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Utter darkness is as much a part of the scenery along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail as the views of the rolling hills and farmland. That’s because visitors pass through three hand-dug railroad tunnels on their 33-mile journey from Sparta to Elroy on what is widely acknowledged to be the oldest rail-trail conversion in the United States.
Those tunnels—two at 1,600 feet and the other at 3,800 feet—have long been a big draw for the trail, which opened in 1967. They are unlit, and water drips down the walls and pools at your feet. The temperature in the tunnels is a cool 50–60 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature.
Work crews had to chip through solid rock in those shafts before the Chicago and North Western Railway could open a direct route between St. Paul and Chicago in 1873. In its prime, the route carried 6 passenger trains and 40–50 freight trains daily. The railroad discontinued passenger service in 1953 and freight in 1964. A state agency bought the right-of-way soon after and began developing the trail.
It’s a less strenuous trek between Sparta and Elroy because of those tunnels, although you’ll be climbing a grade to each one, followed by a downhill run to the town on the other side. The trail’s hard-packed crushed-limestone base is comfortable for walking and running, and it’s suitable for wider bicycle tires. Even so, bicyclists must dismount to pass through the tunnels.
There are rest areas, restrooms, drinking fountains, camping areas, and snack concessions at the endpoint towns and in between at Norwalk, Wilton, and Kendall. You can pick up the La Crosse River State Trail in Sparta or the 400 State Trail and Omaha Trail in Elroy. The trail is a middle leg of the Bike 4 Trails route that runs for 100 miles from the Mississippi River through Wisconsin’s rugged Driftless Area.
Beginning in Sparta at the trailhead tourist center, you might first want to check on “Ben Bikin’,” a large statue of a mustachioed 19th-century sportsman atop a Victorian-style “penny-farthing” high-wheel bicycle, about a half mile north on South Water Street. Returning to the trail, you’ll head east for 8.9 miles to the first and longest tunnel, Number 3, which is 3,810 feet long. Seasonal kiosks at both ends sell flashlights among other goods. Just past the tunnel is the Summit Rest Area, where you’ll find a reconstructed watchman’s shack and, with a little searching, an 8-foot-deep stone flume to divert water away from the rails.
Leaving the tunnel, it’s 3.2 miles through forest and farmland to the trailhead and services in Norwalk. Another 3.2 miles takes you to Tunnel Number 2, which is 1,694 feet long. Like the others, this tunnel has 20-foot-tall double doors at the entrances that the watchmen opened and closed for passing trains to prevent winter temperatures from damaging walls inside the portals. These wooden doors are closed all winter now; snowmobilers take a detour around them.
You’ll travel 2.2 miles to services in Wilton, and then another 5.4 miles to Tunnel Number 1, which is 1,649 feet long and the driest of the three. You’ll make a 3.3-mile downhill run to the trail headquarters in Kendall at a restored depot that also serves as a museum and bike rental. You also can contact the trail headquarters for shuttles between any points on the trail. The last segment consists of 6 miles of mostly flat, open farm country to the end of the trail in Elroy.
NOTE: A State Trail Pass ($25 annually/$5 daily) is required for bicyclists ages 16 and older. Snowmobilers must display either a Wisconsin registration or a snowmobile State Trail Pass. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/trailpass¿.html. Camping is available in Elroy, Kendall, Sparta, and Wilton.
To reach the western trailhead in Sparta from I-90, take Exit 28 toward Sparta onto SR 16, heading west. Go 2.3 miles, and turn left onto S. Water St. Go 0.5 mile, and turn left onto Milwaukee St. Turn immediately right into the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead is at the old railroad depot at 111 Milwaukee St.
To reach the southern trailhead in Elroy from I-90/94, take Exit 69 toward Mauston on SR 82/Gateway Ave., heading west. In 0.6 mile, bear left on SR 82/N. Union St. to head south across the Lemonweir River. In 0.2 mile, turn right on E. State St., go 0.3 mile (4 blocks), and turn left to head south on SR 82/Division St. In 0.6 mile, bear right around the traffic circle, and take the first right to continue east on WI 82/Grayside Ave. In 10.5 miles, turn left to continue south on SR 82. In 1.6 miles, turn left onto Franklin St. in Elroy. Take the first left into the parking lot, located behind the Elroy Commons Trail Shop on Railroad St. After you park, look for the 400 State Trail in front of the trail shop. Head north (left) on the trail about 0.2 mile to Cedar St., turn left, and look for the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, which heads northwest just north of where Cedar St. intersects Main St.
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