About this Itinerary
Named after Military Ridge Road, which was built along this corridor in 1835 by the army to connect Green Bay and Fort Crawford, the nearly 40-mile Military Ridge State Trail (MRST) takes visitors into the heart of rural Wisconsin. The trail follows part of the old military route, as well as the former corridor of the Chicago and North Western Railroad. For about 26 miles, the MRST also travels along a geographical formation that stretches from south-central Wisconsin to the Mississippi River. A natural transportation corridor, this ridge served Native Americans, pioneer wagons, the railroad, and now bicyclists and others on a multi-purpose trail. The route allows users to really immerse themselves in scenic countryside, with virtually no road crossings. The trail does, however, pass through several charming small towns, in addition to offering spectacular natural and geological attractions.
All users of the MRST on bikes or inline skates 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 and $20 annually). Passes are issued to the person and are not transferable and there is a $5 surcharge to anyone who has not purchased one prior to use. Rangers do patrol the trail and ask users to produce their pass, so be prepared before setting out.
Our base for this itinerary is the self-proclaimed ‘Troll Capital of the World,’ Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. Rich in Norwegian heritage, this charming village is located along the MRST and features a variety of restaurants, shops, cafes, a poplar trailside brewpub, and of course numerous trolls. Visitors will enjoy the challenge of finding these creatures of Scandinavian folklore scattered around town. If you are in Mt. Horeb during a special event you might even come upon Jorgen, the town’s very own live troll. The town is situated roughly halfway along the MRST, making it an ideal base from which to explore the route over the course of two days without having to drive to a trailhead. About a mile and a half from the center of town, stay at Grandstay Hotel & Suites. Featuring complimentary breakfast, an indoor pool and spa, and local shuttle service, guests will feel at home at this reliable regional chain property. Biking directly from the hotel, our itinerary includes one day trail riding of 23 miles (46 round-trip) from Mt. Horeb to Dodgeville and the second day of about 16 miles (32 round-trip) miles to Fitchburg.
Unfortunately, bike rentals are not available in or around Mt. Horeb, or other towns along the trail. The closest bike shop is located about 22 miles away in Madison at Erik’s Bike Shop. This shop, which has several locations in the Madison area, only rents from their downtown location. Here you can find rentals of hybrid and road bikes. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made online.
Today our itinerary covers 23 miles (46 round-trip) of trail riding. Biking directly from the hotel will add an additional 1.3 miles each way. The route is mostly flat (the western end does have some small hills) and the entire length is on crushed stone. Before setting out, be sure to pack full water bottles, a bike repair kit, and extra tubes. The route does pass through several small towns, and there will be opportunities to purchase food and refill water bottles along the way.
From the Grandstay Hotel & Suites, bike down Telemark Parkway and take a right at the end of the road. At the traffic circle on US-151 BUS, go around the circle to continue west on US-151 BUS. Continue through the next traffic circle and at the third circle take the third exit to head south on Perimeter Road. Take a right on to Cox Drive and continue on until you reach Liberty Park. Enter the park and find the entrance for the MRST. Turn left to head west on the trail. Note that US-151 BUS can be a busy road. There is a sidewalk that runs alongside the entire route should you feel more comfortable riding there at high traffic times. You will likely have driven this route to get to the hotel, so you should have sense of whether or not you will be comfortable riding along here. If you decide to drive, follow the same route and park at the trailhead in Liberty Park.
Heading west along the trail you will pass through the downtown area of Mt. Horeb. About five miles along the trail, you’ll reach Cave of the Mounds. This National Natural Landmark is the premier cave in the upper Midwest. The natural limestone cave, named after the nearby hills, is spectacularly beautiful and features a variety of mineral formations called speleothems. Visitors can take a guided tour and follow along lighted walkways to see the colorful crystal formations. Stop in for a quick tour or explore in depth on a return trip.
Just slightly farther along, reach Blue Mounds State Park. Local legend says that this area was once used as a buffalo jump, although there is no direct evidence of this. As you peer up at the 100-foot-high and 1,250-foot-long cliff face, it is not hard to imagine that this site served this purpose. Today, more than 100 bison roam park grounds. Blue Mounds is the highest point in southern Wisconsin and those who venture to the top will enjoy gorgeous views of the pristine countryside and dramatic geological features. The park is a popular camping site, as well as offering numerous hiking trails, and in warmer months, a swimming pool. Keep this in mind and pack a swimsuit for a quick cool down on a hot day.
Pass through a couple more small towns, which offer trailside businesses should you need cold drinks or snacks. In Ridgeway, see a beautifully restored railroad depot, with restrooms and a water fountain available at the nearby park. The MRST ends in Dodgeville at the intersection with Route 23. There are several fast food lunch options here, including Subway, which is located just across the street, and several others within a block of the trail. You’ll also find a convenience store across the intersection. On the way back, if you are still in need of a lunch break, stop in to the Buzz Inn Cafe. You will have passed this unassuming spot alongside the trail in Barneveld. Catering to trail users and locals, this small cafe serves sandwiches, salads, and more.
Back in Mt Horeb, kick back and relax with a pint of craft brew from the popular brew pub, The Grumpy Troll. Located just a block off the trail, head north at the intersection with S. 2nd Street. In addition to beer, the restaurant serves a variety of delicious burgers, gouda mac n’ cheese bites, and lots of other unique pub-style fare. An onsite pizzeria also offers an array of fresh, tasty pizzas made to order. The Grumpy Troll is destination for many bikers along the MRST and a fun spot to experience a bit of the town’s troll-influenced ambiance.
Follow yesterday’s directions to reach the trail from the hotel. Turn right on the MRST to head east toward Fitchburg. Today’s route covers nearly 16 miles (about 32 round-trip) of trail riding. This portion of the route is flat and includes a 2.5 mile section at the eastern end that is paved.
Similar to yesterday’s ride, enjoy spectacular rural scenery as you head east. Pass through a couple of small towns, including Riley where you will find restrooms and a water fountain at the trailhead, before reaching Verona. In town, you will find a number of businesses including a full-service grocery store, Miller & Sons, located just north of the trail on Main St. Or, stop in to Tuvalu Coffeehouse & Gallery. This family run cafe serves a variety of coffee drinks, fresh baked goods, and made-to-order sandwiches and soups. The art gallery features works from local artists and a small gift shop sells a wide variety of art pieces, pottery, books, and other fair trade pieces from artisans around the world.
The remainder of the trail to Fitchburg is probably the least scenic of the route. A large section parallels Route 18, although the trail is shielded from the road by a leafy canopy. The end of the MRST is in an industrial area with no amenities nearby (the last trailhead is actually 2.5 miles before the end of the trail). At the trail’s end, retrace your route and return towards Mt. Horeb. About ten miles from Fitchburg, in the direction of Mt. Horeb, you will have passed a boardwalk heading out in to wetlands. Stop to stretch your legs and keep your eyes open for some of the spectacular wildlife in the area including the majestic sandhill crane and leopard toads. Enjoy the remainder of the ride as you return to Mt. Horeb.
If in the area on a Friday night, don’t miss out on the fish fry at Aunt Mary’s Hooterville Inn. A local favorite that has people driving from all over the region, be sure to make a reservation at this Blue Mounds institution that has been serving the community for over 50 years. On other days of the week, try homemade pizzas, and a variety of specials including steak and homemade meatloaf.
Experience the bounty of Wisconsin with a true farm-to-table experience at Campo di Bella. This family run winery and farm located in Mt. Horeb, offers Italian inspired dishes prepared using their own heritage pork, lamb, and organically grown vegetables. Meals are served on select Saturday evenings. On Fridays and other Saturday evenings during the year, the winery offers select wines and Italian appetizers in their tasting room. Be sure to plan ahead and put a visit to this charming spot on your itinerary while in the area as it is truly an unforgettable culinary adventure.
Enjoy fresh fish dishes, as well as other favorites like Angus beef, locally sourced lamb, and delectable desserts such as a fresh berry Napoleon at Bistro 101. This upscale tavern in Mt. Horeb serves features seasonally fresh cuisine in a casual yet sophisticated dining room.
If you have another day, 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 was 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 designs and tranquil views.
For an upscale dining experience while you’re in Madison, head to L’Etoile. 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 fine French-influenced cuisine and elegant atmosphere of this well-known restaurant will leave a culinary imprint. Reservations required.
Visit the charming Botham Vineyards in nearby Barneveld. This quaint winery is a small producer, but focuses on top quality, 'vine-to-bottle' production. Sample wines in their tasting room, schedule a tour (must be done in advance), and bring a picnic to enjoy the pastoral setting while listening to music during one of the many special performances that take place on the grounds. This is a popular venue for weddings and other private events, so call ahead first to ensure the property is open before heading over.
Explore one of the state’s largest parks, Governor Dodge. Named after the first governor of Wisconsin Territory, the site contains more than 5,300 acres of steep hills, bluffs and deep valleys, two lakes, and a waterfall. Come to hike one of the numerous trails, canoe, fish, go for horseback ride, camp, swim, or tackle one of the many mountain bike trails.