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The Elroy-Sparta State Trail is one glorious segment of five Wisconsin trails, which form a seamless greenway linking more than 100 miles of trails, from the banks of the Mississippi, through hills and river valleys, to the heart of Midwest farm country. On the Elroy-Sparta, you’ll roll through Wisconsin’s bluffs among tranquil farms, stop to explore charming towns and enjoy the trail’s amazing railroad tunnels.
The nearest airport is in La Crosse, Wis. To begin the trail on its southeast end, Elroy is about an hour away. Check into Waarvik’s Century Farm, located about five miles north of town. The 150-year-old, hand-hewn log cabin is part of a beautiful farm and offers a perfect, peaceful getaway.
If you have extra time, explore the Elroy Historical Society Museum, which displays a chronological history of the area from the last ice age to the present as well as railroad exhibits, including a model train of the 1930s, and history of the trail. Hungry? The Fertile Grounds Café (1502 Academy St.) serves pizza, calzones, smoothies, paninis and wraps, plus baked goods, coffee drinks and ice cream.
You can rent bikes at Elroy Commons Trail Shop on Railroad Street in town and jump on the trail nearby. Elroy Commons can also help you arrange shuttles. Riding from Elroy to Sparta, your journey is mostly downhill on a gentle grade.
Important: Cyclists age 16 and older need passes for all state trails in Wisconsin (no passes required for skiing, hiking or snowmobiling). Annual passes are good for any trail and provide the best value for exploring multiple trails and/or multiple days. You need a light for passage through the long, dark tunnels. Also, you must walk your bikes through the tunnels.
In Elroy, the trail begins at the confluence of the 400 State Trail and the Omaha Trail at Elroy Commons on Railroad Street. The Commons has information for all three trails, plus camping (with showers), bike rentals and other concessions. While in Elroy, ride across the pedestrian covered bridge, the state’s only open-lattice truss bridge, a design patented in 1820. The bridge is at the intersection of North Street and 2nd Main Street.
Like the other towns linked by the trail, Elroy is charmingly small; shortly after leaving the town limits, you enter a quiet corridor of farms and creek crossings. Relax into the scenery for the next six miles into Kendall. Kendall Depot (open May through October) has a small railroad history museum with pictures, railroad artifacts and a large mural. Additionally, you can acquire trail information and purchase trail passes, T-shirts, and other souvenirs and concessions. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The most amazing features of the Elroy-Sparta are its three tunnels (conveniently numbered 1 through 3). You’ll reach Tunnel 1 about three miles northwest of Kendall. The quarter-mile-long bore through Wisconsin’s bluffs is dark and damp inside; please walk your bikes through.
The tunnels were dug by hand in the 1860s, and because of the harsh winters, each was fitted with large doors—which are still in place today. The doors helped to seal in warm air and prevent damage from extreme freezing and thawing, which could easily dislodge rocks around the entrances. Trains could still pass through in winter, but the railroad hired men to open the doors as often as 50 times a day. The doormen also helped direct train traffic, preventing collisions by signaling oncoming trains (with a light or flagging). Today, the doors are closed and locked in the winter (from November to May 1), but there are marked snowmobile routes around the tunnels.
When you emerge from Tunnel 1, it’s another six miles or so to Wilton; the town welcomes you with an old caboose by the side of the trail. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the Wilton Lions Club serves a pancake breakfast every Sunday morning. Where the trail crosses Main Street, take Main south three blocks and turn left on Center Street. In two blocks you’ll see the park; the Lions breakfast is at the shelter near the swimming pool.
You might also want to check out Gina's Pies Are Square (400 Main St.) for raved-about sandwiches, soups, pizza and homemade pie (“square” refers to the pizza). Another good choice is Dorset Valley School Restaurant and Bakery (26147 State Route 71). Like the name implies, this eatery is a converted school house that now dishes up scrumptious country cooking and delectable pies. Drop in on Friday night for a classic Midwestern fish fry. Next door, they sell Amish furniture, accessories and gifts.
Two miles after Wilton, you arrive at Tunnel 2, also 0.25 miles long and also requiring that you walk your bike. From the tunnel exit, Norwalk is only about three miles. The town calls itself the “Black Squirrel Capital of the World.” Whether that’s true or not, you’ll no doubt spot one skittering near the trail.
Norwalk lies at the northern end of the Kickapoo River valley. Here, you’ll find geological features that differ from the rest of the state. That’s because glaciers didn’t scour these parts during the last ice age, leaving a large swath through the Midwest called the Driftless Area. The topography of eroded plateaus creates rocky bluffs with valleys deeply cut by the region’s twisting rivers. Scattered among this are woodland and farmland, making for a great trail ambiance and some nice views on your journey.
Next up is Tunnel 3, the longest at 0.75 miles. The $1 million, three-year engineering feat opened in 1873. Even if you have a light—and you should!—its length creates a darkness that swallows you like a snake. Water drips from the ceiling and runs down gullies along the trail sides. Again, you must walk your bike through here. When you emerge from Wisconsin’s underbelly, stop by Tunnel Tom’s little concession stand. A true trail character, he’ll tell you stories and show you pictures of when the railroad used to run through.
From Tunnel 3 to Sparta, you have only eight miles to go—mostly downhill. The trail’s official end is at Water Street, where it links directly with the La Crosse River State Trail and earns the town’s claim to fame as the “Bicycling Capital of America.”
For dinner, try a Slice of Chicago—a tiny restaurant in an old house—for to-die-for homemade pizza and great side salads. Their taco pizza is a truly unique affair. Ginny’s Cupboard has some of the best home-baked breads, which they use in their generous sandwiches and paninis. Homemade soups, Wisconsin ice cream, coffee specialties and fresh-baked goods round out their fare.
Spend the night at the Franklin Victorian B&B to rest up for your journey back tomorrow.
In town, visit the Sparta Chamber of Commerce, housed in a pretty little building. Ask for directions to “Ben Bikin,” a late-19th-century-looking chap atop a giant, old-fashioned bike. The whimsical fiberglass creation is about 0.5 miles north on Water Street at the corner of State Route 16/71. At the chamber, you can also pick up a brochure on a self-conducted tour of Sparta’s architectural heritage, which you can do by bike.
Another Sparta attraction is the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum, with exhibits on the progression of transportation from bicycles to airplanes to spacecraft. The museum has more than 200 bikes as well as artifacts associated with astronaut and local hero Donald “Deke” Slayton, including his Mercury spacesuit.
Riding back from Sparta to Elroy on the rail-trail, your journey is a steady uphill roll over a gentle grade.
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