Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stormy Weather: The Elroy-Sparta Trail

August 7, 2010. My sister, Jen, and I drove both our cars down to Wilton, WI to stay at the excellent Amil's Inn (Bed & Breakfast). Wilton is positioned midway on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. My plan was to bike the top half (Sparta to Wilton) on Saturday, and the last half (Wilton to Elroy) on Sunday, then the two sisters would part and go back to respective homes. Two cars were needed because not only would we be driving back in different directions, but we thought we would leave one car at the head of the trail (bringing the bikes) and one at the end to pick up the bikes, go back and get the other car, and return to Amil's when the day was done. It turned out that we only needed the two cars to return home with, because Amil's offered the service of drop off (for a fee) on the trail, which was great! At the end of our first half of the trail, we just biked from Wilton to Amil's, and I estimate that distance to be about 2-3 miles. David and Anita Reeck are the Amil's Inn hosts. I HIGHLY recommend staying there. 
Lovely plantings in front of Amil's

After we settled in, our bikes were mounted on Anita's bike rack. The route up to Sparta along Highway 71 is rolling and scenic. It also made me think about biking all those hills, but no worries! Rails to trails are pretty much flat, with some grade changes. Consider that since these trails were for trains in the first place, and that to promote efficient travel, trains needed level ground. Hence: TUNNELS. And these tunnels are awesome. 
Sparta, Wisconsin, is all about the bike. We didn't have time to explore the town, but judging from our drive through to the trailhead, it was a tidy and attractive place. Further research must be done. (Another personal mantra.) Above see the two sisters, Jen on the left (taller) and me on the right. 

I don't time my rides. I do note the distance for informational purposes. I do stop often and explore towns along the way, and I also take lots of photos. This makes progress slower, so noting how long it takes me do ride a trail is like measuring how long it takes me to record information: variable. I will say this: Jen is a faster ride than me. My excuse (and I have plenty): my bike is heavier. I take photos. I stop and look. And other whiny sister excuses. Maybe some day I will get a fast bike, and whiz along, but until then I am built for information, not for speed. Generally, I bike alone. Like the song. (Change "I Drink Alone" to "I Bike Alone".) I judge that I am an annoying trail bike companion because of all the stopping, but Jen was great to bike with, and we seemed to achieve a balance of progress and information gathering.

I love it when the trailhead office is the old railway station. The Red Cedar State Trail in Menomonie has a railway depot also. So appropriate. Find the Sparta trailhead at the Sparta Chamber Depot, 111 Milwaukee Street.

And off we went! You can see that the surface is crushed limestone, not asphalt. Surprisingly, the trail is not as wide as the others I have previously biked. Also, there are no mile markers, which I found to be odd, and disappointing. The Elroy-Sparta State Trail is the oldest (and first) rail to trail conversion not only in Wisconsin, but in the nation. I can understand that since it is the first, the trail is more narrow than others created later. But no mile markers? Those could be added at any time, and not at great expense. I don't understand. However, since the trail begins and ends in towns, with others along the way, confusion about distances is not such an issue. But still.

Scenery is just lovely. The trail is often elevated from the surrounding sides. There is a large Amish community in the area, so sightings of work horses (Percherons, Clydesdales, those breeds of horses) are common. What I call the Big Fellas.The southwest section of Wisconsin is called the Driftless Area, uncovered by glaciers.  "Drift" (silt, clay, gravel, boulders) was left by retreating glaciers. Driftless..........didn't get any. However, the area was influenced by outbursts from glacial lakes when the ice dams broke, causing catastrohic flooding. What this means is there are steep valleys called coulees, rolling hills and general gorgeousness: Karst topography is found throughout the Driftless area. This is characterized by caves and cave systems, disappearing streams, blind valleys, underground streams, sinkholes, springs, and cold streams. Disappearing streams occur where surface waters sinks down into the earth through fractured bedrock or a sinkhole, either joining an aquifer, or becoming an underground stream. Blind valleys are formed by disappearing streams and lack an outlet to any other stream. Sinkholes are the result of the collapse of the roof of a cave, and surface water can flow directly into them. Disappearing streams can re-emerge as large cold springs. Cold streams with cold springs as their sources are noted as superb trout habitat. Thank you Wikipedia. Disappearing streams. Does this not make you want to explore here? I certainly do. 
You can imagine that such geography would make laying a rail bed a challenge. Historical markers along the trail introduce you to the experience of earlier times.  Tunnel #3 (and because we started at Sparta, we were going "backwards".......once again......#3 was the first tunnel we approached) was completed in 1873, and when we walked through it, seemed an engineering marvel. It also was very refreshing on a hot, muggy day. Note that we walked through it. Bikers must walk their bikes through, and please adhere to the "stay on your right side" rule, since it is pitch black inside there. Have a bike light or a flash light, or collisions (OW) will occur. The tunnel is so long that you cannot see light at the end. It also is foggy, and water drips from the ceiling, and a small stream runs along one side. Very cold water. The approach to the tunnel reminded me of entering Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Cool air and mist roll out of the entrance. It's like entering a cold hell, dark, cool, mysterious. I just loved it.
Pinpricks of light bobbing along become cyclists leaving the man made cave. They made it out alive! Now it's your turn. Bwaaahhhhahaha. Must be good at Halloween.

And we were out. Here to tell about it. 
Once out of the tunnel, we mounted the bikes again. There had been an incline grade up to Tunnel #3, but now it was a slight coast down. Yes! And then we came upon this quainty-old timey scene:
 I think all present-day schools should have a hand pump. Kids like them. This water was really good and welcome. We sat for a while, enjoyed some power bars, drank water and watched the fun.
The next stop was the village of Norwalk, as you can see, they have a black squirrel problem. Might as well name it the Black Squirrel Capital, and make it an asset. We rode into town to see if it was true.
They weren't kidding. Look at those little devils. Looking at YOU! We explored the main street and made note of a place we might like to return to later (by car) for supper. And then, of course, we had to have a beer before hitting the trail again. (It's Wisconsin!)
 Here we are at Lil's Corner Bar. Other cyclists were there also. We passed them, they passed us, we passed them............I think we finished our beers first though. Then back on the bikes, to proceed to Wilton, back to Amil's and the jacuzzi that we both enjoyed in each of our rooms.
Oh, and there was Tunnel #2 before Wilton. It was not as long as Tunnel #3, the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen. 

The length of the whole trail from Sparta to Elroy is 32 miles. We did half, so 16 for us on Saturday. Later we returned by car to Norwalk to eat here:
 Los Tres Garcias. Family run, homemade, generous portions, really good. Eat there.

Later on, the bed. It was comfortable and welcome. I heard it raining during the night, and was wondering how our second half of the trail would go.
 This was the view from my room's window in the morning. I could tell that a revision of the day's plan was in order. We discussed it over breakfast, and decided that biking in the rain would not be all that pleasant. The last half of the trail will be done another time. But first.........breakfast!
 First course.
The breakfast is excellent, (french toast later) and the cozy white robe is provided also. Even though we did not get to finish the trail, we had a good time, and look forward to the second half of the trail. Maybe I will bring my husband here next time.........................

Trail head location: Elroy, WI (Elroy Commons, between County Hwy. O, and Hwy 80/82) or Sparta, WI (Sparta Chamber Depot, 111 Milwaukee Street)
Length: 32-34 miles, depending on source of info
Usage: (Summer) Biking, hiking, non-motorized. (Winter) Snowmobiling, cross-country ski (ungroomed).
Surface: crushed limestone
Highway crossings: For the section of Sparta-Wilton, just a few back roads. Nothing major. Observe the stop signs.
Scenic: Are you kidding? Oh yes. Oh the tunnels=fun.
Signage: Historic markers, and main trail map signs, yes. But what happened to the mile markers?
Regional trail system: Well, I don't know what the system is called (maybe Bike 4 Trails?) but it involves 4 trails in the southwestern area: Elroy-Sparta State Trail, the Great River State Trail, the La Crosse River State Trail, the 400 State Trail.  See the link above for Friends of the Four Trails.
Rest stops: Sparta Chamber Depot, village of Norwalk, village of Wilton. In the future, I will give info for the second half of the trail.

Those are the facts, Jack. I love this trail, the tunnels are awesome, quirky little towns along the way, beautiful scenery, I can't wait to finish it. Oh honey............let's stay at a bed and breakfast this weekend, bring your bike!
Mantra: Keep on pedaling and no bears.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Who IS Old Abe Anyway? Biking the Old Abe State Trail

Previous postings have documented the Red Cedar State Trail (Hometown Trail) and the Chippewa River State Trail (Mosquito Land). The September 22nd posting (Best Laid Plans: The Bike Trail List) gave the overview of bike touring trails that I will be traveling. Forward (as we say in Wisconsin---state motto) to the Old Abe State Trail.......or maybe backward, since I biked this back on July 29th.

In 1861, a Chippewa tribe traded an eaglet to Dan McCann of Jim Falls, Wisconsin. What did the tribe get in return? Hopefully not useless trinkets. Dan kept the eagle as a pet, and then gave it to the Eau Claire Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry formed for the Civil War. The eagle was named in honor of President Lincoln. Old Abe traveled with the company during 37 battles, (the number of battles differs according to sources) and then returned to Madison, where it died in a fire. Well, poor eagle, I say. It didn't get to fly free, and then, death by fire also. However, this trail and probably other things were named after it. Its likeness is displayed in the Wisconsin State Capitol.
My husband dropped me off in Cornell, Wisconsin at the area that I thought was the trailhead. He would later pick me up in downtown Chippewa Falls, where I thought the end of the trail was. It wasn't. The day started in confusion about where the exact beginning and end were located, and perhaps this is not confusing to other people, but it was to me. But to YOU it won't be confusing! I am making the mistakes for you! That is the benefit of this blog. I pedal around and around the Mill Yard Park parking lot in Cornell, looking for the trail, so you don't have to. Here's the hint: go east across the parking lot, cross Park Road, and the trail runs pretty much parallel to Park Road here. You can leave your car at this parking lot, and access the trail here, or (and I recommend this) drive further (just over a mile) up Park Road to Brunet Island State Park (there's a lot of park park park going on here) and PARK your car by the office. It is pretty here. It's a good place to start. The official head is actually at the Mill Yard Park though. Just so you know. (Or maybe it is the Official End.)
There are lots of tiny deer here. Ha. Seriously, there are lots of deer. Look out when biking. They are rather tame. 
 View the trailhead map. Jim Falls is about 12 miles down the trail, so pee now. Mill Yard Park has facilities. Cornell has various restaurants and bars for visiting purposes. The Brunet Island Park office is not always open.
The top of the trail winds about with the Cornell Flowage alongside. A short stretch of biking along the shoulder of Park Road and then cross to the trail that continues on the east side of the road. Carry on for 18-19 miles!
Yes, it is paved. Easy going. I have read some reviews complaining about the condition of the asphalt, but there aren't any tremendous potholes. Sure, there are some bumpy sections from Jim Falls to Cornell, and be sure to watch for fallen branches. During the summer of 2010, there were lots of storms that brought down tree limbs. I am always surprised to find how quickly these are cleared from the trails. BUDGET CUTS, PEOPLE. Picking up branches for you may not be at the top of the list, so pick up a few yourselves. Unless you want to pay more taxes. See, that's what all the complaining about paying taxes gets you: no one will be picking up your branches, if you don't want to pay for services. 
Lovely rural views happen along the way, also woods and the Chippewa River. It is a beautiful ride.
I asked two hikers about the cooler. They told me it contained eggs for sale on the honor system. I didn't check the contents, but I had thought perhaps water bottles were for sale, which would be a good idea! 
This is an interesting bridge, I had never seen one quite like it before. Take your turn on this bridge. One at a time. It is found when the trail crosses County K, so check it out. Old timey.
 Here is evidence of local amusement. "Things" happen along trails, hopefully not when I am biking though. 
The village of Jim Falls offers refreshments, restrooms at the convenience store, restaurants and BARS (Wisconsin). It won't take long to explore the main street, so veer off a block or so to the west and visit.
  Historic information will tell you about Old Abe, namesake of the trail.
 Large things in Jim Falls. Hydro-electric plants. Eagles. Cheese plants. Very Wisconsin. We like cheese production to be large!
The country becomes farmland and more open. The trail is smoother after Jim Falls, as the woods is left behind.
Wildflowers enjoy the sun. Be prepared for much less shade. Also, a horse trail runs alongside the bike trail which adds to the experience. Unfortunately, no one was out riding when I was. I was hoping to see some equestrians. 
 Soon I was at the Anson Station parking area, which sources list as the official end (or beginning) of the Old Abe Trail. It would be a good place to stop, but this bridge beckons just a block or so south of Anson Station. If you have decided to end the trail here, be sure to ride over the bridge and then return to your car. It is a great bridge to ride across. Like a mini roller coaster. The trail will someday continue into Chippewa Falls, and on into Eau Claire which would then connect with the previously posted Chippewa River State Trail, and the Red Cedar State Trail, bringing cyclists from Cornell to Menomonie. I am looking forward to that. The confusing part is: there already IS a trail continuing  beyond the official end of the Old Abe at Anson Station, this wavy bridge being part of it. I did not realize that Anson Station was the "end" and so I went on, thinking that I could easily get into downtown Chippewa Falls. There should be a sign saying The End of The Old Abe State Trail, Starting A City Trail Into Chippewa Falls. One That Doesn't Go All The Way Into The City, So You Can Be Confused. Dear Readers: I did get there. But only because I was somewhat familiar with Chippewa Falls. If you were from somewhere else, good luck. This is a problem with many state bike trails. The end of the trail is not marked well. There should be a Big TA DA! Congratulations! You made it! Now turn around and go back.
To get to downtown Chippewa Falls, continue on the trail. It will look just like the trail you have been on for 18 miles, which makes you think that you are still on the Old Abe State Trail. As the above photo shows, Chippewa Falls is closer.
After crossing Highway S a couple of times, and biking alongside it, you will leave S behind, following County I and come to a new suburban development, and this is where it could become it was to me. 
This is the new development. It is alongside a recreational area that has a nice bike path going through it, I know because I mistakenly went there. It is pretty, and you can go on it, but you won't get into downtown Chippewa Falls if you do. So, at the intersection of County I and Seymore Cray Sr. Blvd. cross County I to the right, going west. There are traffic lights, and a pedestrian right of way button. Use it.
County I turns to the right here also, so you are still following it, and you are still on a bike path. This street (County I) is also called First Avenue. Go for a couple of blocks and turn left off First Avenue, going south, onto Scheidler Road. This will be street biking, you have left the trail, but not much traffic at all, and there is a "bike lane" albeit rather narrow.  St. Joseph's Hospital (to the right) is a landmark. Follow Scheidler Road going down a fairly steep hill through an area of apartments and industry/warehouses. Curving to the right, merge into Pumphouse Road. Pass Timber Terrace Golf Course. Pumphouse Road will curve a few times, and then a railroad crossing approaches. Look for a bike path here, by a trestle bridge that is in use by trains. Cross (left) Pumphouse Road onto the path which follows the Chippewa River. This path into downtown Chippewa Falls is scenic, but short.
Pick up the trail here from Pumphouse Road. Note the bike route signs.
The city river path ends at the sidewalk. The Highway124 bridge over the Chippewa River is to your left. To downtown Chippewa Falls, turn right onto the sidewalk. From here, just continue straight ahead to downtown. But for a treat, follow these directions!

Pay attention to the brown Heritage sign. You HAVE heard of Leinenkugel beer, right? Follow that sign. Curve to the right. Follow the bike route signs. Turning onto this little street and that, along scenic Duncan Creek, a short city bike path through a quirky neighborhood and then to the Mecca of............................
LA LA LA (Heavenly choir singing.) The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Take the tour. You know you want to. Besides, if you do, you get to go HERE (photo below) and get free samples. It also is an excellent place to leave your car, or call someone to pick you up, which after those samples might be the better idea.
The tasting house is by a local swimmin' hole in Duncan Creek. Another idea is to go to Bridge Street (the main street downtown) and check out good eats at Lucy's Delicatessen and Duncan Creek Wine Bar. Explore other businesses in downtown Chippewa Falls, it is charming.
Wasn't biking into Chippewa Falls a good idea? Eh? Pretty bridges over Duncan Creek, good food, beer samples............almost makes you forget your sore butt.
Trail head location: Park Road off Highway 64 (Bridge Street) in Cornell, WI. 
Length: 18.1 miles to Anson Station. About 5 miles (?) to downtown Chippewa Falls.
Usage: (Summer) Walking, biking, inline skating nonmotorized. (Winter) Cross-country skiing (ungroomed), snowshoeing, snowmobiling. Parallel trail from Jim Falls to County Hwy. O for horseback riding.
Surface: Asphalt. 
Highway crossings: Yes, some main highway crossings as well as back roads. Beware. When closer to Chippewa Falls, major highway crossings using a pedestrian right of way.
Scenic: Yes, especially the portion from Jim Falls to Cornell which hugs the Chippewa River. From Jim Falls to Chippewa Falls, open farm land. From Anson Station to Chippewa Falls: farm land, suburban streets and industrial areas.
Signage: Yes, but could be better, especially marking the actual end of the trail: confusing.
Regional trail system: Chippewa Valley Trail System: Chippewa River Trail, Red Cedar Trail, Old Abe Trail. The Chippewa River Trail will be connected to the Old Abe Trail in the future making it possible to bike from Cornell, WI to Menomonie or Durand.
Rest stops: Brunet Island State Park, city of Cornell, (1.2 miles) village of Jim Falls, (12 miles) city of Chippewa Falls (about 23 miles), No facilities at Anson Station parking area ("end" of trail-18.1 miles).

Those are the facts, Jack. I enjoyed the top half (Jim Falls to Cornell) the best. The mystery of getting into Chippewa Falls was a challenge, but it worked out. I enjoy the Chippewa Falls downtown and recommend it.
Mantra: Keep on pedaling and no bears.