The history of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail is almost as fun as the ride. In its prime this section of the Chicago and North Western Railroad supplied markets in Chicago and Madison with goods from Minnesota, northern Iowa and the Dakotas. Countless numbers of cattle were transported along this track from American's Heartland to the Chicago Stockyards. Six passenger trains and 40 to 50 freight trains once passed daily through the corridor's three historical tunnels and over its 34 bridges that, today, are used by more than 60,000 cyclists yearly.
The 32-mile Elroy-Sparta proudly lays claim to the rail-trail as the oldest in the country. It is an easy ride between the quiet country towns of Elroy and Sparta. Here and in the towns between them (Norwalk, Wilton and Kendall) there are rest areas, restrooms, drinking water, camping areas and snack concessions. The trail's hard-packed crushed limestone base is comfortable for walking and running, and suitable for most bicycle tires. Both endpoints offer more riding: pick up the 21-mile La Crosse River State Trail in Sparta or the 400 State Trail and Omaha Trail in Elroy. These trails can all be pieced into 100 miles of rail-trail adventure, from the Mississippi River into the heart of beautiful cheese country.
Heading east from Sparta you come to the longest and most dramatic of the trail's three tunnels. The tunnels are fascinating, at times seeming more like caves. Water drips down the walls and pools at your feet. The temperature in the tunnels is a cool 50 to 60 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature.
Tunnel #3 is located 9 miles from Sparta. It is 3,810 feet long—more than 10 football fields—and completely dark. Without proper lights, and a fearless companion, this tunnel is impassable. From either direction there are seasonal kiosks where you can purchase flashlights. Tunnel #3 cost more than $1 million to build and was a 3-year engineering feat, opening in 1873. The tunnel was dug by hand through solid rock. A shaft was dug from the top of the hill into the center of the tunnel, allowing workers to dig from the center out as well as from both ends. It is just more than 3 miles from Tunnel #3 to Norwalk.
The highlight of the 5 miles between Norwalk and Wilton is Tunnel #2. Like the others, Tunnel #2 has gigantic 20-foot-tall wooden doors at its entrances. These doors were opened and shut between traveling trains in the winter, to prevent snow from accumulating inside the tunnels. They are still used for this purpose when snowmobiles use the trail in the winter. When entering the tunnels look for the small doorway-sized indentations in the walls near the doors. This is where the tunnel watchmen were stationed, opening and closing these massive doors up to 50 times each day.
From Wilton, Tunnel #1 is 5.5 miles along the trail. At 1,694 feet long (the exact same length as Tunnel #2), it runs a similar straight-arrow path through the rock, with the pin-prick of light visible at the other end. That tunneling effect is mirrored by the trees along the trail as well, as it continues 3.3 miles to Kendall, home to the trail's headquarters at the restored Kendall Depot. From here, it's another 6 miles to the trail's end in Elroy.
All along the trail, the scenery is sweetly rolling hills, farmland and pasture. And despite the trail's popularity, you will undoubtedly see more cows than people on your journey, which may be exactly the kind of Wisconsin getaway you're seeking.
The tunnels on the Elroy-Sparta Trail are open from May 1 to November 1.
Trail passes are required for cyclists 16 years and older. A daily pass is $4 and a season pass is $20. The passes are good on any Wisconsin state trail.
In the winter the trail and surrounding trails are well marked and maintained by local snowmobile clubs. There is no charge for snowmobiling or hiking.
For more information on getting a state trail pass, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/fees/trailpass.html">.