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The Military Ridge State Trail finds the high ground as it rolls across 40 miles of idyllic farmland from the outskirts of Madison to the historic mining town of Dodgeville. It follows an American Indian footpath later used by pioneers and railroaders. Travelers will pass the base of the highest point in southern Wisconsin and find opportunities to explore small towns, state parks, and natural areas.
The trail was built on a branch of the Chicago and North Western Railway, which started service on the line in 1881 but stopped using it by 1982. Work on the trail started in 1983.
Beginning in the Madison suburb of Fitchburg, you’ll start on a paved trail that parallels the busy US 18/151 for the first few miles. Just south of McKee Road, you’ll find the junction for the Cannonball Path, which heads 3.9 miles northeast toward the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. After you cross the first of nearly 50 bridges on the route, that paved trail becomes screened limestone as you leave behind the noisy highway and enter the town of Verona. A park, coffeehouse, and brewpub are all within a block of the trail here. In Verona, the Military Ridge State Trail also meets the Ice Age Trail, a 1,200-mile hiking route across the state.
The trail crosses the Sugar River Wetlands as it leaves town, and then enters farmland on its way to Riley. In a couple of miles, you’ll pass through Klevenville and notice that the grade increases on the way to Mount Horeb, which celebrates its Norwegian settlers’ heritage as the self-described “Troll Capital of the World.” Located at about the trail’s halfway point, the town offers plenty of cafés, bakeries, and brewpubs just a block or two north of the trail’s visitor center.
From Mount Horeb, the trail traverses the top of Military Ridge, whose name comes from its use by the US Army and militias during the Black Hawk War in 1832. Local militia built a fort at the nearby town of Moundville (now Blue Mounds) during that war, sparked when American Indian followers of Sauk war chief Black Hawk attempted to resettle lands lost in a disputed treaty.
The entrance road to Cave of the Mounds is about 3.8 miles past Mount Horeb. The limestone caverns are known for colorful patterns left by minerals underground. Another 1.5 miles past the road to the cave is the town of Blue Mounds and Blue Mound State Park. The trail passes the southern border of the park, but you can hike 435 feet to the summit at 1,716 feet. Observation towers provide views of the surrounding Driftless Area. Camping also is available.
The trail heads downhill as you leave Blue Mounds. Tidy dairy farms populate the views across the final 15 miles, and you’re often sheltered by tree canopies. About 9 miles past Blue Mounds you’ll enter Ridgeway, home to a restored 1913 railroad depot (and museum) that replaced an 1883 station lost in a fire that consumed most of downtown.
The trail ends in Dodgeville (settled in 1827 by the first governor of the Wisconsin Territory), an old lead mining town that has plenty for tired and hungry travelers. Nearby, Governor Dodge State Park offers camping, as well as miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback trails through the park’s prairies and forests.
Snowmobiling is permitted on the limestone section of trail but not on the paved section between Fitchburg and Verona.
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. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov /topic/parks/trailpass.html.
To reach the trailhead in Fitchburg from the intersection of US 18/US 151/Verona Road and County Road PD/McKee Road, go 0.1 mile west on McKee Road, and turn left onto Nesbitt Road. Go 0.9 mile, and turn left onto Fitchrona Road; then go 0.2 mile, and turn left into the parking area at Quarry Ridge Recreation Area. A short path from the parking lot leads north to Military Ridge State Trail—go right for 0.8 mile to the eastern endpoint, or go left to Dodgeville.
To reach the trailhead in Dodgeville from the intersection of US 18 and WI 23 N./N. Bequette St., go north 0.2 mile on SR 23, and turn right onto County Road YZ. Go 0.3 mile, and turn left on Johns Street into the DNR Dodgeville Service Center, on your left just after you cross the Military Ridge State Trail. The endpoint is 0.4 mile west.
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