Some 50 years after becoming the nation’s first rails-to-trail conversion, Wisconsin’s 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail is still a great place for folks to enjoy a range of trail experiences.
My son and I biked the trail June 24 with 10 of Sam’s fellow Boy Scouts in Troop 293, sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church. Eight adults also made the trip, which included overnight camping outside of Elroy, where the trail’s eastern terminus meets up with Wisconsin’s 400 Trail, and at the western end in Sparta, where it joins the Lacrosse River State Trail.
Elroy-Sparta introduced me to Wisconsin’s incredible trail system three years ago. The system is among the best in the country, and Elroy-Sparta makes an excellent destination for users of all ages and abilities.
Seeing it once more with many of the same scouts and adults from that 2014 trip was a pleasure, because it was one of those great reminders of the value of working together to reach a common goal.
Something for everyone
Elroy-Sparta’s web site (www.elroy-sparta-trail.com), run by its friends of the trail group, notes that the trail was established in 1965, but other sources put its inception in 1967. The trail’s birthdate may depend on how one chooses to define that.
Some say it began the year the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad pulled up its rails between the two towns and offered the right-of-way to the former Wisconsin Conservation Department (now Department of Natural Resources) for $12,500.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy, the national umbrella organization for such projects, notes that the trail was finished and opened to the public in 1967 and calls it “one of the first” such projects.
Regardless, it’s a fine place for everyone. I only rode the last 26 miles, from the Village of Kendall to Sparta, but saw all forms of bikers, walkers and even a couple of motorized wheelchair users. Among the bikers, there was everybody from serious sorts with fancy shorts to a dad who actually biked with one arm controlling the handlebars and the second holding an infant (not recommended).
A couple of young Mennonites walked home on the trail through the woods with some purchases from the Village of Norwalk, one of five communities the trail passes through that serve as resting, shopping and eating areas along the way.
There were even lots of unfriendly folks from big cities – let’s just say they were from Illinois, for the sake of state pride, because they sure didn’t act like people on the Green Circle Trail, where not getting a response to a friendly “hello” is as rare as not being able to find cheese around here.
But even dozens of city slickers (it is a busy trail and among the country’s most popular, according to the conservancy) couldn’t dampen our experience, which came on a day that was mostly sunny and fairly cool.
That was a far cry from our last troop outing on the trail, a warm June Saturday that left everyone feeling lethargic, regardless of whether they had done the entire trail (as the scouts did) or just part of it (adults split riding and shuttling vehicles).
That 2014 trip was a great lesson to the scouts, who gather each August to plan their outings for the school year and ensuing summer. Each June’s trip serves as one of the year’s highlights, a sort of culminating experience, and for Troop 293 the tradition is to alternate biking, hiking and canoeing trips.
During the last Elroy outing, the group hauled more of its cooking gear – held in large wooden boxes – up a hill to a group campsite outside Elroy, which built a nice park on the south side of Wisconsin 71 for trail users.
That gear transport from the parking area across the highway to the campsite had been a struggle both coming and going, setting the stage for later exhaustion after biking all day in warm, humid weather.
The young planners applied their hard-won knowledge to this year’s trip, when we all brought sack suppers and the cooking crew prepared a light breakfast of yogurt, granola and strawberries (instead of a hot, equipment-heavy breakfast of eggs and bacon as in 2014). The 2017 trudge up and down the hill seemed far less like Everest for both youngsters and adults.
With plenty of energy and beautiful weather, we were all able to enjoy biking even more this year. It was a fairly uneventful ride with only a couple of minor equipment problems, but plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of the Driftless Region, Wisconsin’s southwestern portion left untouched by Ice Age glaciers.
The initial 6.4-mile section between Elroy and Kendall is more open than later sections. The Baraboo River valley is fairly wide here and the trail crosses that river seven times. The river valley narrows west of Kendall, but the trail follows it for several miles before departing as it approaches the first of the trail’s famous tunnels.
For most visitors, these are the trail highlights. The three routes through the limestone bedrock of the region’s hills measure 1,680 feet each for Nos. 1 and 2 and 3,810 feet for No. 3 – almost three-quarters of a mile. A flashlight or good bike light (bikes must be walked) are necessities, and a good windbreaker or jacket would be useful.
Each tunnel still has its original, massive wooden doors, which were shut between trains in the winter to help keep the tunnels passable.
The tunnels are cool and often a bit wet – especially No. 3, closest to the Sparta end of the trail, which has a small mid-tunnel waterfall that makes the walk through sound like a trip in a gentle rainstorm.
The washboard-like tunnel floors would be a rough ride for a wheelchair and can be challenging footing at times even for careful walkers.
The former railway’s well-engineered grades up to and down from each side of each tunnel will be slight to moderate challenges for average bikers, but they’re well worth it.
Latter portions of the trip along the old rail bed often feel like traveling along ridgelines with steep drops, making it a scenic adventure that’s worth a visit of virtually any length.
Elroy, which prides itself on being an excellent host, is the most rider-centric business hub for the trail, but various facilities and services in Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk and Sparta mean that trips of various lengths – whether one-way or out-and-back – are possible. Searching online for providers of food, lodging, shuttle services and even bike rentals should provide virtually anyone with adequate options for a trail visit.
Some final words from the real authorities
Saturday night, we stayed at a state campground near Interstate 94, where the weather suddenly turned unfriendly. Fortunately, we had already set up camp and the scouts had finished most of the cooking process when a thunderstorm, complete with small pellets of hail, sent us scurrying into tent eaves or the tents themselves for cover.
We watched as the foil-wrapped garlic bread on the fire-pit grill fought off the downpour and coals on top of the troop’s Dutch ovens turned into steaming slurry. An accidental tipping of one lid’s contents into the scout-made lasagna (by an adult) seemed to threaten the meal for at least some of us, but it turned out to be not so bad.
I can attest to this, as I got some of the lasagna that had the charcoal soup scooped out of it. A couple of mouthfuls had a little extra flavor, but in general, it was more like a wood-smoked pizza than anything else. No complaints here.
Scouts persevere, and when the weather let up, we all enjoyed the well-deserved and well-cooked meal. Afterwards, as a double rainbow and a nice sunset allowed the good-humored scouts to reflect on the day’s accomplishments around the campfire.
The troop’s traditional after-event review was held at the fire pit, as there are no regular troop meetings in the summer. Each scout was asked what went well, what could have gone better, and what new things could be tried.
To a scout, they agreed that lessons learned on the 2014 trip helped their planning and execution for this year’s ride, which they believed went very smoothly and overcame any minor obstacles – Saturday weather included.
The adults echoed the scouts, noting how impressed and proud they were of the young men’s leadership and organizational skills, as well as their stellar attitudes and efforts during the trip.
It’s easy to see how knowledge gained and work done together add up to great things. The very existence of public recreational opportunities like the Elroy-Sparta Trail, and all similar trails, parks, hunting and fishing areas, among others, depends on such community spirit and cooperation.
Nice work, Troop 293. Nice work, outdoor enthusiasts and supporters everywhere, starting in Elroy and extending far down the trail.
“Most of all,” one scout concluded, “we just had fun together.”
Author’s note: This column originally appeared in the June 30 edition of the Portage County Gazette.