the grounds of the Sac City Museum.
Along the route: Cleghorn may not be New York City, but it has its own Central Park. Cleghorn also has an arboretum with trees planted by Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn Middle School students, staff and volunteers.
Monday, July 26 (Sac City to Fort Dodge)
Overnight town: Fort Dodge has been one of the most popular towns as an overnight RAGBRAI stop. This year marks its sixth time in that role, beginning with the inaugural ride in 1973. The town also has some gems to admire, such as a 10-foot-tall replica of the Cardiff Giant that was at the center of an international 19th-century hoax about the discovery of a huge, petrified man. And with almost 20,000 square feet of water surface, the Rosedale Rapids Aquatic Center could well be the most impressive municipal pool complex in Iowa.
Along the route: You’ll know you’re riding through Moorland, which might qualify as tiny with a population of just over 200, when you pass the town church. Our Lady of Good Counsel is more than a century old, financed with donations from residents and complete with stained-glass windows donated by parishioners. Another favorite place to pause is Lytton, which claims to be the homemade pie capital of Iowa. And though it has just 4,290 people, Cherokee has its own symphony orchestra.
Tuesday, July 27 (Fort Dodge to Iowa Falls)
Overnight town: In a blast from the past, Iowa Falls will host for the fourth time, and the first in 17 years. The town, with its cliff-lined stretch of the Iowa River, is one of the most scenic in Iowa, with a bevy of natural beauties that includes the Calkins Nature Area and the Rock Run Creek Trail and Bridge. Don’t miss the Swinging Bridge and the Timbukbrü microbrewery, which opened its Iowa Falls location in 2020.
Along the route: Webster City is a literary landmark as the home of two Pulitzer Prize winners: MacKinlay Kantor, who was born in Webster City, won for his 1955 Civil War historical novel “Andersonville,” and Clark Mollenhoff, who as a Des Moines Register reporter won the Pulitzer for national reporting in 1958, went to high school there. In Alden, you’ll have a “dam” fine time if you catch sight of the small town’s main attraction, the Alden dam on the Iowa River, a lure for fishermen. The town also has a veteran’s memorial for the towns of Alden, Buckeye and Popejoy that was funded through donations from Collins Dunning American Legion Post 201 and Alden residents. Alden, with a population of just over 800, also is the smallest community in America to have received a Carnegie grant to establish a public library. The Grace O. Doane Public Library was built in 1914 with a $9,000 grant from Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who in the 1880s who donated $60 million to fund 1,689 public libraries across the United States. The library was renovated in the late 1990s with a $250,000 grant from the Dr. Grace O. Doane Foundation, named in honor of the woman who established the foundation.
Wednesday, July 28 (Iowa Falls to Waterloo)
Overnight town: Waterloo will teach riders a thing or two about modern farming. You can watch a tractor be assembled at the John Deere factory, and visit the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum. As the largest city on the route, Waterloo also proudly stakes its claim to be the most diverse community in the state. It will host riders for the first time in 11 years and the fourth time in the ride’s history.
Along the route: Ackley is home to some prime natural sites, including Prairie Bridges Park, a Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. The park has 101 acres of woodlands and prairie and offers several camping sites and three miles of trails. You’ll also pass through New Hartford, population 703, the hometown of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the most senior member of that chamber.
Thursday, July 29 (Waterloo to Anamosa)
Overnight town: After the longest stretch of the ride, cyclists will relax in Anamosa, which will celebrate its fourth overnight visit. It’s a great place to admire two-wheelers of another kind, as the home of the National Motorcycle Museum. Anamosa also honors the memory of Iowa arts icon Grant Wood, who was born nearby, with the Grant Wood Art Gallery.
Along the route: Urbana is no stranger to bikers, with a 51-mile rideable nature trail running through the heart of it. The combination paved and crushed limestone Cedar Valley Nature Trail connects Linn and Waterloo counties and also is popular for skating, hiking and cross-country skiing. The trail offers a mix of views along the Cedar River, including woodlands, wetlands and farmland.
Friday, July 30 (Anamosa to DeWitt)
Overnight town: DeWitt is the second town on the route to premiere as an overnight stop. Its last time on any RAGBRAI route was in 1994 as a pass-through town. It is on the Lincoln Highway and often is referred to as the Crossroads of Opportunity because it sits at the intersection of two highways — U.S. 30 and U.S. 61.
Along the route: Lost Nation. Take a minute to think about history while you’re pedaling through this small town. It got its name from a Native American story about a successful tribe where the town now sits. A Native American described the tribe to settlers as “Boss Nation,” which became “Lost Nation” when the tribe departed.
Saturday, July 31 (DeWitt to Clinton)
Ending point: On the last day of the ride, Clinton also celebrates its sixth time as a RAGBRAI finish line, where riders mark the end of the journey by dipping their tires into the mighty Mississippi. The big river is at its biggest just north of Clinton, reaching a width of three miles, and Clinton’s blufftop Eagle Point Park, with its famous stone tower, is a great place to get a view.
Along the route: Be prepared for some spooky vibes heading into the last day of the ride: Charlotte is known for its haunted house. The attraction’s Facebook page describes it as having “Bloodthirsty spooks with sharp and rusty implements ready to jump out of shadows and inflict harm.” But if you decide to take the risk, you can be comforted with the knowledge that the proceeds go to charity.