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The 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail between Cottage Grove and Waukesha provides a glimpse into the past when glaciers bore down on southeastern Wisconsin in the last Ice Age. Those gigantic sheets of ice created wetlands, ponds, and rivers, as well as hundreds of low, cigar-shaped hills called drumlins. The rail-trail in fact runs concurrently with the Ice Age Trail, a 1,200-mile hiking path across Wisconsin, for about 2 miles near Wales.
The landscape challenged the Chicago and North Western Railway’s builders as they established the rail line between Madison and Milwaukee in the 1880s. The wooden pilings that supported bridges sank in the deep muck of extensive wetlands, creating dangerous passages for trains. Declining rail traffic forced the railroad to stop using the route in 1983, and it was transformed into a rail-trail in 1986.
Those wood-planked bridges now provide popular features on the trail as viewpoints for the wetlands, where a host of wildlife thrives. You may spot large sandhill cranes, graceful birds with bright red caps on their heads, or hear spring peepers and a chorus of frogs. Deer, wild turkeys, foxes, and other critters are often seen.
Although the trail stops short of the railroad’s original destinations, plans are afoot to link with Madison via the Capital City State Trail and with Milwaukee via the New Berlin Recreation Trail. A 5-mile extension to Madison is expected to begin construction in 2019.
Beginning in Cottage Grove, you’ll head east for about 40 miles on a crushed-stone surface until you hit pavement in Dousman, one of many small towns along the trail providing rest, refreshment, and exploration. After leaving Cottage Grove, you’ll pass through miles of open country before reaching Deerfield and London. At around mile 14, you’ll sail over a 0.25-mile-long bridge that separates upper and lower Rock Lake, just before you reach Lake Mills. A restored 1895 train depot provides exhibits on local nature and railroad history, as well as other visitor services. Camping is available at Sandhill Station State Campground, 1.3 miles south of the depot on Mud Lake Road.
In the 5-mile stretch between Lake Mills and Jefferson, the trail tunnels under a thick tree canopy in the summer and crosses Crawfish River and Rock River (a fishing haven for locals). In Jefferson, at about 22 miles, signs guide you through a 1.5-mile on-road section before reconnecting with the trail. While you journey through small towns and the communities of Helenville, Sullivan, Dousman, and Wales, you’ll find nearby restaurants and grocery stores.
Before reaching Sullivan, the trail parallels US 18 for a couple of miles, and then a stream and wetland populated with yellow finches and purple thistles. Outside of Dousman, the crushed-stone surface ends, and the final 13 miles to Waukesha are smooth pavement. Even with the smoother surface, you might notice the grade increase as you pass south of the Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Cushing Park Road Recreation Trail, 4 miles past Dousman, will take you there. It’s a well-deserved downhill after Wales for the last 7 miles to the Fox River and the trail’s end at the E. B. Shurts Environmental Learning Center at the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha.
State campgrounds are located in Lake Mills, Dousman, and Delafield.
NOTE: A State Trail Pass ($25 annually/$5 daily) is required for bicyclists and in-line skaters ages 16 and older. Snowmobilers must display either a Wisconsin registration or a snowmobile State Trail Pass. Snowmobiles are permitted on the limestone section of trail—but not the paved asphalt section—between Waukesha and Dousman. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/trailpass.html.
To reach the Cottage Grove trailhead from I-94, take Exit 244 onto southbound County Road N. / N. Main St. Go 2.2 miles, and then turn left at Clark St. into the parking lot for the Glacial Drumlin State Trail.
To reach the Fox River Sanctuary trailhead in Waukesha from I-94, take Exit 293 toward Waukesha onto southbound County Road T/N. Grandview Blvd. Go 1.6 miles, and turn left onto US 18/Summit Ave.; then go 0.3 mile, and turn right onto N. Moreland Blvd., which becomes S. Moreland Blvd. Go 1.3 miles, and turn left onto W. St. Paul Ave. Go 0.5 mile, and turn right at N. Prairie Ave. Go 0.3 mile, and turn right onto W. College Ave. Parking is the first driveway on the right, at the E. B. Shurts Environmental Learning Center in the Fox River Sanctuary. After parking, take the Fox River Trail west 0.2 mile to the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, on the right.
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