Photo © Rachel Hershberger, TravelWisconsin.com
The railroad days may be a thing of the past, but trail ways are all the rage in Wisconsin, which at last count has 93 bicycle trails changed over from rail beds offering over 1,846 miles for smooth and level riding. As trains needed a very gentle grade to be efficient, the trails themselves bypass the ups and downs of the terrain and are typically paved with crushed limestone for a smooth ride.
Looking for a place to start? Here are five of the best rail-trail systems in America’s Dairyland.
ELROY-SPARTA STATE TRAIL
The original of the Wisconsin rail-trail system and actually the first in the nation, this 34-mile ride is the best known of them all. Thousands of annual riders support a nice tourist trade in the communities along the route. The La Crosse River State Trail and the 400 State Trail connect at either end in Sparta and Elroy, respectively.
Heading north out of Elroy the trail passes through the wide valley of the Baraboo River, coming close to its banks and crossing it several times. Then the trail heads into a narrower valley. Bikers pass through three tunnels, so bike lights are recommended. The first two tunnels are each 0.3 miles long, while the third stretches a dark and startling 3,810 feet.
Take a Break:
Deke Slayton, known as part of the Mercury Seven, our nation’s first astronauts, hailed from Sparta, and visitors can learn more about him at the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum about a mile north of the Sparta Trailhead.
BADGER STATE TRAIL
Beginning from Madison’s south side where the city’s Capital City Trail and Southwest Path meet, the Badger rail-trail runs 41 miles south to the border of Illinois and its Jane Addams Trail. Bike through a mix of forest, rolling farmland, wetlands, sunny meadows and even a rock cut. A series of bridges span dips in the terrain, including a crossing of the Little Sugar River, but arguably the highlight is the 1,200-foot Stewart Tunnel, which may require a flashlight.
Take a Break:
Hop off along the route in the communities of Belleville, Monticello and Monroe for great small-town charm, local restaurants and shops. The intersecting Sugar River Trail connects to the Swiss-themed New Glarus, well known for fondue, fudge and the famous brewery bearing the town’s name. Bike into Monroe’s picturesque town square and stop at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern—the limburger sandwich is a local favorite.
GLACIAL DRUMLIN STATE TRAIL
Named for the egg-shaped hills carved by the last advance of Ice Age glaciers, this trail runs over 52 miles, nearly connecting Madison with Waukesha, the Milwaukee area and beyond. Starting at the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha it crosses the Fox on a large iron railroad trestle and heads west through the impressive landscape of Kettle Moraine, an area characterized by small lakes and bogs formed in kettle shapes when large ice chunks buried in the earth melted.
Bridges span the Rock and Crayfish Rivers and the straight shot farther west enjoys long tunnels of trees on an otherwise sunny trail. Closer to the west end at Cottage Grove, the trail winds among drumlins.
Take a Break:
Don’t miss a chance to stop at Aztalan State Park, an archaeological site featuring modest earthen pyramids and information about a Native American settlement.
GANDY DANCER STATE TRAIL
In the railroad days, workers became known as “gandy dancers” because they worked in rhythm and used Gandy brand tools to pound spikes. But the 47-mile trail that bears the name isn’t so laborious. Situated about a 90-mile drive northwest of Eau Claire on the Minnesota border and running from St. Croix Falls north to Danbury, the trail has frequent parks and towns for rest stops along its length. The terrain includes farmland, stream crossings and several small lakes, but the cliff views and Ice Age Interpretive Center near the trailhead in Interstate State Park are not to be missed.
Take a Break:
For a great supper club experience, check out the Dalles House in St. Croix Falls, where they sling steaks, seafood and specialty drinks.
AHNAPEE STATE TRAIL
This 39-mile rail trail starts in Sturgeon Bay in Door County and heads south to Casco. A spur trail at Algoma takes bikers out to views of Lake Michigan. Roll through cattails and tamaracks of Stoney Creek Swamp and ride along the Ahnapee River, eventually crossing it on a trail bridge. The Casco stretch sees farmland and is noted for abundant wildflowers.
Take a Break:
Camp at Potawatomi State Park, a short ride north of the trailhead at Sturgeon Bay. In Algoma, stop off the trail to see its famous red lighthouse, then sample wines at von Stiehl Winery or beers at Ahnapee Brewing right next door. If you need a bite to eat, Caffé Tlazo or the Algoma Burger Company are tasty choices.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.