America's Oldest Rail Trail Is Right Here In Wisconsin And It's Truly Fascinating
Wisconsin has a history of preserving public spaces and working to make the most of the wonderful and diverse land we find in our state, so it’s no surprise to learn that the very first ever rail trail was built here – and still exists today.
At the turn of the 20th century, the country was criss-crossed with railroad lines and Wisconsin was no exception. With logging up north, access to the Great Lakes, the proximity of Minneapolis and Chicago and our farm culture, there were plenty of reasons to need railroad track across the state. But as the country modernized, many of those railways fell out of use.
Located in west-central Wisconsin, the Elroy-Sparta trail celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015.
Originally part of the Chicago and North Western Railroad, the track was removed and the bike and hiking trail was born.
Though some of the 32-mile trail is paved, most of it is covered with hard-packed limestone.
There are 34 bridges and three tunnels along this route between the towns of Elroy and Sparta.
In its prime, this area saw five or six passenger trains and up to 40 freight trains pass through each day.
Now the path serves as a bike path for most of the year, though in the winter local groups maintain it for snowmobile use.
What started here as just a short conversion of railway for public use has grown to include more than 22,000 miles over more than 1,900 different trails across the country. Rails to trails is now a nation-wide conservancy effort.
Three small towns between the trailheads embrace their location and provide camping, rest areas, drinking fountains, restrooms and snacks.
The trail doesn't have much of a grade, though it passes through some rolling Wisconsin countryside and farmland.
In spring and summer you get lush greenery that sometimes has the same effect as the tunnels. In the fall, the colors burst and make an autumn ride even more lovely.
The scenery is gorgeous and exactly what you'd hope to find in this part of the state, so close to the Mississippi River.
The 34 bridges help traverse the many streams, creeks and rivers that dot the area.
But the best features of the Elroy-Sparta are the three tunnels. There are two 1/4-mile tunnels and one 3/4-mile tunnel.
Bikers are asked to walk their bikes through as the tunnels are dark and often slippery.
Natural spring water leaks through the limestone and can make the tunnels wet and damp.
To maintain the structural integrity of the tunnels in the cold weather, some of them had barn doors put on to help trap out the cold and keep in the heat. The railroads had spotters whose job it was to open the doors.
In the summer, you may find kiosks on either side of the longest tunnel to let you rent a flashlight. At more than three football fields long, the unlit tunnel can be a bit daunting, but it's also a bit of an architectural marvel. Hand-dug through solid rock, it cost $1 million to build back in the 1870s.
From this trail, riders can join up with the LaCrosse River State Trail, the 400 State Trail or the Omaha Trail. The connections will give you up to 100 miles of bike trails.
Riders older than 16 are required to purchase a $5 trail pass each day or can buy a year pass for $25.
Have you ever ridden the Elroy-Sparta? Did you know you were using a piece of history? Let us know your experience in the comments!
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