Trail of the Month: June 2021
“On the trail, each town has its own character.”
—Ann Escaro, President of Avant Cycle Cafe, Lake Geneva
Although Wisconsin has its fair share of urban destinations, like Madison and Milwaukee, to see the true nature of the state, one has to get off the beaten path—literally. That’s where the White River State Trail comes in.
The 19-mile trail gives visitors an authentic glimpse into what Wisconsin’s all about, punctuated with stunning scenery, charming towns, wildlife-filled wetlands, bygone railroad trestles and bridges and rural surroundings.
“It’s a chance to get out and see the parts of the state that you can’t always see from the roads and highways,” said Willie Karidis, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s project manager for the Route of the Badger, a 700-mile regional trail system that connects trails and communities in Southeast Wisconsin.
Reflecting on the countryside that lines the trail, Karidis said, “It means fields full of corn. It means picturesque sunsets and sunrises. It means birds that have come from Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes. Everywhere you look, it just fills your senses.”
But it’s not all farmland, as pretty as it is. Running from Elkhorn to Kansasville, the trail makes a couple downtown stops along the way in Springfield and Lyons. “Both of those small towns have fun rest spots,” said Ann Escaro, president of Lake Geneva’s Avant Cycle Cafe, a bike shop meets coffeehouse that’s less than five miles from the White River State Trail. In fact, Escaro said, “On the trail, each town has its own character.”
Escaro particularly enjoys Springfield’s Pedal & Cup, a local favorite right on the trail known for its ice cream, bike rentals and old-fashioned visuals—it resides in an old train depot.
Enjoyed for its flat grade, gentle inclines and gravel surface (Escaro shares that last summer, the trail received a fresh, crushed limestone base), White River State Trail is geared toward easy riders, or, as Escaro called it, “a great training trail.”
To keep the laid-back vibes going, pause over a wildflower-dotted scenic overlook located between County Road NN and downtown Springfield. Or head a few miles off the trail to picnic at Elkhorn’s Babe Mann Park and get your fill of nature at Richard Bong State Recreation Area and Big Foot Beach State Park.
Brigit Brown, Recreation Management Section Chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, summed up the feel of this trail and said that it provides “a lovely, kind of leisurely way to get out in nature.”
A Well-Worn History
Starting in Elkhorn, a town settled in 1836 and named for the rack of elk antlers its founder spotted in a tree, the one-time railroad corridor turned trail has a history that goes back almost as far.
In 1854, the land was acquired by the Racine, Janesville and Mississippi Railroad. The track was completed in 1856, and 10 years later, was reincorporated as the Western Union Railroad Company. In 1900, the track changed hands once again and was sold to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, but in the 1980s, the company filed bankruptcy and wanted to abandon a large portion of its track. The corridor where the White River State Trail now lies was sold to the Soo Line, which was then sold in 1985 to the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Even though the track was owned by Canadian Pacific, it still wasn’t in use. Many potential buyers came along, including General Motors (which was scouting a plant site), the U.S. Army (wanting to utilize the land as training grounds) and even a Milwaukee company looking to use the track for an excursion train that never came to be.
Finally, in 1999, the corridor was purchased by Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources for the purpose of trail development.
But that wasn’t the end of the White River State Trail’s story. In 2014, Canadian Pacific filed to abandon another portion of the corridor. Through hard work and patience, this segment promises to enliven the future of this trail and its connection to the Route of the Badger.
A Role in the Route of the Badger
The White River State Trail is part of the Route of the Badger, a Rails-to-Trails TrailNation™ project that has taken 323 miles of existing trails (as well as 50 on-street miles of biking routes) in Southeast Wisconsin and, through connecting those trails, will make them part of a network that spans over 700 miles. Its approach involves building upon existing infrastructure that boosts connectivity between the trails found in rural areas, towns and urban centers.
The big benefits in connecting these trails include things like physical activity, tourism, exposure to nature and improved local economies, and the White River State Trail gets to be a part of that, bringing together small towns like Elkhorn, Springfield, Lyons, Burlington and Kansasville through 19 miles of trail.
“Each planned piece of trail is something that is important to the overall seven-county vision,” Karidis said. “When this is built out, it’s going to be a jewel for Wisconsin.”
The White River State Trail is about to help the Route of the Badger sparkle even more. Enter: a brand-new 11-mile segment.
Looking Toward a Well-Connected Future
Racine County and the small towns of Sturtevant, Mount Pleasant, Yorkville, Union Grove and Dover are on the cusp of enjoying another 11 miles of White River State Trail, which will further plug it into the Route of the Badger network.
The new segment will help create an additional 56 miles of uninterrupted trail within the regional trail system.
But it didn’t come without its hurdles. Since 2014, when Canadian Pacific filed to abandon this segment, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has worked to secure this extension of the trail but was met with funding challenges. Negotiations by the DNR brought the price for the land acquisition down to $1.5 million.
Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos secured the initial $1 million in 2017 through the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program, but they still came in half a million short. That’s when Jonathan Delagrave, Racine County Executive, stepped in and allocated $500,000 toward the acquisition.
The deal was finalized on May 5 this year, making it the newest addition to the Route of the Badger.
Delagrave shared that when he was first elected, he participated in listening sessions in each municipality and, in every session, Racine County citizens voiced time and time again a passionate interest in this new trail segment.
“That led me to believe this is a really high priority for our residents. That made me focus to get this done,” Delagrave said.
Hoping to have it up and operational within the next two to three years, this fresh segment of the White River State Trail is supported by Union Grove Rails to Trails, Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit started in 2019. President Larissa Gallagher firmly believes that the segment will improve residents’ quality of life and provide a safe place where people can bird watch, bike and walk and foster a sense of community along the way.
Making Local Impacts
The White River State Trail, with its shiny, new segment, seamlessly connects urban dwellers and visitors alike to nature. Deer, foxes, beavers and myriad trees and wildflowers can be seen along the trail. Escaro believes that the trail is a way to “enjoy the great outdoors that Wisconsin has to offer.”
The trail continues to be beneficial to local economies, something that should only improve with the addition of the new segment. Acting as a destination for area residents and tourists alike, small-town businesses get their time to shine as amenities along the trail.
“It takes people past local businesses and through towns that might not otherwise see that kind of visitation from outdoor recreationists,” explained Brown.
Gallagher agrees that the trail segment holds substantial economic benefits for the area, adding, “The White River State Trail extension could boost the economic well-being of Racine County and Southeast Wisconsin by attracting new businesses that open in response to increased tourism. Improved economies of the region may then translate into increased property values and enhanced tax revenues for the communities.”
In the meantime, the trail will still have its cheerleaders, the thing that Brown believes makes White River State Trail stand apart from other Wisconsin trails. Actually, Brown referred to White River as a “cooperative trail” since the DNR relies on local partners in Walworth and Racine County to support and upkeep the trail.
She said, “One of the things that’s unique about this trail is the amount of local support that we have, even local businesses that provide services free of charge, for example, even just things like cleaning the restrooms along the trail. We’re certainly grateful for that.”