Note: Trail passes are required year-round for cyclists and inline skaters, ages 16 and up. You can buy them at self-registration stations on the trail or at select parks and private businesses. The passes are good for all state trails. Hikers can use the trail free of charge.
It is common on a rail-trail to be reminded of railroading history; it is quite another experience to be taken back thousands of years and witness the effects of ancient ice flows on the landscape. This is the case with the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail, particularly at its western end. As gigantic sheets of ice bore down on this area, they created wetlands, ponds and rivers, as well as hundreds of low, cigar-shaped hills called drumlins. This landscape was a challenge for the railroad builders, since bridges had to be built over the extensive wetlands, but many of the wood pilings sank in the deep muck and created often dangerous passage for trains.
These wood-planked bridges now provide great viewpoints for the wetlands, where a host of wildlife thrives. You may spot large sandhill cranes, graceful birds with bright red caps on their heads, or hear spring peepers and a chorus of frogs announcing their presence.
From Cottage Grove, the openness of the early miles (be prepared for headwinds) alternates with wooded sections as the trail travels east through mostly serene countryside. The landscape is periodically broken up by towns and villages along the former rail line, with varying amenities, if you are willing to go explore. Passing Deerfield and London, you reach Rock Lake, at nearly 15 miles. You will sail over a 0.25-mile-long bridge that separates upper and lower Rock Lake. The beautiful view of the two lakes begs to be savored, which you can easily do by pulling over to fishing and picnicking platforms away from the main trail traffic.
In the 5-mile stretch between Lake Mills and Jefferson the trail tunnels under thick tree canopy in the summer and crosses Crawfish River and Rock River (a fishing haven for locals). In Jefferson, at about 22 miles, signs will guide you through an easy 1.5-mile on-road section before reconnecting with the trail. While you journey through small towns and the communities of Helenville, Sullivan, Dousman and Wales (you can almost hear the conductor listing them), you'll find restaurants or grocery stores close to the trail for a meal or provisions.
Before reaching Sullivan the trail parallels US Highway 18 for a couple of miles, then by a stream and wetland populated with yellow finches and purple thistles. Outside of Dousman the crushed stone surface ends and the final 13 miles to Waukesha are smooth pavement. Near the trail's end in the Fox River Sanctuary, you will be reminded of the journey's past: there beside the new bridge across the Fox River lies the framework of the venerable iron railroad trestle.
The entire Glacial Drumlin State Trail is designed to be wheelchair accessible with the exception of a small hill along Highway 18, east of Highway 67, near Dousman that does not meet the slope requirements. Some, but not all, water fountains and restroom facilities meet accessibility requirements. The parts of the trail surfaced with crushed limestone are firm and stable, however, after heavy rain, when the ground is thawing, and after new stone is added, it may not be suitable for wheelchair use or bikes with skinny tires. The trail managers can be contacted for more information about current conditions.
You can access the trail from numerous places along its route. To reach the western trailhead in Cottage Grove, from Madison take US 90 South to State Route 147 (Stoughton/Cottage Grove/County N). Turn left in 4.5 miles onto County North Drive. The trailhead is on the right in the center of town.
The Jefferson trailhead is closest to the trail's midpoint. Follow US 18 East to Jefferson. In town, US 18 becomes W. Racine Street, and after several blocks crosses the Rock River. Turn left on SR 26 (just after the bridge) and head north. Go a couple of miles to West Junction Road and turn right. The trailhead is just past the intersection on the left. This is the location of the one on-road section of the Glacial Drumlin Trail, but signs will guide you to trail.
The eastern trailhead is in the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha. Take St. Paul Avenue to Prairie Avenue and head south. After 0.4 mile, turn right on College Avenue. Look for the Fox River Sanctuary parking lot and the trailhead.