Playing in the Dirt and Tending to Rock Gardens

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Warm Up

Wisconsin is known for walleye fishing, the Packers, cranberries and dairy farming.  But mountain biking? Now more than ever, mountain bikers are becoming stewards of our state’s natural resources and active advocates for trail building, trail maintenance and education. It is clear as you travel around this great State, that mountain biking is part of nearly every community you visit.  

Modern mountain biking is an aggressive activity that has people of all ages getting off their duffs and into the woods of Wisconsin. This intense sport includes racing and training, but also encompasses experiences like wide open trail riding and more technical riding in venues such as rock gardens, teeter-totter-like obstacles and many more. Like other sports, mountain bikers take the natural beauty of the wilderness, and with great care and consideration, make it into something of their own, with man-made obstacles and human-cut trails.

In this article, we will tour the state and highlight some of its trails with two mountain biking enthusiasts, Gary and Mark Barden, co-owners of Fat Tire Guides. “After riding a great trail, you need to tell others. When talking about certain trails, we found many people had never heard of them. We needed to get the word out,” said Mark.  From there, Fat Tire Guides was created, providing online content such as descriptions, videos, and GPS data of mountain bike trails around the State. It is evident from their enthusiasm in their trail descriptions, Gary and Mark are ambassadors not only for their sport, but also for the state they love. Below is a sampling of the many trails you can find at This sampling shows the diversity of trail systems throughout the state and their testament to all of the hard work that goes into building and maintaining them. Some of these trails you may have already ridden, some you may never have heard of, but if you truly enjoy mountain biking, all should be explored.

The Ride

Human Powered Trails - La Crosse

Human Powered Trails, commonly referred to as HPT, located in La Crosse, just off Bliss Road. The non-profit organization that built HPT, Human Powered Trails Incorporated, has a simple and noble goal: create sustainable and environmentally correct ‘human powered’ shared trails for the La Crosse area. Through thousands of volunteer hours spent planning and building the trail, the goal was met. This amazing achievement is acknowledged by the ravings of Fat Tire Guides. As Gary put it, “Upon our arrival, we were met by a volunteer (Bob), who rode with us the entire day while showing us the trails. As an example of his dedication and pride of his work, he would clear off the trail as we rode -- even the littlest things. It was like we were guests in his home and he was picking up the stray Rice Crispies off his kitchen was great.”

HPT is an extensive trail system, with areas marked clearly for beginners, intermediate, and advanced riders. The trail system’s view of the countryside alone makes it well worth it. A skill development area enables riders to hone their skills on things like a rock garden, log pile, or even teeter-totters. For beginner and less technical riders, the Prairie Loop and La Crosse Ridge Loop provide gentle grades and wide open trails. Intermediate riders will enjoy the blue trails, which are fast, singletrack trails winding through the upper portion of the trail system. With log obstacles, bridges, and other man-made challenges complimenting the natural ones, the Imberm Trail is an intermediate favorite. The advanced trails are marked as the black trails and have been described by Mark as “unrelenting.” Switchbacks, logs, log piles, rock gardens, roots, and off camber sections are paired with constant climbing on the black trails. Looking for a thigh burner? Be sure to ride the advanced trail named Bob. Bob’s slow and winding ascent, which never seems to end, is sure to deliver the pain you’re looking for.

John Muir - Whitewater

John Muir is located in the Southern Kettle Moraine Forest, just eight miles east of Whitewater, near County Highway H. With excellent facilities on-site, including a paved parking lot, pit toilets, a bike wash, and the ever-important drinking fountains, it is no surprise Mark and Gary find this to be one of the most popular trails they ride. As Gary put it, “When you go to some trail systems, the parking lot might have a few cars there.  John Muir’s parking lot is almost always full.”

John Muir is a trail system built in conjunction with the Emma Carlin system, making it even bigger. Hikers use these trails as well, so riders are cautioned to be aware of their two-footed compatriots in nature. John Muir has five loops, ranging in length from one and one-half miles to ten miles.  All the loops come out of the Red Loop, which is a short loop used by many bikers to warm up.  John Muir trails, like most of the trails in the Kettles, are coded by color and provide clearly marked signs and maps, making it easy for you to get where you want to go. Mark commented how John Muir is an example of a trail system continuing to improve. “The trails are well maintained through constant rework and in the past few years, there has been a focus on trail development that will appeal to technical riders.”    

Fat Tire Guides finds the technical South Bypass trail a highlight at John Muir. It is a shortcut to the Connector trail, but both Gary and Mark agree, this trail has the greatest assortment of technical challenges within the John Muir trail system. “It makes you smile to ride it,” said Gary.  Another highlight of the John Muir trail system worth noting is the La Grange General Store, cleverly named after the town of La Grange, where it’s located. Both Gary and Mark agree that a visit to the La Grange General Store is a must after riding. Top off a great ride with a sandwich, kettle chips, a drink and never ending biking (similar to fish) stories.  “It is actually an extreme disappointment if we don’t get there,” said Mark.

Nine-Mile State Forest - Wausau

Located just southwest of Rib Mountain in Wausau, the Nine Mile State Forest provides a fantastic backdrop to numerous mountain biking trails. Looking to turn your biking into a mini-vacation? Nine Mile has onsite campsites, which are easily accessible to the trails, with water and pit toilets available. You might never want to leave!

Although the trails at Nine Mile are numbered, taking a GPS unit with you is a good idea, as it’s easy to get turned around.  Fat Tire Guides suggest starting with Trail 4.  Like your favorite theme park ride, Trail 4 flows effortlessly through the pines, shooting you out at the end with a perma-smirk on your face. Advanced riders will enjoy Trail 11 (Ho-Chi-Min), a highly technical, hard-to-navigate trail that starts in a gnarly rock garden and continues throwing them at you every 50 to 100 yards. Use caution if you are traveling north on Trail 11, as you will encounter a fast and rock strewn decent -- some of the best technical riding Nine Mile has to offer.

Nine Mile is one of a few trail systems which has something for everyone; including trails for those true beginners, as well as trails for the technical riders who want a challenge. The singletrack woven throughout this trail system doesn’t necessarily flow, but it does provide a wide variety of technical trails to choose from. The ski trails running through the forest provide some easy, as well as wide-open, extremely fast sections. The multitude of singletrack, combined with the ski trails, enables riders to create the mountain biking experience they desire.

Don’t forget the after-ride gathering in the parking lot with the locals. Bring a grill, have some brats and a beer, and share those riding stories. It can be an attraction all its own.

Lowes Creek - Eau Claire

Lowes Creek County Park is a 250-acre park located just a couple miles south of Eau Claire off S. Lowes Creek Road. This is another park with a tremendous amount of volunteers. “Every time we go there, someone is maintaining the trails,” said Gary.

A new section, “The Onion”, was a particular thrill for the guys at Fat Tire Guides, as they were there just after it was completed. “The worker finished it and then let us have at it,” said Gary. “It’s always amazing to see the volunteer effort and time that goes into creating and building new trails...kudos!” The trails are designed and maintained by the Chippewa Off Road Bike Association and their pride in the trails is evident. Lowes Creek might not be the most technical trail system, but the trails flow so naturally that you can really build up some speed. One of the more memorable trails is named “Skull.” It is known for its very fast descents and some extremely technical climbs. “It also has a really sweet creek crossing,” said Gary.

At three dollars for a daily trail pass, this is one of the cheapest mountain biking experiences you’ll find in Wisconsin. Do yourself and the hard working volunteers a favor -- pony up the dough and enjoy all that Lowes Creek has to offer.

Blue Mounds - Madison

The Blue Mounds trail system, west of Madison, is famous for its rocks. If you like rocks, rock gardens, rock bridges, or just plain, big ole’ rocks, then you’ll love Blue Mounds. A unique feature of this trail is the mini bailouts (alternate routes around obstacles), used to give riders an option while not impeding the flow of the ride.   Other technical challenges are waiting in the wings as you move into Cherps Dip.  Look out for the climbs in Dr. Evils Garden, as well as Crux Climb. Each of these is challenging when dry, but is even more challenging when wet due to reduced traction.  “Gary’s a great rider, but I’ve never seen him fall as much as he did at Blue Mounds last spring,” Mark said. “I would have felt sorry for him if it wasn’t so funny!”

The longest section of Blue Mounds is a trail called “Holy Schist.” There are some chances to bail out before you get there, but you’re cheating yourself if you don’t ride this trail. It is one of the most technical and fun trails in the state of Wisconsin.  The first part is very fast, allowing you to build good speed, but the inevitable climb will slow you down quickly. Rock crossings and gardens are abundant, making this trail a challenge. The trails finish off with amazing views of the forest, reminding us of the beautiful scenery Wisconsin has to offer. Gary and Mark from Fat Tire Guides will tell you that any punishment and abuse incurred while riding this trail is worth it.

Like Nine Mile, Blue Mounds State Park also has onsite campsites, which are easily accessible to the trails, creating another fantastic mountain biking vacation destination.

Winter Park - Kewaunee

Winter Park is located north of Kewaunee, just south of Sturgeon Bay. The location is perfect for a quick biking excursion for vacationers on their way to Door County.  

At first, Winter Park looks intimidating. The parking lot sits at the bottom of a ski hill, which means that the only way to get into the trails is to climb. But both Mark and Gary point to some magic power at the park, as somehow the climb did not affect their lungs, legs or mind. We think it might have affected their minds, but we are willing to accept their version.

The flow of the Winter Park system is amazing. The twists and turns buffer the effects of the giant technical climbs, and manage to help you maintain your momentum. The first quarter mile of this trail gets your legs burning, but the trail gives you speed through the winding decent, shooting you into a grove of trees that Gary described as something out of the Hobbit -- lush, dark and cool.  

Fat Tire Guides recommends you tread lightly over the bridges you encounter in the park; although they are rideable, they are showing their age. Also, be aware of the sections of the trails that have been closed down, as fines are being enforced. So in the name of stewardship, please honor those closed trail signs.

If you’re planning on riding for the day, but need a breather after your third lap, check out the Frisbee golf course. It’s intermingled within the trail system, making for a very challenging game. If you’re not especially good at Frisbee golf, you can expect to be chasing after your Frisbee up and down those same hills you’ve just ridden…might defeat the purpose of taking a break.

Cool Down

Beginners through advanced riders have a plethora of well maintained trail systems to explore in the great state of Wisconsin. A wide variety of trails can be found here, from old to new, easy to difficult, slow rolling to fast and technical, highly populated to isolated backwoods trails, trails with training areas, camp sites and frisbee golf courses (if that’s your thing). These trails have all of this, along with the natural beauty of Wisconsin’s lakes, rolling hills and abundant wildlife. So get out and play in the dirt and enjoy Wisconsin’s mountain bike trails.  As you do, remember the hard work organizations and their volunteers put into creating the trails and tending to those rock gardens.

This entry was posted in Mountain Biking