Park the Car and Take the Bike in Cedar Falls, Iowa
It’s not hyperbole to call Cedar Falls, Iowa a trail town. This community of 40,000 on the Cedar River is at the heart of the Cedar Valley Trails system, a 125-mile network of numerous hard-surfaced trails, which radiates out and connects communities as far as 60 miles away. Cedar Falls’ local trails were developed with the vision of city leaders along with local citizens and the Cedar Valley Trails Partnership to provide residents and visitors a way to move around town and get some exercise. The Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Cedar Valley Lakes Trail, Cedar Prairie Trail and the Sergeant Road Trail within this system are also part of the coast-to-coast Great American Rail-Trail and the American Discovery Trail. Add hiking trails, parks, shops and breweries and Jen and I just had to take a closer look.
We pushed open the massive oak door of the historic Black Hawk Hotel, entered the lobby and stepped back in time 150 years. Massive pillars held up the high ceiling from which amber colored glass and brass pendants hung. Oak trim lined the tall windows that flooded the entire room with light. Comfortable settees and chaises were scattered throughout the room, perched on rug islands that covered the original penny tile floor in places. We were the only ones in there, but it wasn’t a stretch to envision mustachioed men in tailcoats and women in hoop skirts passing time by the fireplace while waiting for the next stage coach. Had a snappy bell boy appeared and whisked our luggage away to our chambers, we would not have been surprised.
The attendant checked us in and handed us a brass carabiner with keys and hefty metal tag. The six-digit number, he said, was a secret code and only the initiated know how to derive the room number from it. We were now members of a very exclusive club.
Our Executive King Suite was very well appointed. A massive armoire was dwarfed by the high ceilings and almost equally high windows. The next room over held a table and chairs and off that were the bath with a furniture style vanity and, unlike in the 1850s, a jetted tub. A wet bar off the sitting room completed the suite. As comfortable as the bed looked, we dropped off our suitcases and hit downtown as soon as possible.
Cedar Falls’ historic downtown packs in plenty of shops and restaurants and we had our work cut out. Walking out of the lobby, we started at Hatchlings and Hens where they sell handmade items from the US and Iowa and also offer make and take crafts classes.
Across the street, at Vintage Iron Co, the walls, floors and ceiling brimmed with home decor and gift items, some PG, some not. The “Please leave by 9” paper napkins caught Jen’s attention.
Driftless Style’s owner Kelsie Kunkle has traveled the world and sourced some very unique home goods, including some beautiful Moroccan terracotta planters.
A brass and glass display counter runs most of the length of Chocolaterie Stam and it’s filled with neatly stacked chocolate things and candies of any imaginable shape. We took some gelato with us and I upgraded to an affogato, which adds two shots of espresso to an already delicious scoop.
That treat had disappeared by the time we stepped into the World’s Window, a fair-trade store with products from around the world. Its sister store right next door, The Cob Mercantile, keeps it more local and offers residents booth space to rent to sell their own wares.
Just down the street, Miss Wonderful’s carefully curated selection of vintage things is complemented by newly made items in a similar style. Here, we found some funky, classic luggage sets in bold colors and pristine condition.
Pretty Good Co. is a letterpress shop and design studio where owners Annie and Brandon Alvarado use their three vintage letter presses to create greeting cards and art posters for sale as well as custom work.
We stepped outside and Jen was drawn across the street by LBL’s sparkling façade and bright, pink clothes in the shop window. She slipped inside to browse their Spring 2023 fashions and took a while to re-emerge.
You can’t walk around town and not notice the public sculptures. There’s 23 of these permanent installations around town, so while Jen was trying on dresses, I studied a brochure about the sculptures I picked up at the Visitors Bureau.
When it was time for dinner, we strolled across the Center Street bridge to The Brown Bottle restaurant. We were delighted to find out that the gentleman showing us to our table was owner Jim Landau. The red brick building on the river once was a diner, he told us. He and his wife took over the restaurant in 1972, remodeled it and just celebrated 50 years in business last year. We thoroughly enjoyed the patio out back. There was a light breeze, we were the only ones out there and dinner was good, so life was good. Jen’s sundried tomato feta chicken and my roast beef sandwich disappeared quickly.
Back downtown, we swung in to SingleSpeed Brewing, one of three breweries in town. Fittingly, the handle on the door to the tap room was made from bicycle head tubes. Of course, we were there for the beer, but also to get a start on filling out our Beer Trail Passports.
The concept is simple: You visit participating establishments, get your passport stamped and collect your reward. Jen and I decided to go for the gold and earn enough points for the pint glass. That’s three days to get seven stamps, challenge accepted. We took our drinks outside and shared sidewalk seating with members of the local running club who meet for runs Thursdays at The Runners Flat store just a few feet away. After our two-mile walk we also felt the need for electrolytes. My House Pils 8.0 hit the spot with a low ABV of 3.6% and Jen’s Vienna Lager, a pilot batch, had a good, malty backbone.
When the sun began to disappear behind the brick buildings on Main Street and the street lights blinked on, we walked back to the hotel for a night cap at Bar Winslow. The cozy, speakeasy-style lounge occupies a brick-walled nook just off the lobby. Inside, a few tables and upholstered chairs made for a comfortable session. The name is a nod to the original name of what is now the Black Hawk Hotel. Born as the Winslow House in 1853 the building changed names and owners over the decades, was rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in the 1870s and remodeled in the 1910s. It’s always been a hotel and that makes it the second longest hotel in continuous operation in the country. I stuck with what I know and ordered an Old Fashioned. Jen went with one of the house-original cocktails, the House of the Dragon Fruit. With a little shake of this and a dash of that bartender Nate played his array of ingredients like a piano and whipped up two very tasty drinks, served with a flourish. He said the idea behind Bar Winslow was to provide a welcoming, high-end experience without being stuffy. As if to underscore his point, someone softly started playing Van Halen’s Jump on the piano in the lobby and that was the nightcap to our nightcap.
Friday was trails day and we got an early start because the schedule was packed.
First, we stopped at Cottonwood Canyon for breakfast. Nicknamed “The House”, it’s part of the neighborhood, just like the other houses on the block. Owner Randolph Bryan was behind the counter, making pour over coffees at a steady beat as locals started wandering in. The coffee was fantastic. There’s just no substitute for freshly made joe from in-house roasted beans. Randolph disappeared into the tiny kitchen to cook our breakfast sandwich and burrito, emerging only to pour more coffee as people stepped up to order. While we enjoyed our meal, we took in the scene. There was a relaxing vibe in the air, similar to a European coffee shop. The sun streamed through the windows, music played softly and there was conversation and steaming coffee mugs at almost every table. One man got up to put his empty cup on the counter. “Well, gotta go cut the grass,” he said. In a similar spirit, we hit the road.
On the Cedar Valley Lakes Trail our wheels turned toward George Wyth State Park, which is just outside the eastern city limits. It was a perfect day for a ride along the river shaded by trees and we soon entered the park. Intersections were well marked and we had no trouble finding the boat landing, trail head and the campground.
The Cedar Valley Association for Soft Trails (CVAST) maintains a network of mountain bike trails at the park and we hopped on the dirt for a while to zip through the woods where the phlox blooms were making an appearance.
To get to our lunch spot, we crossed the river on the pedestrian bridge at Pfeiffer Springs Park and navigated our way to Starbeck’s Smokehouse. It’s an impressive building, clad in vintage tin signs, neons and other roadhouse-related trim inside and out. We took our platter outside, found a sunny spot next to an antique car and went to work on some ribs, pulled pork, hot links and mac and cheese. We couldn’t ignore Scratch Cupcakery right next door and picked up a Double Stuffed and Oh Happy Day! cupcake for that chocolate and vanilla craving.
And with no pre-planning whatsoever, we swung in to Lark Brewing, which happened to be just down the road from Starbeck’s. Jen’s Pip seltzer was made with calamansi fruit, aka Philippine lemon, and packed a tart, refreshing punch. My Pallet Table wheat beer had hints of orange and refreshed me, too. We had our passports stamped and continued on to Hartman Reserve Nature Center.
Back at Pfeiffer Springs Park, we entered the South Riverside Trail and saw remnants of railroad tracks, a reminder of how these trails got here. The paved trail cuts through the reserve and allows access to the soft trails inside the reserve. We locked up the bikes and went for a walk.
Trails RX signs along the way piqued our interest and by scanning their QR codes we learned that each of eight stops along the trails invites walkers to pause and be mindful by observing, breathing and meditating. We did, indeed, observe and identified some wild geranium, phlox and mayapple, which were in bloom. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Cedar City Creamery for an ice cream cone. It was a beautiful day and the place was right on the trail. I feel we would have violated some kind of city ordinance had we passed it up.
After a shower and some rest at the hotel, we were ready for dinner at Second State Brewing and, just like anything else, it was just a short walk away. We were excited about trying out their new concept kitchen and this week’s menu. While waiting for our food, we savored a couple of beers, which earned us another stamp. Jen went with the blood orange blonde and gave it a thumbs up. I took the double IPA. At 75, it was at the top of their IBU scale, but it went very well with my campechano tacos. Jen’s Creole poutine was a twist on the familiar gravied potatoes and cheese curds and incorporated a bit of spicy andouille in the mix. When the chef came out of the kitchen to deliver a plate, we had a chance to talk to him. “I love andouille, so why not?”, he said.
Just up the street from the brewery, The Ragged Edge Art Bar and Gallery is a box of a building perched on a grassy knoll just outside of downtown. Inside, owner Kendra Wohlert has created a space for exhibits, classes, gatherings and concerts, but she’s also good with a cocktail shaker. She must have known I was coming because there was a smoked Old Fashioned on the menu. The open, comfy space looked more like a living room than a bar and Jen and I retreated to the corner to sip our drinks by the electric fireplace. We watched the crowd for a while and relaxed. There were hellos and cheers when guests arrived, goodbyes and hugs when someone left. A woman came in looking for her phone and the entire room hushed into silence as she listened for her ring tone. It wasn’t there and with a collective “Aww-” from the crowd, the mingling commenced.
One final stop on our way home was the Brass Tap bar and grill where the party was on and music was pumping. The line of taps behind the bar seemed to go on ad infinitum and disappear into the distance and there were countless more beers and ciders available in the bottle. While a glass of Elvis Juice sounded tempting, we picked the Weihenstephaner wheat beer because it’s a favorite and not easy to find on tap. One passport stamp later we were on our way back to the Black Hawk.
Saturday started out with a leisurely breakfast of scones and coffee at the hotel. We settled into the upholstered chairs and watched quiet Main Street come to life through the glass front of the lobby while we discussed plans for the day. We also thumbed through the hotel’s old guest books in search of entries from some of the celebrities who have stayed here over the years. It took some effort and a couple of cups to get up and leave the comfy chairs, but the Cedar Falls farmers market was calling.
The mystery of the deserted street was instantly solved when we rounded the corner to Overman Park. The entire town seemed to have gathered around the park, there was a buzz of excitement about the crowd and the smell of something delicious in the air. People slowly filed past booths selling honey, soap, flowers, bread, produce and a myriad of other things. They stood in line for tacos, cachapas and crepes, tried on jewelry, inspected eggs, toted around armfuls of green onions and tasted cookie samples.
In the center of it all, the green space of Overman Park and its bandshell, there were no booths, but no less action. Every picnic table in the park was occupied, people walked around with their treasures from the market and kids played in the shade of the trees. Two young men performed a saxophone and electric guitar version of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, the perfect soundtrack to a bright and sunny Saturday morning.
After the market, we went for a walk around town, following in the footsteps of blues artist Eddie Bowles. Bowles, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory, came to Cedar Falls in search of work and made a home here, performing locally until his 1984 death at the age of 100. Using the interactive app, we worked our way from stop to stop where more information about Bowles’ connection to Cedar Falls appeared on our screens. Strolling down Clay Street under stately oaks and maples, we admired some of the older homes in the neighborhood when our app flashed and told us about another marker nearby. At the intersection of Clay and 16th, a two-block stretch of the city’s original 1908 red brick road is still intact. When Bowles worked as a laborer, he was on one of the first crews to lay these pavers around town.
Itt was about lunchtime and we were thoroughly ready for the brick oven pizza we had been hearing about, the 18th Street Pie at Mulligan’s Brick Oven. We stepped inside and immediately that pizza-in-the-oven-smell made us drool. Co-owner Ryan Bennet was working the 700-degree oven, maneuvering bubbling pies around with a pizza peel. We plopped down on the shaded patio and watched the constant flow of bikes on the Cedar Prairie Trail, which literally skirts the restaurant’s back yard. The pizza was out quickly, but had a short life. The ricotta-romano-mozzarella cheese blend with prosciutto, sausage and pepperoni didn’t stand a chance.
After lunch we met up with the Cedar Valley Cyclists, who were kicking off their 2023 riding season with a party. It was a special one, because the 425-member club is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We met at a member’s house where tents and bike racks were beginning to fill up. After some mingling and announcements, the ride was on. Roadies went one way, trail riders the other. Jen and I tagged along with the latter for a relaxed spin on the Big Woods Trail through the green space of Big Woods Lake Rec Area, then zipped past residential areas on the Lone Tree Road Trail. At Blackhawk Park, the campground was unusually empty for the season, but one of the riders told me floodwaters had just receded enough for the park and the trail to re-open. Our group continued on the Cedar Valley Lakes Trail and worked its way back to downtown through Island Park. Jen and I split off near Gateway Park as the other riders continued. We had a few more items on our itinerary for the day, but we weren’t done biking, yet. The South Riverside and Cedar Prairie Trails took us close to our next destination and the rest was an easy road ride on quiet residential streets.
At first glance, Octopus on College Hill is a small bar with a stage and a love for analog music, but they also put out a podcast and a zine and have been pressing small runs of music by local artists on vinyl, on a pre-order basis. Part of the bar counter is taken up by a pair of record players and a mixing board which live next to the usual drink dispensing equipment. When we walked in, The Smiths’ 1984 LP Hatful of Hollow was spinning on the HiFi. We grabbed our beers, got stamped and sat down in the shaded backyard to reflect on the day. A couple of guys rolled their bikes through the back gate after their RAGBRAI training ride. We nodded at each other. The sun filtered through the branches of the tree in the center of the patio. Jen and I felt a little sticky and slightly salty after the bike ride and the backs of our necks were turning pink from being outside all day. But the beers went down well and we enjoyed our first 80-degree day in months. Morrissey’s lament flowed from the speakers: “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town …” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
We backtracked and the trail spit us out at River Place Plaza, a public space that’s part of a new neighborhood between downtown and the Cedar River. When we rolled up, UNI Spectrum JamFest was in full swing and the plaza looked like it was close to its capacity of 1,000. The free concert was an all-day event featuring youth and student bands from the area, just one of many happenings here throughout the year. “Next up- the Screaming Goats!”, the emcee announced and the crowd cheered. Maybe we’ll see their name on a record label someday. We went back to the hotel to get ready for the evening.
George’s Local, the former car repair shop turned restaurant, occupies a prominent corner in downtown Cedar Falls. We snagged the very last table on the bustling patio and took it all in. Downtown was hopping and this was the place to be. From our perch near the edge, we had a good view of the street. Bike riders traded places with classic cars on Main Street; a sashed bride-to-be and her gaggle of bridesmaids fluttered by; somewhere down the block someone played an electric guitar and drums; countless couples strolled up and down the boulevard, holding hands and ice cream cones. Our server appeared, again, to get us to focus and order. We just had to have the tuna tots, which is sushi-grade tuna perched on little blocks of crispy rice tots. We also traded bites of each other’s flatbreads, buffalo chicken for me and Thai chicken for Jen. There was more people watching, but, eventually, the sun disappeared behind the next block, the patio lights came on and the fire pit tables were lit. It was a hard scene to leave, but the long, eventful day was catching up to us. We collected our final stamp and headed home. There was live jazz music in the lobby of the hotel. The pleasant tunes followed us up the stairs and lulled us to sleep.
Our last day started at Whiskey Road Tavern and Grill. It’s in the name, but you can’t go there and not at least take a peek at their 14-page whiskey menu. Even if you’re not into whiskey or whisky, you’ll find this list impressive. There’s even whisky flights and select private barrels. We were there for their Sunday brunch and that was a hard choice, too. I finally picked the eggs Benedict croissant and Jen ordered the breakfast poutine. Yes, that is poutine with two eggs on top. The food came out so fast it actually took us by surprise. Everything was delicious and we knew we wouldn’t need a lunch.
We had a little slack time until the Hearst Center for the Arts opened, so we strolled around their shady outdoor gardens and took a look at the sculptures outside. This was our last official stop on this visit and when the doors opened, we turned in our full Beer Trail Passports to collect our swag. Our visit came to an end but even after three days of full schedules we didn’t come close to scratching the surface of what there is to do in Cedar Falls. Although the car stayed parked the entire time and we biked or walked everywhere, we only touched a small amount of the trails in the area. The Cedar Valley is also home to three water trails and winter brings yet another layer of outdoor recreation. There’s more to explore and we’ll just have to keep coming back.
Update as of January 2024
- Miss Wonderful is now a new, local bookstore, The Nook
- Name change – Starbeck’s Smokehouse is now Cindy Lou’s BBQ
- Lark Brewing is now closed
- Hatchlings & Hens is also closed