A trail for Old Abe

On Wisconsin's Chippewa River, a bald eagle paved the way for bicyclists.

Old Abe in Jim Falls.
Old Abe overlooks the trail in Jim Falls.

The can-do spirit of the 19th century can be felt everywhere along a 19½-mile stretch of the Chippewa River.

Jean Brunet built his own dam and sawmill in 1836 and piloted his first raft of lumber to Prairie du Chien himself. Jacob Leinenkugel arrived in 1867 and founded the Spring Brewery.

Ezra Cornell bought up logging and mineral rights in the area, which became the logging center of the world in the 1880s, although the profits went to Ithaca, N.Y., where he'd founded Cornell University.

But a bald eagle was the feistiest of them all. Old Abe was traded to a local farmer by a band of Chippewa in 1861 and sent into the Civil War as a mascot for the Eighth Wisconsin. He served in 42 battles, where he was said to have spread his wings and screamed in support of the troops, more fiercely as the fighting escalated.

After the war, Abe received his own room and caretaker at the State Capitol and continued to serve the state: One of his last appearances before his 1881 death was alongside former President U.S. Grant, at a convention of the Grand Army of the Republic.

When a paved bicycle trail opened along this historic stretch, it had to be named for Old Abe. A century ago, the river was lined by nasty rapids and falls that killed off log-straddling lumberjacks by the dozen.

But after the white pine was logged off and milled, a series of hydroelectric dams was built; one of the dams, in 1917, created 6,300-acre Lake Wissota.

Today, this section of the Chippewa River is placid, with small factories chugging along in quiet towns: the paper mill in Cornell, the cheese plant in Jim Falls, the brewery in Chippewa Falls.

Nothing says Wisconsin more than beer, cheese and paper.

Bicyclists and in-line skaters on this beautiful trail, however, will notice much more — deer, wild turkey, fox and the occasional coyote and bald eagle. Birds frequent the cattail marshes along the trail near Jim Falls.

Two men fish in the Chippewa River from the Old Abe Trail.
In fall, fishermen enjoy the view from a bridge on the Old Abe State Trail.

When I was there, I spotted a blue heron and also a least bittern, a reclusive heron with rich tawny coloring.

From the north, bicyclists can start either in Brunet Island State Park, from which the trail winds through a corridor of red pine, or from Cornell's Mill Yard Park.

The park is hard to miss; above it looms a 175-foot-tall pulpwood stacker, a 1912 conveyor that's the only one of its kind. In the visitors center under it, old pictures show how the stacker piled logs into pyramids that then were floated to the mill.

From Cornell — first called Brunet Falls, a name to which some residents would like to revert — the trail winds to Cobban past a 1906 steel truss bridge, still in use, and a 1913 general store and tavern that catered to ferry and rail traffic.

After Cobban, the trail hugs the river, which widens into Old Abe Lake; the McCann farmstead, where Old Abe was raised, is on the other side.

These five miles are the prettiest part of the trail, with marshes on one side and the lake on the other, including a little wooded peninsula that's perfect for picnics.

From Jim Falls, named for one of the area's last fur traders, the trail continues along the river and dives into farmland.

From the southern trailhead north of Chippewa Falls, County Road O leads into Lake Wissota State Park, in which teen-age girls everywhere suddenly were interested after the lake was named in "Titanic" as Jack Dawson's favorite spot.

The lake didn't exist when the Titanic sank, but today, visitors swim along a 300-foot beach and fish off a 25-foot pier.

City trails lead into Chippewa Falls. One day, the Old Abe will connect to the Chippewa River Trail out of Eau Claire and the Red Cedar between Menomonie and Dunnville, creating a 70-mile trail shaped like a check mark.

A bicyclist pedals on the Old Abe State Trail.
The trail follows the Chippewa River between Chippewa Falls and Cornell.

Trip Tips: Old Abe State Trail in western Wisconsin

Bicycling: The paved Old Abe State Trail runs 20 miles along the Chippewa River between Chippewa Falls and Cornell, with a one-mile city trail leading into Brunet Island State Park from Cornell.

The southern trailhead is north of Chippewa Falls at the junction of county roads O and S, two miles west of Lake Wissota State Park.

A signed five-mile loop, partly on streets and sidewalks, connects downtown Chippewa Falls to the bicycle trail, following Duncan Creek through wooded Pig Alley to the Leinie Lodge on the west and Timber Terrace Golf Course on the east.

Get a map from the Visitor Center at the intersection of River and Bridge Street; to get to the trailhead, follow Spring Street across the Marsh Rainbow Arch Bridge.

Spring Street Sports at 12 W. Spring Street also has information about routes, 715-723-6616.

A Wisconsin state-trail pass is required, $5 daily and $25 annual.

Camping: There's camping on both ends of the trail, in Lake Wissota State Park and Brunet Island State Park.

Events: Over Labor Day weekend, there's Sturgeon Festival in Jim Falls.

Chippewa Falls: For information on festivals, accommodations and dining, see Exploring Chippewa Falls.

Last updated on November 2, 2020

Your browser does not support our events calendar page. Please consider an update.