Wisconsin’s Fat Tire Trails
Last Updated: 9/9/2013
With its cooler temperatures, bug-free air and uncrowded conditions, springtime can be a great season for off-road biking. Remember that wet trails will be closed, so call ahead to ensure the trail you’re considering is open before you go. Here are a few of the top destinations for spring MTB action.
Every year, off-road cyclists from across the country make a late summer pilgrimage to the Cable area for the annual Fat Tire Festival competition. However, this region is a mountain bike Mecca all season long, thanks to the extensive Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association's CAMBA Trail System. Featuring 28 trails and more than 300 miles of riding (much of it in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest), the CAMBA system is one of the top mountain bike trail systems in the country.
The deep forest and glacial moraine of Sawyer and Bayfield counties is ideal for mountain biking. While much of the original CAMBA system is friendly for beginners and intermediates, a number of single-track trails have been added recently to give advanced riders even more challenging options. One of the best is Telemark Terrain Park. Snaking through the wooded slopes of Mount Telemark ski hill, this highly technical single track demands real bike-handling skill, with tight turns and narrow passages between trees, plus plenty of rocks, roots and loose surface.
Riders tackling the Ojibwe Trail also need to be skilled, but the terrain here is slightly more forgiving. Riding west from Telemark, riders can warm up on an easy-riding ski trail. The single-track starts out easily too, but after passing a log cabin shelter, things get a bit hairy. You'll switch-back up a steep ridge known as "The Wall" to cross-country skiers. Though the elevation changes rarely exceed 40 or 50 feet, the trail rises and falls constantly as it crosses the wide Kortelopet and Birkebeiner ski racing trails and old logging roads. Alls well that ends well, though -- riders can catch their breath at the cozy North End Cabin, which marks the end of the trail. The Namekagon trail offers cyclists a pleasant break, meandering peacefully through streams, bogs and tamarack forests, with comfortable resorts and restaurants close by.
John Muir Trail System
Southeastern Wisconsin’s connected John Muir and Emma Carlin trails comprise another top regional mountain bike destination. Both are located in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest in Walworth County. The larger of the two, the Muir Trails, offers 27-plus miles of riding on five one-way loops that let riders mix and match distance and difficulty to fit their ability level.
Riders shouldn’t get fooled by the Muir’s short, easy Red Loop or the moderate White Loop -- they’re merely gateways to the serious stuff. On the Blue, Orange and Green loops riders will find steep, gear-grinding uphill sections along with fast, twisting descents and lots of rough surface. All the loops are one-way, which enhances safety and keeps them from seeming crowded despite their large numbers of riders. In addition to great riding, the Muir trails also offer amenities such as water, flush toilets and an indoor shelter. Just south of the trailhead, the La Grange General Store is a perennial gathering place for food, drinks and bike service.
Emma Carlin Trail
Halfway around the Muir Trail’s Green Loop riders can pick up the two-way Connector Trail to the Emma Carlin Trail, five miles to the north. More remote and less used than its sister trail, the Carlin Trail offers three loops, ranging from two to four miles. Make sure to buckle your helmet -- all three have difficult single-track sections and rocky, rooted trail surfaces on the slopes.
Blue Mound State Park
Just west of Madison is Blue Mound State Park. At 1,719 feet, Blue Mound is the highest point in southern Wisconsin and the centerpiece of both a state park and a challenging 10-mile off-road trail system.
If you're in the mood to push yourself, try out the park’s John Minix and Willow Springs trails. Local volunteers and park staff have recently added several miles of twisting single-track trail that take advantage of the park’s radical elevation changes. There is 500-plus feet of elevation to play with here, as well as a quad-burning climb to the top and several sections of extreme single-track. Blue Mound is known for having some of the most challenging trails in southern Wisconsin.
Kickapoo Valley Reserve Trail
For a totally different riding experience, intermediate and advanced cyclists may want to test themselves on the remote, winding Kickapoo Valley Reserve Trail in southwestern Wisconsin. Running nearly 14 miles along the notoriously crooked Kickapoo River, this partially paved one-way trail is considered moderate-to-difficult and has several long, steep climbs.
The trail starts in La Farge with an easy mile-long warm-up north on Soelyburg Road. The fun begins about a mile in, when the off-road section begins at the top of a gigantic earthen levee. From there the trail snakes along, rising and falling on the shoulder of an oak- and pine-forested ridge before descending to the river's edge at the site of an old bridge abutment. Leaving the bottomland, riders tackle one of the trail's major climbs -- a steep, steady 250-foot ascent to the ridge top. After a half-mile roll west along the ridge spine, the trail plunges into a mile-long descent to the flats of Weister Creek Valley. Here you'll junction with Cty. P for a fast one-mile run to the next off-road challenge, a steep 100-foot climb made more difficult by deep eroded gullies. The trail then climbs more gradually before turning south. There you'll enjoy a great valley overview, followed by a descent to a crossing of Indian Creek. From the creek you'll climb a moderate grade through the woods, then roll through fields into Rockton.
North of Rockton comes an on-road section; a short, easier off-road trail; and an uphill on-road climb that takes riders to the start of the Hay Valley section of trail. There you're in for a difficult climb, a drop to a creek crossing and a steep twisting ascent to an overlook on the opposite ridge top before dropping to the northern end of the trail at Hay Valley Road.
Need a break from pedaling? The Kickapoo Valley area features some of the state’s best trout streams and nearby Wildcat Mountain State Park offers camping, hiking and horseback riding. If you’re in the mood for more on-road biking, take off on one of the area’s scenic, twisting back roads. Cycling the hills and ”hollers” of Wisconsin’s driftless area will definitely test your lung capacity. Take care when cresting hilltops, though -- slow-moving Amish horse-and-buggy rigs are common on these roads.
The CAMBA, Muir/Carlin, Blue Mound State Park and Kickapoo Reserve trails are just a few of the mountain biking hotspots in Wisconsin. Other favorites include:
- Timm’s Hill Trail
- Black River State Forest
- Red Cedar State Trail
- Potawatomi State Park
- Peninsula State Park
- Newport State Park
- Devil’s Lake State Park
- Nine Mile Forest