The Elroy-Sparta State Trail: America’s First Rails-to-Trails Project

By Amy Bayer
Staff Writer

In 1965, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail became the first of its kind. Now, there are nearly 2,000 rails-to-trails projects around the country, covering more than 22,000 miles.

Once a section of the Chicago and North Western Railway, steam locomotives hauled grain, livestock and passengers along this route from 1873 to 1964. Since then it has become one of the most popular recreational trails in the country as thousands travel the 32-mile route by biking, hiking and snowmobiling every year.

Three unique rock tunnels are highlights along the trail and offer a refreshing break when pedaling the entire distance. Even on the hottest summer days, these tunnels remain dark and cool. Springs seep through the limestone and trickle down the walls.

Bicyclists are instructed to walk their bikes through the passages, and flashlights or headlamps are strongly encouraged as the longest tunnel is more than 3,800 feet long.

Double doors bookend either side of each tunnel and are reminders of when this was a train route. The doors would seal in warmer temperatures during the cold winter months and help prevent rock falls. From November through April watchmen would stay in a small shack near the tunnel entrances to open and close the doors for train passage.

This spectacular trail links five communities through the unglaciated area of Wisconsin known as the Driftless Region. Home to charming atmospheres and local establishments, the communities of Elroy, Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk and Sparta cater to bicycle enthusiasts and hikers.

But here's another cool aspect of the Elroy-Sparta: This 32-mile stretch links to other state trails, totaling well over 100 miles of biking and hiking! From the Elroy Trailhead is The "400" State Trail (between Reedsburg and Elroy), Hillsboro State Trail (between Hillsboro and Union Center) and the Juneau County Omaha Trail (between Camp Douglas and Elroy), while from the Sparta Trailhead is the La Crosse River State Trail (between Sparta to La Crosse) which connects to the Great River State Trail (between La Crosse to the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge).

Whether you're in it for the long haul or just to explore a small section of the trails, everything from lodging to dining establishments is located along the Elroy-Sparta. Here are some places to check out on your next adventure along the original rails-to-trails bike route in Wisconsin.

Bike Rentals

The Depot is open May through October and rents bike per day. Drivers are available for a fee to ride with you in your vehicle to the area where you wish to begin your bike trip. The driver will return your vehicle to the Kendall Depot.

Located along the Elroy-Sparta Trail halfway between Kendall and Wilton, Tunnel Trail rents mountain bikes, bike trailers and children's bikes by the hour or the day. They are open May through October.

Elroy Commons is a former railroad depot at the hub of three separate bike trails (The Elroy-Sparta State Trail, The 400 State Trail and the Juneau County Omaha Trail). They rent single and tandem bikes and carts by the half-day (four hours) or full day.

Open year-round, Speeds is a family-owned and operated rental shop that has everything from mountain bikes to kiddy trailers, tandems and the latest in recumbent bikes, trikes and tandems.

They also provide parking and shuttle service to the Elroy-Sparta and La Crosse River state trails.

Dining

Offering a large menu of sandwiches and appetizers, the Hidden Inn is known for its great charbroiled steaks and burgers. Breakfast is served Wednesday through Sunday.

Between Norwalk Community Park and the Elroy-Sparta trail, Lesa T's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as ice cream and homemade desserts. The café is open May through October.

This restaurant and bakery offers a wide variety of old-fashioned country cooking and is known for its Friday night fish fry.

Lodging

Located directly off the Elroy-Sparta trail, this charming vacation home has an open front porch and is surrounded by 150-year-old oak trees with a nearby spring-fed pond. 

Both campgrounds have non-reservable sites with self-registration stations available to campers for a small fee. Each one offers campsites with a fire ring and picnic table. Hand pumps and pit toilets are available. All sites are walk-in tent campsites with no vehicle access. Parking for the Elroy Campground is available along State Highway 71, one mile north of Elroy. An underpass allows campers to walk under the highway and up a 100-yard asphalt road to the campground.

The perfect destination for rest and relaxation, this recently restored Victorian home is located in Elroy just four blocks away from the Elroy Commons bike trail office.

In addition to tent camping and RV hookups, Tunnel Trail also offers cabins, a heated pool, mini golf, laundry, bike rentals and an on-site grocery.

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