Rails & Trails Pages

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sparta-Elroy Bike Trails Ride

I have wanted to ride the Sparta-Elroy Bike Trail for years and in the summer of 2010 I finally got the chance.  Since it seems so difficult to get there, I (we) decided to ride all 4 of that area's trails.  On Wednesday we would ride the Elroy-Sparta Trail (32 miles) and the LaCrosse River State Trail (21.5 miles) and on Thursday would ride the Omaha Trail (12.5 miles) and the 400 Trail (22 miles).  

First up was the Elroy-Sparta Trail:

The highlight(s) of this trail would be the 3 tunnels.  Interestingly, this trail was originally called the Sparta-Elroy Trail but when Tommy Thompson became Governor of the Great State of Wisconsin, he changed the name to the Elroy-Sparta Trail, where he was from!!  This was the first Rails to Trails bike trail in the United States.  We left from Elroy:

Here are the 3 riders:  Yours truly, Joe Lewis, and Gary Larson.  Yes, we did wear helmets, just not for this pic.

Early scenery on the trip.  The trail is covered with limestone screenings which make a good hard surface:


 Here was our chase team (extra supplies and a ride when we're done).  L to R, my wife Margie, my sister Anita, and a local resident.  We are at the small town of Kendall which was a big engine facility for the railroad.  The depot now houses a tourist center and neat museum with pictures of when the railroad went through there.  The railroad was completed in 1873 and all railroad traffic on the Omaha Railroad from southern Minnesota, North & South Dakota, and northern Iowa came through here on the way to Madison and Chicago.  In 1900, six passenger trains and 40-50 freight trains went through here daily.  Here at Kendall there was a 14-stall roundhouse which housed engines to help trains up the grades and through the tunnels.

Here is the first tunnel, about 1/4 mile long.

The wood framework in front of the tunnel was a "telltale pole."  It had 'feelers' hanging from it to warn the workers on the top of the rail cars.  In the old days before air brakes on trains, brakemen would have to walk on the top of the cars and turn a brake wheel to put the brakes on the cars when they went down hills.  The telltale pole would warn the workers to duck down and not get knocked off the cars.

Inside the tunnel.  Note how the rock was carved out.

Coming out the other side:

Looking back into the tunnel.  Workers were stationed 24/7 in 12-hour shifts outside of the tunnel during winter months to close the doors when trains weren't going through.  This prevented the cold air from coming in and the rocks freezing/thawing and breaking off.

In the small town of Wilton, a restored caboose is gutted inside and holds brochures of area attractions:

Here is Tunnel 2:

This tunnel was lined.  Also note the black on the ceiling which is smoke from the steam engine days.  It wasn't this bright inside the tunnel (we had to use flashlights).  Long exposure time or flash makes it look brighter.

Near Tunnel 3 we found the Flume.  There was so much flooding near the top of this hill that they originally built a wooden flume to divert the water.  It was replaced with this rock one in about 1902.

 Here is Tunnel 3, the longest at about 3/4 mile:    

Rock cut around the tunnel.  It took 3 years to build this tunnel and it had 2 vertical shafts drilled from above to help remove the debris.

We got to Sparta and the end of the Elroy-Sparta Trail.  The Trailhead is the former Omaha/CNW depot.  It has lots of pictures and brochures and facilities inside:

After vittles, we continue riding west and are now on the LaCrosse River State Trail.  But before we leave, we must take the obligatory tourist pic beside Ben Biken:

This trail contains an oak savanna prairie, one of the few remaining.  ONLY 21.5 miles to LaX!!!

This trail closely parallels the former Milwaukee Road/Soo Line trackage and is now Canadian Pacific trackage.  We caught 4 trains plus the local train in Sparta--just missed Amtrak.


After a night of much needed rest, we resume riding on Thursday morning.  We drove to Camp Douglas to catch the 12.5 mile Omaha Trail to Elroy.  This trail is asphalt but not well kept up and didn't ride any easier than the crushed limestone trails.

Late summer blooming flowers and weeds make great scenery.

There is one tunnel on this trail.  Note the fog around the opening due to the cool temperature inside the tunnel and the warming air outside.  Also the water running down the hillside on the right.

Looking back at where we just rode.  Tunnels are at the top of grades and you can see the good climb the trains had to make to get here:

After we got to Elroy and had some more vittles, we head out on the 22-mile 400 Trail to Reedsburg.  We soon come to Union Center and a side trail to Hillsboro.  This was the 5-mile spur called the Hillsboro & Northeastern Railroad that I have heard so much about and wanted to see.  Unfortunately, it is a snowmobile trail and not part of the State Trail System.  And it had been recently graded so it was covered with sand--almost impossible to ride on.  So after riding nearly a mile on this, we gave up and rode back to the regular trail.

From Elroy south, this trackage had been double-tracked, probably all the way to Chicago.  Here's a double span bridge that has been "single-trailed" for us bike riders.  But the second roadbed was a horse trail.

Some scenery along the way:

There were signs along all the trails describing what had been there.  In LaValle was the biggest sign:

We're getting into Reedsburg and then end of our 4-trail 2-day ride.  Here's a painting on one of the buildings:

And, the southern Trailhead--the Reedsburg Depot.

2 days, 93 miles.  We hit great weather with very little wind.  A super way to spend 'vacation.'                   

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