Biking westward from Elroy, Wisconsin, my friends and I soon saw the first tunnel, a big circular cut through bedrock, with a dot of light in the distance. We flipped on our headlights and walked our bikes over the damp, uneven roadbed. Despite warm temperatures outside, the tunnel was as cool as a cave. The voices of other cyclists echoed as their lights bobbed in the near darkness. About five minutes later, we emerged into the light, mounted our bikes, and pedaled on.
TAKE A SPIN
» RENT A BIKE
Bike rentals are available in Sparta, Elroy, or Kendall. The best bike choice is a hybrid (a cross between a thick-tired mountain bike and skinny-tired road bike).
Trail passes: Riders 16 and older need a trail pass, $4 a day or $20 for the season. For passes and a shuttle, call the trail headquarters (608-463-7109) or Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce (608-269-4123). For more information, visit elroy-sparta-trail.com.
BIKE RENTAL SHOPS
Speed’s Bicycle Shop
1126 John St., 608-269-2315
Elroy Commons Trailshop
303 Railroad St., 608-462-2410
Kendall Depot Trail Headquarters
Hwy. 17 and 113 White St., 608-463-7109
» WHERE TO STAY/EAT
Recharge your batteries at the Franklin Victorian Bed & Breakfast in Sparta (220 E. Franklin St., 888-594-3822). A more informal choice, as handy as the name implies, is the Trail-Side Bed and Breakfast and Dorset Valley School Restaurant & Bakery in Wilton (26147 Hwy. 71, 888-435-6525).
The 32-mile-long Elroy-Sparta State Trail in hilly southwestern Wisconsin is known for its three tunnels. But the thrill of passing through them is just one reason to ride here. The countryside is beautiful. The crushed limestone path (one of the first rail-to-trail conversions when it opened in 1967 on an abandoned Chicago-North Western Railway right of way) winds among woodlands, narrow valleys, and the knobby hills of the state's farm country. And there's plenty to see and do in the small towns, shops, and restaurants along the way.
Start at Elroy and pedal northwestward to take advantage of the downhill grade. At the tidy farm town of Kendall, check out the Kendall Depot Trail Headquarters and Museum in the renovated brick-red train depot. Duck through the first tunnel, a quarter-mile long, and then stop in Wilton, halfway along the trail, for a sandwich and dessert at Pettera's Country Thyme Cafe (400 Main St., Wilton, 608-435-6541). Pedal on and you'll hit the next tunnel, another quarter-miler. After the town of Norwalk you'll discover the longest tunnel at three-quarters of a mile. From there, it's a long downhill glide—interrupted only by the quick up and down of a bridge over Highway 71—all the way into Sparta, where Ben Bikin', the 32-foot-tall sculpture of a Victorian-era cyclist on a high-wheel bike, greets visitors.
Most riders complete the Elroy-Sparta route in a day. If you want to push on, head west on the 21.5-mile-long La Crosse River State Trail. If you really want to cover some distance, you can seamlessly roll onto the Great River State Trail for an additional 24 miles. Other connected trails include the 400 State Trail and the Juneau County Omaha Bike Trail—in all, more than 110 miles of riding options in one region alone, a testament to the foresight of the rail-to-trail movement and its commitment to converting these once busy, now quiet rail corridors into a network of quality trails that reach throughout the Midwest and around the country.
These converted rail corridors are ideal for bike travel thanks to easy access to small towns, gorgeous scenery, and miles of adjoining trails. If you've already done Elroy-Sparta, here are 10 more great options worth hitting before the snow flies:
This connected trail system tours southeastern Minnesota's coulee country—with wooded blufflands, old-time river towns, riffling streams, and a patchwork of farm fields. The 42-mile Root River State Trail runs from Fountain to Houston on an old rail line through the Root River valley. The 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, which includes some new hilly sections, joins the longer trail about five miles west of Lanesboro. The whole system is paved for easy, fast touring. You'll find plenty of options for dining and lodging, including historic B&Bs and hotels, in Lanesboro.
The paved 20-mile-long Cannon Valley Trail glides through the shadowed woodlands of its namesake river on the former Chicago Great Western Railroad line joining Cannon Falls, Welch, and Red Wing. The trail occasionally peeks out over the high bluffs along the river and at other times dips to water level. A daily pass for biking, skating, or skateboarding is $4; a season pass is $25. Passes are available from local merchants, the trail office in Cannon Falls, and trailside pay stations at major accesses. (825 Cannon River Ave., 507-263-0508)
Three interconnected trails in west-central Wisconsin follow old rail grades along the bluffs and woodlands next to the Chippewa and Red Cedar rivers. The 26-mile-long hard-surfaced Chippewa River State Trail stretches from Phoenix Park in downtown Eau Claire southwest to the town of Durand. (In Eau Claire, the trail joins more than three miles of city bike trails.) The 20-mile-long Old Abe State Trail extends the paved reach of the system from Eau Claire northeast to Cornell through the valley of the Chippewa River. The Red Cedar State Trail runs from Menomonie 14.5 miles along the Red Cedar River until it joins the Chippewa River State Trail. The Red Cedar is covered with crushed limestone (best with mountain or hybrid bikes, rather than road bikes). For Wisconsin state trails, you'll need a trail pass—$4 a day or $20 for the season, available at the Menomonie Depot Visitor Center and in Downsville. There's also a self-registration box and information kiosk in Eau Claire.
LAKE WOBEGON/CENTRAL LAKES
The paved Central Lakes State Trail covers 55 miles from Fergus Falls to Osakis. There the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail begins, and it continues 49 miles down to St. Joseph. A spur through Holdingford to the Mississippi River extends the paved mileage to about 130 miles. One of the charms of this trail is the small farm towns and city parks along the way.
SAKATAH SINGING HILLS
The paved Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail journeys 39 miles through the lake country of southern Minnesota. Cyclists whiz by farms, woods, wetlands, and water, and can stop to rest or eat in Faribault, Morristown, Waterville, Elysian, and Madison Lake. (A section near Mankato is closed for resurfacing.)
Named for railroad tools made by Chicago-based Gandy Tool Company, the 98-mile Gandy Dancer Trail connects St. Croix Falls to Superior. The section of greatest appeal to cyclists, running 47 miles from St. Croix Falls to Danbury, is surfaced with crushed limestone. A bike pass is required. (The unsurfaced trail north of Danbury is suitable for mountain bikes, horses, and ATVs.) Trail passes are available at the Polk and Burnett County Tourism Centers and from businesses along the trail. www.polkcountytourism.com
The Heartland State Trail runs 49 miles from Cass Lake south and west to Park Rapids (with plans to reach as far west as Moorhead). The Paul Bunyan State Trail follows the old Burlington Northern route from Brainerd about 112 miles to Bemidji, making it the longest continuously paved trail in the state. The two trails join for a few miles near Walker on the shores of Leech Lake, which is a great place to lodge for a weekend of biking the Northwoods.
The Mesabi Trail traverses northern Minnesota's iron mining country. The longest continuously paved section, about 75 miles, connects Grand Rapids with McKinley, through the Iron Range towns of Nashwauk, Keewatin, Hibbing, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, and Virginia. When complete, the trail will run 132 miles, all the way to Ely.
Glacial Lakes State Trail runs 22 miles, linking Willmar, Spicer, New London, and Hawick with a ribbon of asphalt. It runs through farm fields and woodlands, over hills, and along clear glacial lakes.
The paved 18-mile-long Gateway State Trail is a commuter route for cyclists who live in northeast suburbs of downtown St. Paul. But it's also a great day trip. It ends at Pine Point Regional Park, four miles northwest of the city of Stillwater. The scenery is a mix of residential communities, woodlands, wetlands, and farms.