This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
“I’m enjoying this,” Patrick said. “Me too, it’s nice not to deal with traffic,” Rachel agreed.
We were on the southern section of Wisconsin’s Gandy Dancer Trail, which runs 47 miles from Danbury to St. Croix Falls near the state’s border with Minnesota. The trail’s unusual name comes from the hardworking crews that restored the railroad tracks to keep them in alignment. “Dancer” refers to the rhythmic hammering motion of their tools in unison—tools manufactured by the Gandy Tool Company of Chicago. We learned this tidbit from Rails-to-Trails Conservatory’s guidebook on trails in Michigan and Wisconsin.
That day, the trail took us through a town about every 6 to 8 miles. Traveling south from the Eagle’s Landing Campground in Danbury, we stopped for food breaks in Siren and Milltown. The surface was hard-packed, crushed limestone, and we felt lucky that there hadn’t been rain. Rain could have made the trail less passable. The trees keep us shaded, but even though the temperature wasn’t as high as the last couple of days, the humidity was stifling.
When we were almost at the terminus of the trail, we saw a sign to Dresser. We turned and followed signs to Highway 35. This was a very busy road for about 2 miles with no shoulder, reminding us of how nice it was to be on trails and not in traffic. Through Dresser, we followed signs to the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail. This trail to Amery also had a nice surface and, true to its name, passes by seven lakes in its 13.5 miles!
We were traveling by bike for 50 days. There was a time when we wondered if the tour would happen because of the COVID pandemic. We ruled out international travel and focused on cycling in our own country.
We had several milestones in 2020, including our 25th anniversary and Rachel’s 70th birthday. A registered nurse working in day surgery, she was furloughed in March for a couple of months, returned to work for six weeks and finally decided to retire. While Patrick, an architect, continued to work from home, we completed a project that had been on the drawing board for several years—placing, in the branches of a backyard tree, distance markers pointing from our home in Boise to many of the places we’ve cycled.
We used this time of isolation for route planning. We decided to ride the first part of Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier Route to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Then we would start stitching together as many rail-trails and bike paths as possible to reach Eastport, Maine, and on to Boston along the East Coast Greenway, a developing 3,000-mile route stretching from Maine to Florida. In the planning of our bike tour, we used TrailLink.com and many rail-trail books.
The Wheels of Time
Cycling is a big part of our lives. We met in 1993 in New Zealand while each of us was independently touring, and then met up again in 1994 in Cape Town for cycling. We also rode from Spain to Patrick’s home in Ossendrecht, Holland, later that year. We were married in 1995 and spent our honeymoon cycling in Montana and Idaho, visiting Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
Over the years, we quit jobs and did three more tours. For the last one, which ended in 2017, we cycled in 44 countries over a 2.5-year span, including cycling from New Orleans back to our home in Boise. This is when we discovered rail-trails, liking the safety from traffic and seeing scenery from a different perspective. Our route included Louisiana’s Mississippi River Trail, the South’s Natchez Trace Parkway, Missouri’s Katy Trail, parts of Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail and South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail.
Join the Joyride
What we like about cycle touring is the experience of meeting people. Traveling by bike allows you see snapshots of people’s daily lives and interact with them. As a fellow traveler told us once, “Traveling lets you see a thousand lives you might have lived.”
At the end of the Gandy Dancer Trail, a local confirmed the way into St. Croix Falls. From there, we continued riding in northwestern Wisconsin from Downing to Alma on Menomonie’s trail system and two more rail-trails: the Red Cedar State Trail and Chippewa River State Trail. We met many locals out for rides enjoying the trails.
Our next destination was a series of connected rail-trails from the Mississippi River along the state’s border to the rural community of Reedsburg in southcentral Wisconsin. This seamless 101-mile trail system—comprised of the Great River State Trail, La Crosse River State Trail, Elroy-Sparta State Trail and 400 State Trail—is collectively known as the “Bike 4 Trails” route.
When we started on the Great River State Trail, we met folks vacationing from Texas. They were taking day rides on Wisconsin’s rail-trails, and a few days later, we saw them again on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. And just before reaching the city of La Crosse, we saw a group of children and adults carrying gear riding the Bike 4 Trails route. The gentle grades and safety from traffic make rail-trails the perfect venue for kids to learn to cycle tour.
There and Back Again
After Reedsburg, we were back on the highway for one day heading south to Dodgeville to pick up the Military Ridge State Trail, which travels east to Fitchburg. The trail offered great views of the countryside. In Barneveld, we stopped at the Barneveld Community Café for breakfast. The café has a mission to address food insecurity; the bill was $0, however, donations for the food were welcome. We left a donation for what we would have paid in an ordinary café.
From there, it was on to the network of bike paths into Madison. Out of the capital, we rode the Glacial Drumlin State Trail to Waukesha, where our local Warm Showers host gave us recommendations for continuing our journey toward Milwaukee. (Warm Showers is a global community of touring cyclists offering reciprocal hospitality.) They escorted us out on the New Berlin Recreation Trail, staying with us until its junction with the extensive 125-mile Oak Leaf Trail.
We headed north on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and connected to the Sheboygan Interurban Trail. Manitowoc, situated along Lake Michigan, was our goal for this stage of the tour to catch the S.S. Badger ferry across the Great Lake and continue cycling to the East Coast.
We made it through Wisconsin almost entirely on rail-trails and bike paths. And we incorporated another dozen or more trails after Wisconsin. Our tour ended after cycling a total of 131 days and 4,927 miles. Our favorite quote (by Jimmy Buffet) explains the beauty of bicycle touring perfectly: “Go fast enough to get there, but slow enough to see.” Each time that we have ended a trip, we are left with wanting to do more.
Let the planning begin.
Bike Touring Tips
Start with the Big Picture: Ask yourself how long you plan to go, where you want to travel, when the best season to go is for you, what type of road or terrain you’re comfortable on, and what scenery or cultural attractions are important to you. If you are planning to cross country borders, plan your visas well in advance.
Research Your Route: Talk to other cyclists and ask questions about their best tips. Read the blogs and online journals of other long-distance riders, such as on CycleBlaze. Look for websites with bike routes, such as EuroVelo for Europe or Adventure Cycling in the U.S.
Determine Your Budget: Start saving for your trip early. Expenses include: flights, accommodations, food and side trips or tours. Also pad in extra for unknown expenses that may pop up. A basic starting point for a medium budget is $20–$25 per person per day. To keep costs low, consider camping (especially where permitted on public lands and in city parks), joining Warm Showers (a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists), or staying in hostels (see HI USA or Hostel Networks Worldwide for options).
Be Equipment Ready: Opt for quality equipment within your budget, and don’t let the lack of the perfect equipment stop you from touring. A bike that fits you with good components may minimize the chance of bike troubles and maximize your enjoyment. Talk to other cyclists about what you might need, and research recommended pack lists, like this one. You may need to acquire or borrow equipment like camping gear, bike racks and panniers. Consider taking a bike maintenance class (ask for recommendations at your local bike shop) or reviewing online resources (like this one) to refresh your skills.
Pack Motivation: Weight on a long tour may not be as much of a critical factor as you might think. You can carry a few luxury goods that you will enjoy and make you want to continue to get on your bike day after day. For example, camp chairs, or whatever “luxury item” may mean for you.
Time Your Training: Determine what distance you want to do each day—a number that should begin smaller and grow over time. On a long tour (more than two months), you’ll be training your body in the first few weeks of the tour, so start out slowly and build your endurance. Plan for rest days, particularly when you’ll be in an area where there is something to see.
Diversify Your Transportation: Decide if you want to be part of the “REM (ride every mile) Club” or if you look at yourself as a traveler with the bike being just one mode of transportation. Fun experiences can come from taking a car ride with a local, riding a ferry, or via a bus or train ride, too.
The Route of the Badger is a developing 700-miles-plus regional trail network that aims to create equitable connections to critical destinations and premier cultural attractions throughout southeast Wisconsin. When complete, the trail network will stretch from Milwaukee to Dousman, and from Sheboygan to Kenosha.
Want to experience one of these or some of the other great trail destinations in Michigan and Wisconsin? You’ll find maps, helpful details and beautiful photos for more than 60 multiuse trails across these two states in our Rail-Trails: Michigan & Wisconsin Guidebook, available in our online Trail Shop.
Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.