Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

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Entering a tunnel on the Elroy Sparta Trail
Entering a tunnel on the Elroy Sparta Trail


The Elroy Sparta State Bike Trail is a 32 mile linear bike path on crushed gravel. It is world famous as the first rails-to-trails trail (established in 1967), and for its long cavernous tunnels. Laid out along the former Chicago and North Western Railroad, it passes through Wisconsin's Driftless and Hidden Valleys region.

The bucolic country ride through an unglaciated landscape passes over numerous babbling brooks and valley streams. Monumental stone and forested hills rise sharply out of productive valleys, wrapping their long arms around the trail route.

The slow pace of life in this sparsely populated agricultural region is startled only by the piercing calls of songbirds.  The Elroy Sparta is a  daydream, absorbed by some 60,000 bicycle riders annually who travel from across the nation and from abroad each year. 





Kendall Depot along the Elroy Sparta State Bike Trail
Kendall Depot along the Elroy Sparta State Bike Trail


Seated on a dais among other dignitaries, former Governor and US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, waited for his turn to pump up a crowd of 300 cyclists and townspeople clad in brightly colored free t-shirts. The Boy from Elroy would officially commission the renovated Kendall Depot which stood proud in a glowing fresh coat of red paint.

You can still buy a ticket to ride at Kendall Depot; but now it is a DNR trail pass that permits you to pedal from town to town on the route where seven years after the Civil War locomotives once lumbered along. In many ways it's a vastly different scene today, but in many ways it's a scene that has hardly changed at all.

The ramshackle towns strung out in a winding line along the bottom of a valley from Elroy to Sparta have nearly the same population as they did 100 years ago. Farming remains the primary concern. Yet, fifty years after the completion of the first rails-to-trails bike path in America, in this unlikely corner of Wisconsin, the eyes of the world watch with envy.

What had been a dryly sensible reallocation of retired space from private to public ownership sparked a boom of trail building across the nation and world. The Elroy Sparta Trail became the patriarch of a profusion of interconnected trails in Wisconsin. Today, some 60,000+ people arrive in this quiet valley to fill it with laughter and sighs of awe. To the few citizens of these towns, the leisure travelers are either invaders or fat wallets. 1.5 million dollars is dropped off here each year.

Being the novel first trail of its kind, the Elroy Sparta is one of the best serviced and most monetized trail. There are multiple bicycle shops which support the trail with bike rentals, shuttle service, emergency repairs, and forgotten flashlights. There are also numerous private and public campgrounds, motels, bed & breakfasts, and restaurants that cater to pleasure riders.

The trail is a long drive from population centers, but a short drive from the resort metropolis of Wisconsin Dells. Weekend travelers to The Dells will find ample reason for a side trip to the Elroy Sparta Trail. Beyond the novelty of being the first rail trail, it is a memorable trail for its three cavernous tunnels.

If the summer sun is beaming, its an excellent time to pick up a flashlight and head out to the trail. The showstopping draw of Elroy Sparta is the rare opportunity to walk through a tunnel so long and curved that you cannot see the end of it.

Being in the tunnels is surreal and disorienting. In front of you a tiny dot of light seems to jump from nearer to farther as you progress through the darkness. It takes approximately 15 minutes to walk your bike through any one of the three trail tunnels. The tunnels seam to breath; a cool and damp respiration. Quiet and darkness is complete .

As I walked through Tunnel 2 only the front tire of my bike was illuminated by my dim cell phone flashlight. An approaching family dispensed with flashlights all together. With one of my most important senses dampened, my sense of hearing became heightened. The drips of water from the soaring stone vault above spattered down into pools to the side of the trail. I could identify the distance of an approaching dog by its fast panting - sounds so crisp that they will surely echo in my dreams. A small girl of maybe 4 years old was part of the party approaching in the darkness, as she passed by she exhaled a prolonged "whoaaaaaa." Lit only by a flashlight with a throw of three feet, to her my shadowed face must have emerged from the darkness like a ghost.

This trail is not simply a bike trail, not simply a fitness route, nor a commuter path - The Elroy Sparta is rather a trail of magic and grandeur. To bike or hike it is to engage in an epic journey - to encounter within yourself something new.

Tunnel 2 near Norwalk WI Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Tunnel 2 near Norwalk WI Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

SOME THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE ELROY SPARTA TRAIL:

-A state trails pass is required (2015 = $20 annual pass to all state trails, $4 for a day pass). You can purchase these at Speed's bike shop in Sparta or at the Kendall Depot or Elroy Commons.

-The trail is officially open year round, but don't be fooled. The doors to the tunnels are closed from late October through May 1.Check the trail website to determine if the tunnels are open.

- My favorite route is to begin at Wilton and travel North to Tunnel 2, I then turn back and head to Kendall, passing through Tunnel 1 along the way. This route is approximately 25 miles out-and-back. The reason I like it is that Wilton is at a low point and you will be traveling downhill from tunnel 1 back to Wilton when your legs are most tired. This route takes 3-4 hours.

-Though the trail is easy and lacks steep climbs, there are elongated inclines. You will be pedaling constant and fighting the grade up to each tunnel. These uphills can take as long as an hour to climb. This can be very tiring for novice bikers. The flipside is that you may cruise downhill for 1/2 hour after each tunnel.

 -You can arrange shuttle service at Kendall Depot, Elroy Commons or at Speed's bike shop. This allows you to ride a longer length of the trail and get a ride back to your vehicle.  Check out rates here: Speed's | Kendall Depot | Elroy Commons

-Camping is the thing to do in this neck of the woods. I recommend Tunnel Trail Campground for lodging. Its location is perfect, near to Kendall and tunnel 1. They have tent sites, group sites, RV sites, and small cabins. This is a fantastically fun campground with miniature golf and other diversions. It's a great place to stop along the trail for lunch as well.

-If you are looking for the full resort experience, try staying at a resort in nearby Wisconsin Dells

-If you are planning an upscale quiet adult weekend, You might like the new boutique hotel in Lacrosse (Charmant), or if you book a year in advance you might score one of these unique guest  houses at Candlewood Cabins

Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Elroy Sparta Bike Trail



Overview: Elroy Sparta State Trail


COUNTY: Monroe
COMMUNITIES: Elroy, Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk, Sparta

TOTAL MILES: 32
DIFFICULTY: Easy
PAVEMENT: Crushed Stone

POINTS OF INTEREST: Historic Train Tunnels, Kendall Depot

FEE: State Trail Pass (2015: $20annual/$4day) (Purchase at Kendall Depot or Speed's Bike Shop) 



Directions and Trail Map




If viewing on a mobile device, open the trail map above to load into Google Maps App by touching the expand rectangle in the upper right corner

Addresses for your GPS (Click to open in Google Maps or Google Map app on mobile for turn by turn directions):
Elroy Parking: 225 Main Street, Elroy WI
| coordinates: 43.746738, -90.279141 |
Kendall Depot: 208 White Street, Kendall WI
| coordinates: 43.793124, -90.368524 |
Wilton Parking: 702 Main Street, Wilton WI
| coordinates: 43.817036, -90.528465 |
Norwalk Parking: 104 Railroad Street, Norwalk WI
| coordinates: 43.832854, -90.621189 |
Sparta Parking: 111 Milwaukee Street, Sparta WI
| coordinates: 43.932087, -90.809487 |

From Wisconsin Dells1 Hour
From Milwaukee2 Hours 45 Minutes
From Madison2 Hours
From Green Bay3 Hours
From Wausau2 Hours
From Minneapolis3 Hours
From Chicago4 Hours



Photos


Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

Tunnel 1 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Tunnel 1 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Kendall Depot on the Elroy Sparta State Trail
Kendall Depot on the Elroy Sparta State Trail

Kendall Depot on the Elroy Sparta State Trail
Kendall Depot on the Elroy Sparta State Trail


Elroy Sparta State Trail
Elroy Sparta State Trail

Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Tunnel 2 on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail

Wilton Stop on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Wilton Stop on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Former Governor Thompson Rededicates the Kendall Depot
Former Governor Thompson Rededicates the Kendall Depot




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