Just Say 'Cheese': A Guide to Wisconsin's Most Beautiful Rail-Trails

Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened in 1967 and is widely considered to be the first rail-trail in the U.S. Many more rail-trails followed and today the state has nearly 100. These pathways offer a broad range of experiences from bucolic farmland to lush woodlands and river valleys to friendly Midwestern towns. Here are some of our favorites.


Elroy-Sparta State Trail

Photo by: Eric Reischl Photography

A highlight of this 32-mile rail-trail is its three deep railroad tunnels—two at 1,600 feet and the other at 3,800 feet—which date back to the 1860s. They still have their original 20-foot-high wooden double doors that were used as protection from the snow. The rest of the trail is also camera-worthy with rolling hills, pastures dotted with cows and a historical depot.


Glacial Drumlin State Trail

Photo by: dj123_45

Spanning 53 miles in southeastern Wisconsin, this primarily crushed-stone rail-trail offers a diverse set of backdrops: wetlands, thick tree canopies, ponds and rivers, as well as hundreds of low, cigar-shaped hills called drumlins. The corridor is abundant in wildlife and you may spot sandhill cranes, deer, wild turkeys, foxes and many other types of animals.


Gandy Dancer Trail - Southern Section

Photo by: Amy Bayer

The unusual name of this 47-mile rail-trail comes from a nickname for railroad maintenance workers. The rail-trail begins near the St. Croix River, which divides Wisconsin and Minnesota, and heads northeast from there through beautiful forests and farmlands. It’s also part of the larger Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 1,200 mile-pathway that traces the edge of a glacier that left its mark on the landscape here some 15,000 years ago.


Wiouwash State Trail

Photo by: jsjenkins1

This rail-trail is two experiences in one; its northern section offers a lushly wooded 19-mile corridor, while its southern section offers scenic views of Lake Butte des Morts, prairie remnants and farmland along its 22-mile journey.


Military Ridge State Trail

Photo by: dj123_45

Spanning a whopping 83 miles from Green Bay westward, the varied terrain of this rail-trail provides a true mountain biking adventure. With small towns dotting the way, travelers never too far from a bite to eat or an overnight stay while still having the opportunity to enjoy a remote wilderness experience.


Great River State Trail

Photo by: dj123_45

This 24-mile rail-trail, named for the Mississippi River which it loosely parallels, meanders through river marshes, wildlife preserves, hardwood forests and old river towns along the eastern shoreline. Several bridges over small tributaries, as well as a 1,200-foot-long railroad trestle, add to this postcard-perfect experience.


Bearskin State Trail

Photo by: kmunson

Nestled in the heart of the great North Woods, this pathway is for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle amongst the quiet of the trees. Several lakes are scattered along the pristine 26-mile pathway, where travelers might catch a glimpse of a bald eagle or deer. Adding to its beauty are 16 converted railroad trestles.


Red Cedar State Trail

Photo by: kmunson

This 14.5-mile rail-trail in northwestern Wisconsin offers some tangible nods to its past with old railroad trestles and a former train depot turned visitor center. Tucked between a peaceful river and sandstone cliffs, the crushed-stone pathway is surrounded by an array of birch, maple, elm and aspen trees. A small waterfall and wildlife area complete the pretty picture.


Old Abe State Trail

Photo by: dj123_45

Bookended by the charming communities of Eau Claire and Cornell in northwestern Wisconsin, this 28-mile rail-trail offers an enticing mix of rural countryside and tranquil woodlands. At its northern tip, Brunet Island State Park is a recreational gem spanning more than 1,000 acres, including an island in the Chippewa River.


400 State Trail

Photo by: aslaksan

Some of central Wisconsin’s most beautiful scenery can be found along this 22-mile rail-trail: dramatic rock formations, wooded ravines, wildlife-rich wetlands and nearly a dozen bridges. A county park, a restored railroad depot and welcoming trailside communities round out this pleasant excursion.

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