Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Biking in Vikingland 6: The Elroy-Sparta Trail
We live across the street from, and use almost every day, the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, an early and famous railtrail. But even the illustrious Burke-Gilman is no match in fame to the Elroy-Sparta, nor as interesting thanks to its three long tunnels.
Wisconsin bought up an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern RR corridor in the late '60s to turn it into a hiking trail, then cycling activists convinced the state that it would make a terrific bike trail. It was already a few years old and wildly popular when Jeff rode it in 1971 as part of his bike trip from Astoria OR to Boston. Louise biked coast-to-coast and rode the Elroy-Sparta and its extensions in 1994, and we both rode the full 101 miles it now extends to (bureaucratically, under four different trail names) in 2003 on our tandem. We were very excited to be back, and our hopes were not disappointed.
First we had to say goodbye to Minnesota with one last ride on the Root River Trail, which ended in Houston MN at a wildlife education center. A broken wing has ended Alice's life in the wild but turned her into quite the star there. A few miles beyond and we were crossing over the Mississippi River, much more impressive than the small stream it was when we last crossed it in northern Minnesota.
Unlike Minnesota, where all the trails we rode were asphalt paved, the trails in Wisconsin are generally packed limestone. It's actually a mix of clay and limestone, and it is remarkably smooth and easy to ride. It looks as if it should be tricky on skinny tires (ours are 26" x 1.25"), like riding on gravel, but we kept the rubber side down while riding about 200 miles on packed limestone, without any close calls. Without the sharp contrast of black asphalt, the trail corridor does look somewhat more like an organic earth-toned whole, we must admit.
Our first day took us 2 miles from our motel in La Crosse to the trail, then 42 miles on the trail to Wilton. We had lunch by the rail depot in Sparta, where the La Crosse River Trail becomes the Elroy-Sparta. The town labels itself the "Bicycling Capital of America," and from the numbers of cyclists we saw from there to Elroy, it's a name they seem to have earned.
This part of Wisconsin is called the "drift less area," an area that the four major Ice Age glaciers missed. As a result, it is much hillier than the rest of the midwest, other than smaller parts of the driftless area in nearby Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. In terrain like this, you really appreciate a rail trail! The Elroy-Sparta is not level, however. It did have portions of what felt like a 1 to 2% grade, enough to slow us on the climb and speed us up on the descents, neither to a serious degree.
Travelling eastward, you come to Tunnel No. 3 first, and it's The Big One: 3800', almost 3/4 of a mile. That's a bike headlight in the tunnel in the first shot. Even after adjusting our eyes to the dark, we couldn't see that elusive "light at the end of the tunnel" until we were halfway through!
And was it ever dark!!! We had a small LED light on the front of the bike that was barely adequate for avoiding banging into the walls of the tunnel even while walking, so Louise walked alongside the bike with a compact flashlight carried the whole trip primarily for this moment, and it did indeed provide adequate illumination. Jeff and his friends in 1971 had no lights and tried riding when they started to see the end, with disasterous results. When he wrote home that summer, he commented on how similar that was to Lyndon Johnson's recent experience with Viet Nam, where the president kept talking about seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel" in that war. We didn't even try riding this time.
Before reaching our destination, we came upon Tunnel No. 2, only 1700' long and dry, unlike No. 3 which dripped steadily for a good part of its length. It was also lined with stone or brick its whole length, almost civilized compared to the rough-hewn rock of Tunnel No. 3, though each were equally cool inside, high 50's even though the air outside the tunnel was in the low 70s. Although you could see straight through No. 2 (click on the photo to blow it up and see for yourself), we obeyed the signs and walked through once again.
The next day we stopped at the old depot in Kendall, which was lined inside with old photos of the line that helped us visualize what it was like in the old days,
including some days that weren't exactly "the good ole' days" for the railroad. It was also now mid-September, and fall colors were starting to make an occasional appearance.
On the way to Kendall we went through our third tunnel, named of course Tunnel No. 1, rough-cut but dry and cool. As interesting as the tunnels were, they were also somewhat claustrophobic, and we were happy to be back in nature once again.
Our 80 miles on this trail series ended with 22 flat miles on what is called the 400 Trail, commemorating the C&NWRR train called the "400" because it aimed, and sometimes succeeded, in covering the roughly 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes, stops included.
It was easy to see how the train covered some of these flat stretches at up to 100 mph. As we rolled at somewhat slower speeds under a canopy of trees, we crossed and recrossed the meandering Baraboo River countless times, sometimes with a grassy horse trail alongside us. It was a verdant end to a magical ride, once again, on the great Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail. We'll next turn south for about 50 miles by road to Dodgeville, then take more railtrails almost the entire way to Milwaukee. We'll tell you all about that in our next post.