A slice of cheese country
On Wisconsin's Badger Trail, bicyclists bite off as much as they can chew.
On Wisconsin's Badger State Trail, no one goes home hungry.
Starting from the south edge of Madison, the 40-mile trail plunges into Little Switzerland, taking bicyclists past a gantlet of cheese shops, meat markets, bakeries and breweries.
But the Badger is best known for its 1,200-foot-long tunnel, cut through solid limestone in 1887. It curves in the middle, so bicyclists without a good flashlight will find themselves in total darkness, their nerves shot by pigeons bursting out of hidden crannies.
When I rode the trail, I took a little flashlight that wouldn't cut through a shadow, so Mike Goldsby of Madison, who had just come through, coached me on following the contours of the tunnel floor.
"It's definitely spookier than the ones on the Elroy-Sparta," he said.
The Badger trail runs south to the Illinois border, where it connects with the Jane Addams Trail and runs another 17 miles to Freeport, Ill.
In Monticello, it connects with the 23-mile Sugar River State Trail, which runs roughly east-west, between New Glarus and Brodhead.
This is cheese country, but riders will want to sample everything. In Paoli, at the north part of the trail, we found morel-leek Jack at the Cheese Cottage. In Belleville, samples of New Glarus Organic Revolution ale. In Monticello, barbecued pork sandwiches.
New Glarus is seven miles from Monticello on the Sugar River State Trail. But many bicyclists on the Badger consider it a necessary stop because of its European-style bakery and its ice-cream and chocolate shop.
And then there's Monroe, which calls itself Cheese City U.S.A. In Monroe, the trail slices right by the Swiss Colony outlet.
My husband and I stayed in Monroe, and first we rode the seven miles from there to the Illinois border, where we watched two baby raccoons peering at us from the edge of the trail and chatted with Steve Spyrison of Freeport, who said he'd worked with the Illinois DNR on the Jane Addams Trail.
"The stretch up by Monticello and the Sugar River is nice, but I think this is nicer," he said.
It was true. South of Monroe, the trail is winding, shaded by trees and lined by clumps of lavender wood phlox. Just before the state line, limestone outcroppings begin to appear.
In Monroe, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Ninth Street, bicyclists can ride 10 blocks east to pretty Courthouse Square, which is lined by delis, a bakery, a chocolatier and the famed Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern.
The trail is straighter and more open between Monroe and Monticello, which has a cafe that makes homemade pies and a market with a deli that will wrap up hot sandwiches, fried chicken and baked goods for bicyclists to eat by the fishing pond in the town park.
More stone slabs appear five miles north of Monticello, heralding the approach of the Stewart Tunnel, where sweaty bicyclists cool off fast in the damp, chalky air.
The next town is Belleville, where the West Branch joins the Sugar River at Lake Belleview, lined by parkland.
North of Belleville, the Badger joins the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. And now, it connects with the Capital City State Trail in Fitchburg.
Some bicyclists start instead in Paoli, a village of arts studios and galleries just a mile west of the trail. Of course, it has a cheese shop. And an organic-meat market. And a sophisticated cafe in an old creamery overlooking the Sugar River.
Inevitably, the trail ends. But on the Badger, the temptations never quit.
Trip Tips: Riding the Badger State Trail in southern Wisconsin
Getting around: The Badger State Trail connects to the Capital City State Trail in Fitchburg, and the first six miles of the trail are paved from there to Purcell Road near Paoli, where there's a parking lot.
The rest of the trail is finely crushed limestone, fine for road bikes. At the Wisconsin state line, it connects to the Jane Addams Trail, which continues 17 miles to Freeport, Ill.
The Stewart Tunnel is closed due to a crumbling ceiling, but cyclists can detour on Tunnel Road.
Trail pass: It's $5 daily, $25 annual.
Rentals: Bikes can be rented from the depot in New Glarus. Reserve in advance.
Shuttles : From the depot in New Glarus, local retired folks provide shuttles, charging by distance. A typical charge is $30 to drop off two people and their bikes in Brodhead for the ride back to New Glarus.
It's about $40 to drop off two people and their bikes in Monroe for the 16½-mile ride back to New Glarus on the Badger and Sugar River trails. Reserve a shuttle in advance by calling the visitor center at 608-527-2095.
What to bring: A strong flashlight and a cooler for souvenir cheese, sausage and pastries.
When to go: Many of the towns have festivals that are worth catching, so plan ahead. Some shops and restaurants are closed Sundays.
Where to stay: In Monroe, the Super 8 is two blocks from the trail and has rooms with fridges, a whirlpool and waffle breakfasts. There's an AmericInn next door.
The nicest place is the Swiss-style Chalet Landhaus in New Glarus (on the Sugar River State Trail), which has a pool complex and sumptuous breakfasts.
The Cameo Rose Victorian Country Inn offers six rooms and suites near Belleville.
There's camping on the edge of New Glarus in New Glarus Woods State Park, 608-527-2335. It doesn't have showers, but sweaty bicyclists can use showers at the municipal pool in Village Park next to the depot, open until 8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Where to eat: In New Glarus, the Glarner Stube, or the New Glarus Hotel. In Monroe, Turner Hall and Baumgartner's.
For more about New Glarus and the Sugar River State Trail, see Swiss at heart.
For more about the Monroe area, see Cheese country.