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.

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