In 1965, the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, was the first rails-to-trails conversion in the country. Once a section of the Chicago and North Western Railway, steam locomotives hauled grain, livestock and passengers along this route from 1873 to 1964. Now, there are nearly 2,000 rails-to-trails projects around the country, covering more than 22,000 miles. There are more than 1,800 miles in Wisconsin. More than 60,000 cyclists pedal the trail every year.
Located in one of the most scenic parts of the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin, the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail is great for families, with plenty of amenities (bathrooms, water, food) at regular intervals and the tunnels serving as a fun goal to keep kids pedaling. The crushed limestone trail is well packed and maintained so it can be ridden on a road bike, but is probably best for hybrid tires.
Three tunnels are a big part of the trail’s appeal. The longest, between Sparta and Norwalk, is more than three-quarters of a mile long. Walking through the tunnels, (you are asked not to ride them), is an adventure in itself. There is a water channel on either side of the trail in the tunnel and pot holes from water dripping from above.
Telltale signs you’re nearing a tunnel include the temperature dropping, small streams forming on both sides of the trail, the woods around you turning into moss-and fern-covered cliffs and the air smells earthy.
Kendall is a good starting point if you want to bike all of the tunnels, an 18-mile trip from there. Wilton is a good spot for a break and a bite at the Dorset Valley School Restaurant and Bakery.
Show off your selfie skills! Find a selfie stand located on the West side of Tunnel 3 between Norwalk and Sparta and stop for a fun photo. Share yours on Instagram using #ScenicWisconsin.
Find parking, bathrooms and water at each of the towns along the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail. Bring a strong flashlight and be prepared to walk your bike through each tunnel. Tunnel # 3 is especially wet and a rain jacket isn’t a bad idea for a cool day. Cyclists age 16 and older need a trail pass ($5/day, $25/year), available at Justin Trails Resort and Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce.
The Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail is directly linked to two other state trails: the La Crosse River State Trail on the west end in Sparta and the 400 State Trail on the east end at Elroy Commons. There is also a connection at Elroy Commons to the 13-mile Omaha County Trail. Traveling between Elroy and Camp Douglas, near Mill Bluff State Park, the Omaha Trail features a shorter rock tunnel that is about two blocks long and black top pavement.
Lodging is available at Justin Trails Resort and includes drive-in tent camping, an Authentic Tipi, Camping Cabin, The Cottage, upscale log cabins and luxury suites. Bicycle rentals are available from Speed’s Bike Shop in Sparta, which also offers shuttles.