Iowa Trails 2000

Chapter Four - Section 2
Trail Location and Placement Guidelines

Trail location refers to the physical placement of the trail facility within a planned corridor. These guidelines are generally applicable to all types of trails.

In many cases, especially within railroad corridors or road rights-of-way, placement is fairly well determined at the outset of the project. In such instances, the following guidelines are less applicable. Sometimes, however, there may be great flexibility in trail placement. For such trails, the following guidelines should act as a general overview of trail placement strategies. Final location for each trail project, however, must be determined based on the existing conditions, community desires, and cost constraints specific to the project.

Sensitivity to Natural and Cultural Resources

A major desire of trail users is to be offered a scenic trail experience. In so doing, it is important that trails do not negatively impact the environment which they strive to showcase. The following guidelines describe how a trail's impact on natural and cultural resources could be reduced.

  • Reduce grading on native grasslands and lakeshores.
  • Avoid locating trails through wetlands. In cases where wetland crossings are necessary, a boardwalk or other structure may be used but would require a permit.
  • Consider a buffer zone, planted with native vegetation, between trail and wetland, where possible (see Figure 4-1).


wetland buffer

  • In forested areas, meander trail to avoid removal of trees, where possible (see Figure 4-2).


avoidance of trees in a forested area

avoidance of trees in a forested area

  • Consult with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources if endangered or threatened plant or animal species may be present in the trail corridor.
  • Adhere to all applicable environmental regulations and reviews.
  • Avoid locating trails through known archaeological sites.
  • Consult with Iowa State Historic Preservation Office if cultural or historic resources exist within the corridor.
Trails Within Floodways

In some instances, wide river floodways are used as open space amenities by the communities that surround them. Other than a relatively short period of time in the spring, floodways are usable recreational areas that may accommodate trails. It is important to understand, however, the seasonal changes in water level and volume when designing trails and any associated support services. Development of such recreational amenities may also fall under the regulation of any number of state or federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These agencies will typically prohibit any filling in the floodplain.

The primary design issue associated with trails in floodways is trail surface. In natural areas, such as floodplain forest basins, natural surface trails are most appropriate. They will need yearly maintenance after the floodwaters recede, but they will not be seriously affected by flooding and will not adversely affect the environment. Care should be taken during yearly maintenance to restore the natural surface back to a firm and stable state that is accessible to all users. In urban floodways, hard-surfaced trails can provide important links in a community's trail system, and can accommodate a variety of users. Trails in floodways should never be surfaced with any type of aggregate, as the trail will easily wash away. Concrete or asphalt surfacing is preferred.

The following recommendations deal with trails in floodways:

  • Adhere to all environmental regulations and reviews.
  • Place trail at existing grade, to avoid the need for fill and to reduce disruptions to the floodway.
  • In areas with regular flooding, provide a means of closing the trail during high water.
  • Avoid the inclusion of support services within the floodway.
Scenic, Cultural, and Recreational Value

Trails should provide a high-quality recreational experience, they should be scenic, and they should offer opportunities for the interpretation of historic and cultural resources. The following guidelines describe strategies for capitalizing on the scenic and cultural value of trail corridors.

  • Locate trails to pass through a variety of landscape types, where possible.
  • Provide trail connections to scenic view points, cultural resource areas, recreational amenities, and support services where possible.
  • Include interpretive signage at scenic view points and cultural resource sites that are accessible to all visitors, including people with vision impairments.
Adjacent Farmland

While productive agricultural land can be a scenic amenity for trail users, it is important to understand the value of that land to its owner. For trails that pass adjacent to active agricultural land, especially on abandoned railroad corridors, it is important to communicate with adjacent landowners during the trail planning process. Landowners' issues may include the need for trail crossings for farm machinery or animals, liability concerns, and concerns about vandalism and littering. The following guidelines describe methods for increasing a trail's compatibility with farmland.

  • Work with adjacent landowners from the beginning of the trail planning process.
  • Where trails will be located on abandoned railroad corridors, the trail owner should assume the responsibilities previously held by the railroad, such as drainage, weed and litter control, and fencing (see "Railroad Corridors").
  • Where necessary, provide agricultural access across the trail for adjacent landowners (see "At-Grade Crossings").
  • Where necessary, install a vegetative buffer or fence between the trail and adjacent property.
  • Respect local setback requirements for adjacent commercial, industrial, and residential property.
Adjacent Commercial/Residential/Industrial Land

Within urban areas or rural towns, trails may pass near many different land uses. Trails can be a positive amenity for adjacent landowners, providing recreational opportunities to homeowners or employers, and connecting businesses to potential customers. A working relationship with adjacent landowners should be established at the beginning of the trail planning process. Many commercial property owners, depending on the type of business, will desire direct access to the trail. Bicycle rental/repair shops, campgrounds, lodging facilities, restaurants, snack shops, and other businesses can directly benefit from their proximity to the trail (see "Implementing Trail-Based Economic Development Programs," a special report of Iowa Trails 2000). Because these businesses offer positive amenities to trail users, access to them should be considered wherever possible.

In some areas, commercial or industrial companies that do not provide direct services to trail users may also support trail development as a possible employee amenity. Trails may provide alternative commuting modes, and may also offer fitness and relaxation opportunities during the work day.

Residential neighborhoods may also benefit from trail access. People having direct access to a trail are more likely to use the trail for recreational and transportation purposes (see "Local Community Planning for Bicyclists and Pedestrians," a special report of Iowa Trails 2000).

The following guidelines apply to trails passing near commercial, residential, or industrial properties.

  • Work with adjacent landowners from the beginning of the trail planning process.
  • Where trails will be located on abandoned railroad corridors, the trail owner should assume the responsibilities previously held by the railroad, such as drainage, weed and litter control, and fencing (see "Railroad Corridors").
  • Where necessary, install a vegetative buffer or fence between the trail and adjacent property (see Figure 4-3).


residential trail buffers

residential trail buffers

  • Plan for accessible trail connections to commercial areas.
  • Consider dedicated connections within residential areas.


Implementing Trail-Based Economic Development Programs


Iowa Trails 2000


"Local Community Planning for Bicyclists and Pedestrians," Iowa Trails 2000.

Railroad Corridors

Iowa has historically been a pioneer in utilizing abandoned railroad corridors for trail projects. These corridors are ideal for trail users, especially people with mobility impairments and older adults because they offer continuous, nearly flat routes. However, because the trails are often located on elevated rail beds, care must be taken to develop accessible pathways to all trailheads and access points.

Railroad corridors also offer the advantage of a continuous right of way under single ownership. Trails can replace or join railroads without taking any new land out of production. To assemble this type of corridor piecemeal would be nearly impossible, and prohibitively expensive. Conversion of abandoned railroad corridors to trails has caused some controversy, however, primarily from adjacent landowners. When a trail is implemented on an abandoned railroad corridor, the trail owner must assume the responsibility and liability of the railroad, as provided by the Iowa Code, and should establish a working relationship with landowners along the corridor. The following guidelines apply to trail projects located on abandoned railroad corridors.

  • Work with adjacent landowners from the beginning of the trail planning process.
  • The trail owner should keep the corridor free of weeds, especially invasive species that could impact adjacent crops.
  • The trail owner should assume responsibility for drainage of the trail, ensuring that water does not divert onto adjacent property. Because a railroad corridor's surface is mostly permeable, paving the surface will cause an increase in runoff. Adequate drainage of the trail is necessary.
  • The trail owner should provide appropriate support services along the trail (see "Support Services" ).
  • Where necessary, provide agricultural access across the trail for adjacent landowners (see "At-Grade Crossings").
  • Where necessary, install a vegetative buffer or fence between the trail and adjacent property.
  • Liability issues should be clearly articulated prior to trail implementation.

In limited cases, trails may be implemented in railroad corridors that are still active. This may occur where the right-of-way is wide or where train traffic is infrequent or travels at low speeds. This "rail-with-trail" method can be employed when a two- or three-track mainline eliminates one track but maintains its full right-of-way width. This type of trail facility requires extensive cooperation with the railroad. The following guidelines apply to trails implemented within active rail corridors.

  • The edge of the trail should be at least 25 feet from the centerline of the active tracks (see Figure 4-4).
  • If a trail passes closer to the active track than 25 feet, fencing should be installed at the edge of the trail (see Figure 4-4).



railroad buffers

railroad buffers



Planning and Designing Rail-Trails on Abandoned Rail Lines,"

Road Management and Engineering Journal

, TranSafety, Inc.: 1997.

"Rails With Trails," Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Road Rights-of-Way

Trails located within road rights-of-way can be an effective transportation and recreation amenity for a variety of trail-related uses. They offer ease of navigation, connection to existing support facilities, and right-of-way that is already publicly owned. The Iowa Department of Transportation, in 1999, set forth a guidance on bicycle and pedestrian accommodations within Iowa's primary road system. The guidance states that the Iowa DOT will consider bicycle accommodations in highway construction projects and encourages city and county jurisdictions to do the same. The department will also consider impacts to pedestrian facilities resulting from roadway reconstruction. Possible bicycle facilities include paved shoulders, wide curb lanes, bicycle lanes, and separated bicycle paths (see "Trail Design Guidelines"). The guidance states that Iowa DOT will use the AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities and FHWA's Selecting Design Treatments to Accommodate Bicycles (both referenced above) as primary guidelines for facility design. Criteria for determining the need to accommodate bicycle facilities within highway corridors were developed as part of Iowa Trails 2000. These criteria are included in Appendix D. Examples of conditions that could warrant further bicycle accommodation within a highway corridor include the following:

  • When highways are the primary means of bicycle transportation, due to the lack of other facilities.
  • When the highway is the primary access to a park, recreation area, or other significant destination.
  • When the highway provides unique access across a natural or man-made barrier.
  • When the highway exists as a link in an otherwise continuous bicycle facility.
  • When the highway project would negatively affect the recreation or transportation utility of an independent bicycle facility.

When highway construction projects occur, and any of these criteria are met, local communities and the Iowa DOT staff should work together to review the need to implement bicycle facilities in the highway corridor.

The implementation of bicycle facilities within road rights-of-way may conflict with existing snowmobile trails. Planners should make themselves aware of snowmobile trails and design additional facilities to reduce conflicts.



"Highway Planning and Programming Guidance," Iowa Department of Transportation: May 28, 1999.

Iowa DOT Design Manual.

Utility Corridors

Continuous utility corridors can be good opportunities for trail implementation in rural areas. Utility corridors, typically overhead electric or telephone lines, offer linear rights-of-way that see little active use. Many of the issues here are the same as those covered under "Adjacent Farmland" above. It is important to recognize that the best utility corridors are those that are owned outright by the utility company, as opposed to corridors that hold easements over agricultural land. Coordination with the utility is crucial to the implementation of this type of trail. The following guidelines apply to trail facilities in utility corridors.

  • Work with adjacent landowners from the beginning of the trail planning process.
  • Where necessary, provide agricultural access across the trail for adjacent landowners (see "At-Grade Crossings").
  • Where necessary, install a vegetative buffer or fence between the trail and adjacent property.
  • Locate trail so that impact to utility poles and other above-ground elements is minimized.
  • The trail owner may need to assist the utility in providing fencing or barricades to protect above-ground utility structures, such as towers, and control boxes.
  • An agreement between the trail owner and the utility will be required to address trail restoration and cost responsibility for trail damage due to utility maintenance.