Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta State Trail

Posted 09/01/08 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo by Eric Reischl Photography

Trail of the Month: September 2008

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.

Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user dj123_45
Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user dj123_45

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, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own, please visit TrailLink.com.

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