Cycling in coulee country

The famous Elroy-Sparta is just one of the trails in a picturesque pocket of Wisconsin.

A tunnel on the Sparta-Elroy Trail.
Three tunnels provide thrills on the Elroy-Sparta.

There's a beautiful pocket of Wisconsin that dairy farmers would have had all to themselves if it hadn't been for a few renegade bicyclists.

In 1967, Wisconsin made a bicycling trail out of an abandoned rail bed that it had devoted to hikers until it saw that most of the users were on bicycles. That trail, the Elroy-Sparta, sparked a national race to convert unused rail beds into trails.

Today, Wisconsin has 2,000 miles of rail trails. Of those miles, more than a hundred skirt the edge of coulee country around La Crosse, a dramatic region of high ridges and valleys untouched by glaciers.

Not that bicyclists need worry about pedaling up hills-they're following in the flat tracks of the old locomotives, which didn't like huffing and puffing, either.

Three tunnels had to be blasted through stone to keep the trail flat, and they still thrill bicyclists. The walls are most and slimy, like the inside of a whale's belly, and the thick silence is penetrated only by dripping and the sound of footfalls on soggy limestone.

When I rode the Elroy-Sparta, I was nearly flattened by another cyclist in the depths of Tunnel No. 2. Large signs warn riders to walk their bikes through, and that's what I was doing.

But a large teen-age boy, silhouetted in the sunshine streaming in from the west end of the tunnel, wasn't. He was barreling straight toward me.

"Watch out!" I shouted, then stood, frozen, not understanding why he kept coming. Finally, a foot from my front tire, the boy veered away. I looked back and saw the same thing he had: nothing. The darkness of the tunnel had enveloped him.

Bicyclists cruise into Elroy.
A group of bicyclists finish their ride in Elroy.

Another time, I rode the other two trails that radiate from Elroy, the hometown of former governor Tommy Thompson. Not coincidentally, it's also the home of Elroy Commons, a full-service hub where bicyclists can take showers, buy passes, rent bikes and have a picnic.

From Elroy, I had a shuttle driver drop me off in Reedsburg, at the other end of the 22-mile 400 State Trail.

Then I followed the Baraboo River through the sweet-smelling June woods and marveled at the nature show: Clump after clump of dame's rocket and wild geranium. A doe loping along the trail ahead. A noisy sonata of birdsong.

The best thing about all of these trails are the unspoiled small towns through which cyclists ride.

In La Valle, pickups were pulling up to the feed mill at the edge of a pretty dam. In Wonewoc, two Amish men were digging the foundation for a house.

People like bicyclists here. When I passed Wonewoc's bakery, voices called out, inviting me in. The Plum Valley Soil Conservation Association was having an ice-cream social, and for $1.25, I had coffee and a superb piece of blackberry pie with a trio of sunburned farmers.

There's a four-mile spur into Hillsboro, Wisconsin's Czech capital, so I rode it in search of an early dinner. At a cafe there, I had chicken dumpling soup and listened to the beginning of a sidewalk polka concert.

The next day, I had the driver take me north to Camp Douglas, at the other end of the 12½-mile, seal-coated Omaha Trail. As I set out, an elderly man in a pickup piled with bags of cement waved and shouted, "Have a good ride!"

Birds darted along the sumac-lined trail. Soon, stone bluffs rose along the trail, and I reached the Omaha's tunnel.

Walking over its rolling dirt floor, with my feet lost in the darkness and the thick, damp air pressing on my ears, gave me the curious sensation of walking on an ocean floor.

Bicyclists on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
Cyclists follow the trail near Wilton.

Back in the sunlight, I stopped to admire newborn colts at a trailside farm. Passing a nearby swamp, I heard the hollow rasping of bullfrogs.

I drove beside the Elroy-Sparta on the way home, stopping in Wilton to eat a homemade cream puff and listen to Louis Armstrong at a cafe in a 1908 general store.

In Norwalk, the "Black Squirrel Capital of the World," I stopped to admire a graceful brick church.

I followed the trail all the way into Sparta, where the fiberglass Ben Biken sits at the trailhead stride the high-wheeled "World's Largest Bicycle."

It's true that bicyclists have brought new vigor to a difficult countryside. But the pleasure is all theirs.

Trip Tips: Biking the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin

Getting there: The northern trailhead is in Sparta, just west of  the I-90 exit to Wisconsin 71.

It's a little tricky to find coming from the north; from southbound 27/71, turn east on 16/71 and then right onto Water Street, at the river. Turn east onto Walrath Street and south on John Street; follow signs across I-90 overpass to trailhead.

Elroy-Sparta: 32 rolling miles between Elroy and Sparta, through three long, damp tunnels (bring a strong flashlight). They're closed and locked from November through March and used for bat hibernation.

The middle section, around Wilton, is heavily Amish.

The trail is part of a 101-mile trail system. From Sparta, you can head west on the 21½-mile La Crosse State Trail, which connects to the 24-mile Great River State Trail in Onalaska.

That heads north along the Mississippi to Trempealeau. (For more, see Bikes, birds and bogs.)

Elroy Commons in Elroy.
The Elroy Commons has a bike rental, museum, concessions, showers and gift shops.

And from Elroy, you can head southeast to Reedsburg on the 22-mile 400 State Trail, which follows the Baraboo River. A four-mile spur goes to Hillsboro from Union Center, Hillsboro State Trail.

One other trail radiates from Elroy, in addition to the Elroy-Sparta and 400.

Juneau County's Omaha Trail runs 12½ miles north from Elroy to Camp Douglas, just off Interstate 94, through a short tunnel. The Omaha is seal-coated; the other trails are finely crushed limestone.

Wisconsin trail passes cost $5 daily, $25 annual. The day pass for the Omaha is $2.

Bike rental: At Elroy Commons, you can rent bikes, carts and tag-alongs and arrange a shuttle, 608-462-2410. Speed's Bicycle Shop in Sparta also offers rentals and shuttles.

Camping: Camping is available in Elroy's Schultz Park, first-come, first-served. The park includes a pool and showers. Campers also can use the showers, picnic areas, playground and concessions at Elroy Commons.

In Wilton, the Tunnel Trail Campground has a heated pool, playground and grocery store. It includes camper cabins and rents bicycles.

Last updated on December 8, 2021

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