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Exploring the Trails in Van Peenen Park
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Exploring the Trails in Van Peenen Park

Van Peenen Park located in Decorah, Iowa has a plethora of trails that will hit the mark for almost every rider from beginner to advanced. Not only is there a variety of terrain, you have a beautiful prairie you can ride around, even a stream to dip your toes in! There are several ways to explore the trails in Van Peenen, depending on how challenging or easy you would like the experience to be. The most popular route to Van Peenen is riding the trail called IPT (Iowa Public Television) which has you riding up a trail without you feeling like you're climbing up a hillside. The trail would be considered intermediate as it has some steep climbs, small rocky sections, and descents that could challenge a newer rider.

However, due to that, it's completely worth the effort because it gives you a taste of what else you'll encounter on some of the other trails in the parks. Personally, I feel it's one of the best trails for new riders to become comfortable with. The second way and easier way to get to Van Peenen for newer riders would be to drive up Quarry Hill Road and park at the trail head. From there you can ride up the Fire Road to the Van Peenen Pines for an easy route without too many technical features. If you go the route of riding IPT and want to hit up other off-road trails specifically vs. riding up the Fire Road, you have two routes to the top to choose from. You can take the trail Dust Bowl to Lower Little Big Horn, which will give you a challenging climb to the top for those who like to test their skills of endurance. Dust Bowl will give way to Little Big Horn with a trio of challenging, uphill switchbacks to climb up. If you make all three without putting a foot down you will feel extremely awesome (and possibly tired!) The other route to the top that lets you get in challenge along with some less technical riding would be to take North 40 to Gunnar.

North 40 will give you two challenging climbs eventually taking you to a beautiful prairie, to a downhill hairpin turn with a fun little "dip", and into a trail section filled with some fun flow. It will pop you out right in front of the trail named Gunnar. Gunnar has some climbing at the start, but once you get past the elevation you're riding on a hillside enveloped with tree cover. If you wish to add some challenge and mileage to your ride, you can hook onto the trail named Julia, which will take you back down the hill and up, leading you right back to Gunnar, literally within feet of where you left the trail! Gunnar will lead you up to the Prairie and you'll see the East Pines right in front of you. The pines are a favorite among locals and visitors due to the scenery along with the flow. Experienced riders can challenge themselves with darting thru the trees with speed and newer riders can enjoy the confidence boost of riding terrain without too much elevation and lack of drop-offs and ledges. East Pines will pop you out by a kiosk so you can check your location.

To hit up the next set of Pines just ride up a small knoll and you'll see the entrance shortly after. There is less elevation yet in the West Pines and it has fewer turns, too.  Personally, I don't mind backtracking, so I'll often hit up both of the Pines trails in both directions and veer off elsewhere for more adventure. When you exit East Pines from the opposite direction you'll see Gunnar and a path off to your right- going right will lead you to Little Big Horn, the longest trail in the park system and one of my personal favorites.  Intermediate riders will find the upper section of Little Big Horn to be more their style. Hard pack dirt without too many roots, some elevation, fun "dips", and a section of great flow towards the end make it a favorite on the FWD group rides. Once you reach the end of the upper section you'll come to a fork in the road, if you want to continue on Little Big Horn you'd go left, which will take you on the lower portion. The lower section is hard pack dirt with additional challenges of off-camber roots and some looser rock, plus a challenging climb called "Tombstone." It will lead you right back to the little campground clearing you would've seen as you entered into the top half of Little Big Horn.

From there you can go down the switchbacks to Dust Bowl or exit out to head back to the Prairie.

(Author Note-there is a "cheater" trail that exits out of Upper Little Big Horn to the right that would take you onto a trail called First Right about a foot or so from the intersection being described. This exit is unmarked. Riding First Right to the right will take you back to East Pines. Go left if you want to exit out on Rocky Road or Fred.)

If you want to end your loop in Van Peenen you can go straight (or stay right) and that will take you down a short and steep hill to Rocky Road, which is literally a rocky road with a picturesque clearing at the bottom with a stream. If you want more of a challenge and would rather have dirt, head up the hill for little ways to take the Fred trail down. Fred is tricky because as you start off it seems very similar to upper Little Big Horn. When you get further in you'll make your way thru a rock garden, come down some root "stair steps" and around a rocky corner to a steep downhill. That downhill turns into a hairpin turn which many folks may find they hold their breath as they ride down- that's half the fun! Both trails lead you to a clearing called Death Valley, which the common way out would be taking the trail called Luge out. You'll see that near the fire pit. If you parked at the Van Peenen entrance, I'd recommend exiting out down the Fire Road, going down Gunnar, or Dust Bowl. Either way, you go about it, you'll have hours of fun riding in Van Peenen with trails that will surely cater to everyone of every riding level.

With the trails on MTB Project or access to paper maps, it's pretty easy to make your way around the park since there aren't too many "cheater trails" or unmarked trails. For out-of-town folks, a great way to get a fun route would be to go to Decorah Bicycles or Oneota River Cycles for a local rider's take on a route that would be enjoyable for your experience level.  Women riders can always join Josie on a Sunday FWD ride at 5 p.m. that leaves from Decorah Bicycles. No bike? No problem! Rent one from Decorah Bicycles for your ride. They will certainly have something to meet your needs!

Photo Credit- Josie Smith

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