Shadows of three bicycle riders on a gravel road.

Iowa City Gravel Imperial Century

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October is when gravel adventurers can test themselves with the Iowa City Gravel event. But you can ride the 2018 100-mile route any day you’d like, exploring north and south in eastern Johnson County and beyond. You’ll roll out from River Junction, the teeny unincorporated town at the confluence of the Iowa and English rivers, founded in 1873; roll across the Sutliff Bridge, a three-span Parker truss design originally built in 1898 and rebuilt after catastrophic flooding in 2008; pedal past the cheerful red Secrest Octagonal Barn, built in 1883 and on the National Register of Historic Places; and pass a few local, small-town watering holes that would welcome a stop. Aid stations noted on the race route are only there on race day, so if it ain’t race day, you’re on your own for aid!

Large group of gravel bicyclists riding on a foggy day.

Let’s Go Look at the River

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This route begins and ends in downtown Solon, where there are plenty of options for après-ride refreshments. You’ll take a zig-zagging route generally northward, passing through the town of Ely, until reaching a point where you can take a spur to go out and back to visit the Cedar River at beautiful Palisades-Kepler State Park. About your halfway point, this would be a lovely spot for a snack…and reenergizing for the climb back out of the river valley. You’ll retrace the spur portion of the route then head generally east and south until you circle back around to end in Solon.

Gravel road in the fall of the Iowa countryside.

Iowa City Gravel Metric Century

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In October, gravel adventurers can enter the Iowa City Gravel event with fellow gravel grinders—or they can ride the 2018 IC Gravel metric century any time they like on their own. The route starts out amid the small handful of buildings that make unincorporated River Junction, where the Iowa and English rivers converge. The route will take you past the iconic red-painted Secret Octagonal Barn, built in 1883; through West Liberty, with a downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places and a bountiful selection of restaurants, many of which feature foods of Latin and South America; and through a few small towns that, like so many other small American towns, appeared with the expansion of the railroad. The map shows aid stations that are only there on race day, so unless it’s race day, you’re on your own!

Mountain biker riding down rough terrain at Sugar Bottom Trails

Sugar Bottom

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One of the premier mountain biking destinations in Iowa is located in the midst of hardwood forest along the Coralville Lake, just north of Iowa City and between North Liberty and Solon. The Sugar Bottom mountain bike trail system, in the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, includes roughly 12 miles and 1,400 climbing feet of outstanding hand-built trails. The one-way trails range from beginner to expert and are configured in a stacked loop system. You can enjoy a green ride on a continuous loop through the whole system, or check out the blues and blacks that loop off of the main trail. Along the way, you might hear the calls of barred owls, startle a group of deer or turkeys, or see an osprey working on its nest.

Races are held at the trail system several times a year and draw riders from across the Midwest.

Trail status is updated here and via signage at the trails; fines are imposed for riding closed trails.

Camping is available at the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, along with disc golf, a beach area, playground, barrier-free asphalt trail, nearby boat access, and more. There is plenty to do between mountain bike rides!

Road sign off of a flat, paved road with corn fields in the background.

Pancakes, Anyone?

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Wanting to get out on gravel but not feeling like dealing with a bunch of hills? This is the route for you! This route manages to find and string together some of the most flat-like-a-pancake roads Johnson County has to offer. Be warned, however: there’s a total of 3 miles of B road on this route — minimally maintained dirt roads that are lots of fun in good weather and that can get impassably sloppy in wet conditions. You might want to choose another adventure if you’re heading out after any significant precipitation.

Secrest Octagonal Barn in West Liberty, Iowa

Octagonal Barn Loop

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This friendly loop takes you past the 1883 Secrest Octagonal Barn, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The barn is part of a private farmstead just west of the town of Downy, and its unique shape has helped it withstand the storms and winds of the prairie over all those decades. You’ll pedal past this red-painted landmark not quite halfway through this route. About 18 miles into your ride, you’ll arrive at a one-mile stretch of B road, minimally maintained dirt road. Given the regular rectangles of roads in this part of the county, it’s easy to navigate a mile north or south to circumvent that stretch in muddy conditions…or you might end up taking your bicycle for a walk. Choose wisely!

Kent Park Entrance Sign in Tiffin, Iowa

Westward Ho!

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This ride will give you a chance to fully experience the rolling topography of western Johnson County and beyond in a lollypop-type route. You’ll head west and west, then turn north. You won’t have to navigate many turns until the route heads back east. At roughly miles 27 and 39, you’ll arrive at towns with some C-store options if you’re in need of refreshment, and in between you’ll pedal along the edge of Kent State Park, a hilly gem in the countryside.

Gravel road bikers riding through the Iowa countryside in the fall.

Getting Away from It All

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If you want to get away from the city for a while, this is your route. So, pack food and water! You’ll know you’re away from it all when you meet your first horse-drawn buggy on the road — you’ll be pedaling through the countryside that one of the largest Amish communities west of the Mississippi calls home. This route will also give your brain a break: miles 29 through 43ish are all on one road with no turns required. Ahhhhh…

Bicyclists riding down a paved county road.

A Little Get-Away

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This route is a laid-back pedal through the countryside southeast of Iowa City. You’ll want to bring water and maybe a snack, since you won’t pass much in the way of services along the way. However, at 18.2 miles into the ride, you might want to stop at Scott Church Park to enjoy the swings next to the corn field and the prairie flowers.

Winding road in the lush, green Iowa countryside.

Buggy Traffic Jam

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If you’re escaping city traffic, you’re going to love the traffic on this ride—there are often horse-drawn buggies driven by members of the local Amish community. You’ll climb up Bayertown Road to a ridge offering beautiful views of the rolling countryside, a favorite road of many local cyclists. There’s not much for services on this route, with mostly unincorporated towns along the way, so bring your water and a snack. Easy parking in Hills to start.