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Water break in a tunnel © Kristen RamirezClassic barns are a popular sight along the trail © Noel Keller
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Trail of the Month: September 2008
Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta State Trail

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Much is memorable about Wisconsin's 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail, but visitors often leave especially chirpy about the pathway's three tunnels—and particularly the spontaneous chorus of singing and whistling that echoes through them on busy days. David Snyder of Milwaukee, Wis., first rode the trail in October 2007, and he still beams about the fun of passing through the musical darkness.

"It was a summer-like day, a Sunday," he says, "and there were quite a few people on the trail. The scenery is fantastic, and the tunnels are just a hoot to go through."

Because users have to dismount and walk their bicycles through the tunnels, you'll often find folks bunched up around the entrances, Snyder says. "People are singing, I had a harmonica and was making train sounds, someone else was blowing a whistle, and a youth group sounded like they were doing Gregorian chants. I've never had such a blast on a solo day ride."

"The tunnels—you always come back for the tunnels," says Jim Moorhead, a park ranger with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who helps manage the trail. "There's no question, that's the big ticket." The tunnels are still outfitted with their original doors, which the railroad used to close in the winter to maintain the steady 45-degree temperature. These days, the state uses them to close the tunnels from November to the first of May, when you'll find crowds of visitors eager to spin through the cool, refreshing shade on hot afternoons.

The state purchased the right-of-way for the trail from the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1965 for a bargain of $12,000. Two years later, the pathway opened to the public as one of the first rail-trails in the country. And after 40 years, says Moorhead, some families are in their third generation of trail use and come out to ride together, grandparents and grandkids, on the same tracks.

Why they keep coming back is no mystery. The crushed-stone pathway winds through part of Wisconsin's hilly "driftless area," where glaciers never carved the countryside flat. Between woodlands and big, swooping hills—"Hobbit country," as Snyder calls it—you'll find Amish and organic farms, flowing pastures and the easy rhythm of lolling cattle and buzzing insects. During spring and summer, in particular, the landscape nods along like a rumpled carpet of green, yet there's no risk of tunnel vision with so many lively distractions on all sides.

Heading from Elroy to Sparta, the route passes through six communities and has encouraged a welcoming trail culture and infrastructure, from rental outfits to Bed & Breakfasts and restaurants. Several businesses, says Snyder, now offer shuttle service for cyclists wanting to ride the trail one way. You won't find a huge advantage riding or hiking in one direction, although some visitors recommend starting in Elroy, as Snyder did. Still, the main high points on the trail are the three tunnels: you'll climb up to each one, and then drift back down on the other side.

Part of the trail's broad appeal is its fluid connection to the overall state system. The Elroy-Sparta is one trunk in a network of 101 continuous trail miles, including the Great River State Trail, La Crosse River State Trail and the 400 State Trail. Several days in Wisconsin, in other words, can reward you with a great many choices for scenery, from the banks of the Mississippi to the heart of Midwest farm country. So unsurprisingly, local visitors aren't the only ones flocking to the route. "We have folks coming from all over, and generally half of our use is from out of state," says Moorhead.

As part of Wisconsin's State Trails System, the Elroy-Sparta does require a trail pass for cyclists aged 16 and older. The cost is $4 a person per day, or $20 for the calendar year, and that covers access to all state trails. Ten percent of proceeds from sales help fund the local Friends of the Elroy-Sparta Trail group, which staffs the trail headquarters at the Kendall depot. The passes are also an important revenue source for trail clean-up and maintenance, including repairs from this year's considerable flooding. Some Wisconsin trails remain closed, but the Elroy-Sparta is back up after mudslide damage and fallen trees; it was only closed for a couple weeks.

"The state's made quite an investment over the years," Moorhead says. "We think it's a great facility." So do thousands of other visitors every year. They keep coming back to roll with the cattle and cruise the tunnels, and to see why the trail is such a "hoot" to experience.

To commemorate this trailblazing spirit and incredible popularity, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy just named the Elroy-Sparta State Trail the 7th member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

For more information, photosand user reviews of the trail, or to post your own, please visit


Related Links

Elroy-Sparta State Trail

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Find a Wisconsin State Trail


Trail Facts

Name: Elroy-Sparta State Trail

Trail Web site:

Length: 32 miles

Counties: Juneau and Monroe

Start Point/ End Point: Elroy to Sparta

Surface type: Crushed stone

Uses: Hiking, jogging, cycling, cross-country skiing and snowmobile; the trail is also wheelchair accessible.

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Parking: provides a free interactive map with important trail markers, including parking, water fountains and restrooms. You may also wish to visit the Friends of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail's map to research other amenities, like local lodging and dining options.

Nearby Attractions: You could argue that hiking or pedaling with a belly full of pie is unwise, but plenty of visitors to Wilton, right in the middle of the trail, swear the indulgence is worth it at Gina's Pies are Square. Just two blocks off the pathway, Gina's is a popular stop for those of the sweet teeth. Call 608.435.6541 to check seasonal hours.

If you're around Sparta on September 12 and 13, you may want to pack your appetite for the Ben Bikin' BBQ Bash at Evans-Bossard Park. The event features the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) Sanctioned State Championship Cook-Off, which featured 30 teams from around the country last year to "compete for cash, prizes and bragging rites for the best barbeque in Wisconsin."

If you miss that weekend, you can try for the next Saturday, September 20, and pop into the third-annual Brats and Brass benefit, where you can enjoy brats, root beer floats and the music of Tarnished Brass. The celebration is scheduled to begin at 3:00 p.m. along Beaver Creek, but check with the Sparta Chamber of Commerce for more event details.

At the other end of the trail, ambitious runners, paddlers and pedalers can sign up for the fifth annual Hill Country Trail & River Challenge Triathlon on September 27 at 9:00 a.m. The race includes eight miles of biking on the 400 State Trail after running and canoeing legs.

Karen Peterson with her mom and stepdad © Karen Peterson

Soaking up the lush Wisconsin countryside © G. Shoda

Trailside sandstone formations southeast of Sparta © Veronica Rusnak

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