Total distance: 34.36 mi
Max elevation: 1207 ft
Min elevation: 774 ft
Total climbing: 1211 ft
Total descent: -1332 ft
Average speed: 10.94 mi/h
The Chicago and North Western railroad built a line from Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin, in the 1870’s. In order to accommodate the steam engines of the time, the grades were modest, and three tunnels were bored through the hills.
At one time (this is in 1907), three passenger trains per day thundered each direction.
Passenger service ended, and the line was torn up, and in 1967 this became the country’s first rail-trail conversion.
It’s now recognized as one of the premiere bike paths in the country, and Sparta advertises itself as the Bicycle Capital of America. The size of the parking lots along the 33 mile route are a good clue that it’s heavily used on summer weekends.
It was a perfect day to explore this trail; the weather was warm but not hot, and puffy white clouds and a canopy of green trees kept the sun away. The trail itself is not paved; it’s covered with fine gravel which probably could be ridden on a skinny tire road bike, but I was glad to have the 40mm wide tires on my bike.
Leaving Elroy the old railroad grade proceeds up a slight (1-2%) grade through lovely farmland (the Wisconsin license plates used to boast that the state was America’s Dairyland).
The yellow tag on my bike is a bike pass; as a state park, you need to pay $5 per day (or $25/year) to use these trails.
The roadbed continued north and west, and the hills (I refuse to call them mountains) on each side narrowed. Suddenly: the first of three tunnels.
It’s dark and cold inside; you must walk your bike because riders have become disoriented and crashed. It’s not very big, and is hard to imagine that there was much clearance for a full sized locomotive and railroad car. The pinhole on the far side got bigger and the opening to the rear got smaller, and about 1600′ later, I emerged into the sunlight. A nice downgrade, and I arrived at Kendall’s, a little town with a depot, restaurants, and Georgia, who had driven ahead and waited for me. She discovered an Amish street vendor from whom she bought some nice presents to take home.
Tunnel #2 was pretty much the same; on the downhill to the next town and upgrade to #3 I passed an old man who had set up an ice cream cart accessible only to riders. I imagine he sells out in the summer; and wish I’d stopped.
Tunnel #3 is almost 3/4 of a mile long, and the porous limestone leaks water which gives bikers a cold, refreshing shower through the eastern half. A school group of middle school boys was walking their bikes the other way, and watching their flashlights bob up and down, and listening to the Halloween noises they were making made the trip very … interesting.