My family and I consider ourselves blessed to live in such a beautiful part of the country with so many outdoor activities to keep us enjoying nature year-round. One of those activities is biking a portion of the 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta (Wisconsin) state bike trail, America’s first rail-to-trail conversion.

We live right in the middle section of this scenic bike trail, which makes it easy to enjoy frequent family bike rides to one of the three rock tunnels that serve as reminders of what once was. I can only imagine the backbreaking work it must have taken in order to lay the original railroad lines and carve out the long rock tunnels.

The First Rail-To-Trail

Considered the first rail-to-trail in the United States, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail remains one of the most popular trails in the country. With three rock tunnels and five small towns along its 32.5-mile route, the trail is a favorite Wisconsin bicycling destination. Traveling between Sparta and Elroy, the trail stretches through the communities of Norwalk, Wilton, and Kendall, passing by wetlands, prairies, farmland, and unglaciated areas.

Elroy-Sparta state trail history

In order to open a direct route between St. Paul and Chicago in 1873, work crews had to chip through solid rock in order to carve out the tunnels through the limestone hills. Using dynamite and hand tools in the 1870s, that painstaking work is especially evident in Tunnel 1, where the rough rock walls look like the belly of a beast, partially blackened by soot from trains that passed through until 1964.

In its prime, the route carried 6 passenger trains and 40–50 freight trains daily. The railroad discontinued passenger service in 1953 and freight in 1964. A state agency bought the right-of-way soon after and began developing the trail.

Image credit: arcgis.com and Monroe County Local History Room and Museum

What to expect on the Elroy-Sparta trail

Dark and wet tunnels

Utter darkness is as much part of the experience of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail as the views of the rolling hills and farmland. That’s because you can expect to pass through three hand-dug railroad tunnels on your 33-mile journey from Sparta to Elroy and there are no lights unless you remember to bring your own flashlight — something we usually forget to do.

Image Credit: Rails To Trails Conservancy

Those tunnels—two at 1,600 feet and the other at 3,800 feet—have long been a big draw for the trail, which opened in 1967. They are unlit, and water drips down the walls and pools at your feet. The temperature in the tunnels is a refreshing 50–60 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature which can make for cool relief on a hot summer day.

There are a few telltale signs you are approaching a tunnel on the Elroy-Sparta state trail. First, the woods around you change into fern and moss-covered cliffs with small streams lining both sides of the trail. The temperature noticeably drops the closer you get to these cave-like tunnels, and the air smells earthy.

Image credit: Wisconsin Explorer

The tunnels are straight, so even though they are long and dark you can usually see the exit on the other end, which grows larger as you get closer.

Image Credit: Rails To Trails Conservancy

Each tunnel has big, wooden double doors on each end. The doors are closed in the winter to keep the tunnels warmer and prevent the freezing and thawing that can destabilize the limestone rock inside.

When trains rumbled through, a watchman was posted at the tunnel to open and close the doors from November through May. One of the shacks they waited in stands near Tunnel 3 and makes for a great spot to stop and enjoy a snack and drink of water.

A hard-packed trail with a slight grade

The trail’s hard-packed crushed-limestone base is comfortable for walking and running in addition to biking. You’ll often find local residents out for an evening stroll or brisk morning run.

Most rail-trails are relatively flat since trains don’t like steep hills. But the Elroy-Sparta Trail is in Wisconsin’s Driftless Region, aka land of many steep hills, which means the trail has steady climbs and descents between its tunnels. The grade is never more than 3%, but it can still feel like a grind when stretched out over a couple of miles, especially if small children are biking or if you are pulling a child in a trailer.

Even with the slight grade, the trail is great for families, with plenty of amenities (bathrooms, water, food) at regular intervals and the tunnels serving as a fun goal to keep kids pedaling. Plus the joy of coasting downhill on the opposite side of the tunnel is worth the slight slog uphill.

Prior to tunnel number three, a few miles after passing through Norwalk, you’ll find a picnic area with bathrooms and a hand pump water fountain (grab a drink and/or refill your water bottles here!).

We love using this spot as a resting place to have a little family picnic. Some days this just means a snack break if we are only doing a short ride, other days it is a great spot for a lunch break on a longer journey.

No matter how far you decide to ride, I recommend packing a backpack with snacks and water to ensure you stay fueled up and hydrated. Our favorite snacks include fresh fruit (apples, bananas, oranges, etc.), fresh veggies (baby carrots, sugar snap peas, etc.) dried fruit and nuts or a trail mix, and some type of granola or snacks bars are always a hit in our house.

Tips for hitting the trail

  • You can find parking, bathrooms, and water at each of the towns along the trail, but it is a good idea to have water bottles and snacks with you, especially on a hot summer day.
  • A minimal state trail pass of $25 annually or $5 daily is required for bikers 16 and older and can be purchased in any of the communities along the trail. Find more info here.
  • Kendall is a good starting point if you want to bike to each of the tunnels, an 18-mile trip from there. If you only have time for one tunnel, start in Norwalk and you can bike the 3 miles to the longest tunnel. It takes us about 1.5 hours to go there and back, including spending some time walking into the tunnel and enjoying the scenery.
  • Bring a strong flashlight and be prepared to walk your bike through each tunnel. The third is especially wet and a rain jacket isn’t a bad idea for a cool day.  
  • Many of the towns have great places to stop and eat, but we especially enjoy Bailey’s Mexican restaurant in Norwalk. They offer homemade Mexican cuisine at very affordable prices.

Need a new bike to hit the trail? Check out the great selection at backcountry, or for more the more casual rider check out the selection at Target.

See you on the trail!