About this Itinerary
About 25,000 years ago, glaciers covered most of the state of Wisconsin. As these giant ice sheets retreated they left behind cigar-shaped formations in the earth, known as drumlins. These geological features are the namesake of the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail. Traveling between the town of Cottage Grove, about 15 miles east of Madison, and Waukesha, about 18 miles west of Milwaukee, the trail is rich in geological history, abundant with wildlife, and the ideal way to explore a beautiful region of the state.
The corridor the Glacial Drumlin State Trail (GDST) follows was once the route traveled by the Madison Air Line, a railroad built by the Chicago and North Western Railroad. Constructed in the 1880s to connect Milwaukee and Madison, this was the first route linking these two cities. The rail line was used to transport passengers and freight, in particular malt which was brought to Milwaukee breweries. Eventually, the majority of the rail line was abandoned and the tracks removed, with the exception of line around Jefferson Junction. Here, grain is now converted to make ethanol, producing about 100 million gallons a year. The rail line in this area remains in use, resulting in a 1.5 mile gap in the GDST where users need to use public roads.
Since 1986, the GDST has been a popular and well-used, year-round, multi-purpose trail. The easternmost 13 miles of the trail are paved and the remainder is covered in crushed stone. Restrooms and water fountains are located along the route at several trailheads, as well as at trailside parks. The GDST also passes through several small towns with trail-adjacent businesses. The trail itself is flat and ideal for all riders (there is a very slight elevation change with the uphill in the eastward direction, but this is minor). All users of the trail biking or inline skating need to purchase a permit (hikers and skiers do not). Day-use and annual permits can be obtained at self-pay boxes at trailheads or online ($4 daily/$20 annually). Passes are issued to the person and are not transferable and there is a $5 surcharge to anyone who has not obtained one prior to use. Rangers due patrol the trail to check for permits, so be sure to take care of this before setting out.
Our base for this itinerary is the town of Lake Mills. Situated about 15 miles from the westernmost end of the trail, the town provides the ideal base to break the GDST in to three days of riding. On two days, our itinerary will depart directly from Lake Mills and, on the third day, we recommend driving to a trailhead in the town of Sullivan. This breaks the ride in to 30 miles round-trip the first day, 38 miles round-trip the second day, and another 38 miles the third day.
Bike rentals are available about 8 miles south of Lake Mills at CamRock Cafe & Sport. A cafe serving coffee, local craft brews, salads, and sandwiches, CamRock is also a full-service bike shop with repair services and rentals of mountain bikes, fat tires, and cross-country bikes.
Located in the center of Lake Mills, stay at the Sweet Autumn Inn. A favorite of bikers of the GDST, the inn is ideally situated just off the trail on Main Street in this charming lakefront village. Each of the three guest rooms in the historical foursquare home feature a private bathroom and fireplace, and guests are treated every morning to a gourmet breakfast prepared by their hosts. The property is surrounded by trees and a brook, which provide a tranquil refuge after a long day on the trail. Relax on the large veranda, stroll in to town, or enjoy one of the lovely common spaces during your stay at this charming property.
Head south on Main Street and find the trail entrance just past Sandy Beach Road, about a block and a half away. Turn right on to the trail in the direction of Cottage Grove, the western terminus of the trail. Today’s ride will cover 15 miles each way for a round-trip of 30 miles.
As you set out, be sure to keep your eyes open for the incredible wildlife you are likely to spot in this area. The trail passes through Zeloski Marsh, a haven for birds such as swallow, goldfinch, oriole, geese, and the graceful sandhill crane. About nine miles along you will reach the town of Deerfield, which has a couple of convenience stores along Main Street, should cold drinks or a restroom be needed. As you bike toward the end of the trail in Cottage Grove, enjoy the panorama of rolling farmland that surrounds you. (Note that despite the hills you see on either side, the trail remains flat!)
In Cottage Grove, stop for lunch or a refreshing drink at Olde Town Coffee House, conveniently located at the trail’s end. In addition to coffee, this small shop serves a variety of salads and sandwiches. For a more substantial meal, immediately next door is the 1855 Saloon & Grill, which serves burgers, sandwiches, and other pub-style foods. At the trailhead, you will find restrooms and a water fountain, if needed. If you want to get more riding under your belt before stopping for lunch, return to Deerfield and try the Deerfield Pub & Grill, which serves burgers, pizzas, and homemade soups. To reach it, turn right on to Main Street at the intersection in the center of town and go down one block.
Back in Lake Mills, spend time relaxing at the inn before heading to Rock Lake to take in the sunset at Hering's Sand Bar & Grill. Located on the lake, this casual eatery serves everything from cheese curds to burgers, and salads to sockeye salmon. This is the place in town to be on a nice warm weather evening.
Today’s ride covers about 19 miles (38 miles round-trip) to the town of Sullivan and back. Retrace your path to the GDST and head east at the trailhead. Not long after setting out you will reach the town of Jefferson, where you will find the 1.5 mile section of the trail that is off-road. The route is clearly marked; just follow signs to navigate this section. Continue along through rolling farmland before reaching our destination for the day, the town of Sullivan.
In town, head north at the intersection with Main Street to find lunch options. Located about a block off the trail, find Janie’s Pub & Grill and across the street, Pourman’s Pub & Grill. Both offer burgers and other pub-style foods in a casual bike-friendly environment. Restrooms and a water fountain can be found just one block further along the trail where a trailhead is located.
On your return, consider taking a mile-and-a-half side trip to Aztalan State Park. This park is an archeological site with more than 20 acres containing pyramidal burial mounds and stockades. Constructed by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago, when the ruins were discovered in the mid-1800s they were thought to be Aztec, which is where the name Aztalan comes from. The stockades were a feature of a pioneer village which was also once on the site. Visit the Aztalan Museum, located just north of the park, which includes displays, pioneer church buildings, and other 19th-century structures. To reach it, before approaching Lake Mills, look for County Highway Q and head north.
Today, drive to the town of Sullivan and pick up the trail where you turned around yesterday, to bike the final 19 miles (38 miles round-trip). To reach the trailhead, drive north on Main Street and take I-94 E to exit 275/County Road. Travel for about 4.5 miles and turn right on to Main Street, and after a half mile, turn left on Palmyra Street. Cross over the GDST and look for the parking area on Front Street to your right.
Head east on the trail (this trailhead picks up one block farther along than where you turned around yesterday). Six miles along reach the town of Dousman. Located trailside, here you will find The Bicycle Doctor. While not offering rentals, the shop does have repair services, should that be needed. For the remainder of the trail to Waukesha, enjoy a smooth asphalt surface, likely a welcome change from the crushed stone surface of the rest of the trail.
The town of Waukesha was once known for its mineral springs and considered a spa town where visitors would come to soak up the healing properties of its pristine waters. Unfortunately, those times are long past and the springs were destroyed over time by pollution or dried up. A reminder of the town’s heyday can be found in the historical downtown, which is close to the trail’s end in the Fox River Sanctuary. Here you will find several beautiful buildings dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Located the corner of Clinton and Main, enjoy lunch at Taylor’s People’s Park. Housed in a historical landmark building, this charming restaurant with oversized windows and a roof-top patio offers a selection of burgers, sandwiches, and salads with incredible views of old Waukesha. For more casual dining, The Steaming Cup, located just across the street, has coffee, as well as variety of creative sandwiches with a large selection of vegetarian options. Restrooms and a water fountain can also be found at the trailhead in Waukesha. Spend time strolling the historic downtown area or walk along the Fox River before heading back on the trail to Lake Mills.
Lake Mills offers several casual-style eateries for dinner. Try Timber Creek Pizza Co. for a variety of thin crust pizzas, as well as homemade soups and salads. Also be sure to save room for their ice cream, considered by many to be the best in the area. Wander the downtown for additional restaurant options.
Have another day in your itinerary? Lake Mills is situated along the eastern shore of Rock Lake, which provides a pristine backdrop for the town. Spend time exploring the lake by canoe, kayak, paddle board, or paddle boat. Located at Hering's Sand Bar & Grill, Sandy Beach Bait Shack, offers various rentals to enjoy the lake or supplies to relax on the beach. This is a popular spot to cool off and take part in water sports on a hot day.
Located in a re-purposed early 20th-century gas station, Lewis Station Winery is one of the most unique wineries in the state. Offering small-batch, hand-crafted, award-winning wines, this winery and boutique wine shop can be found in the heart of Lake Mills. Stop by to sample wines, and on select days, enjoy wine and tapas with foods sourced from local farms.
Explore 16 acres of beautiful landscaped gardens at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Owned and operated by the City of Madison, the lakefront grounds the gardens sit upon were purchased in 1921 by Michael Olbrich, and eventually became Olbrich Park. Today. the gardens are run in partnership with the Olbrich Botanical Society, and in addition to outdoor displays, feature the tropical Bolz Conservatory. The grounds are free to the public and well worth a visit for the spectacular, award-winning gardens and tranquil views.
If you’re spending the evening in Madison, head to L’Etoile for dinner. Since it opened its doors in 1976, the restaurant’s chefs have been proponents of the sustainable food movement and have worked with local farmers to offer quality foods while helping to preserve Wisconsin’s fertile terroir. The restaurant offers different dining options, including an a-la-carte menu; a 7-course tasting menu; and a service for two, 3-course tasting option. Whichever you choose, the fine French-influenced cuisine and elegant atmosphere of this well-known restaurant will leave a culinary imprint. Reservations required.
Another option is to sample a variety of small plates and pare with a wine from the wide selection on offer from The Pig in a Fur Coat. Located in Madison, this quirky restaurant offers a sophisticated ambiance and creatively prepared foods. Reservations recommended.