Elroy Sparta Bike Trail
Less than five hours from the Des Moines awaits America's first rail-to-trail and the coolest one I've biked. The Elroy Sparta Trail, located in Southwest Wisconsin is 32 miles in length. There are 3 fantastic train tunnels and 4 towns along the way.
My ride was during a family vacation to the Driftless area. We chose to bring our own bikes along. However, bikes can be rented at Speed's Bike Shop in Sparta if you'd prefer not to worry about hauling your own or if spontaneity calls while visiting the area. Shuttle services are also available if you'd like to see the entire trail in one ride but don't have the time or desire to pedal 60+ miles.
We elected to ride two portions of trail on separate visits. The first with Sparta as our trailhead. The second using the park in Norwalk as our starting point. The preserved train depot has plenty of parking, restrooms, water for filling up bottles, and a small gift shop. Here you can purchase the required trail permit. It's $5 for the day. Annual passes are $25. Both can be applied to any Wisconsin State Trail. Trail passes can be purchased at many businesses along the trail.
The Elroy-Sparta Trail is not paved, but the limestone rides very smooth. We chose to ride mountain bikes, but with the fantastic trail conditions, any type of bike would do. Minimal (<3%) grades approaching each of the tunnels are very manageable and provide easy pedaling on the other side.
Take a flashlight for trekking through the tunnels. Sure, a bike light could manage okay, but we appreciated the wider (and brighter) beam flashlights provided. Especially for the 3/4 mile long Norwalk tunnel. Cyclists are asked to walk their bikes through the tunnels, and for good reason. The trail surface can be a bit tricky as it's narrow with bumps, ruts, and puddles. If you're scared of the dark (and it gets REALLY dark!!) or bats, just do what I did. Focus on the rear wheel of the bike in front of you and enjoy the cool temperatures and sprinkling of water from overhead.
The scenery along the trail is a refreshing change from Iowa's farm fields. There's sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, views of rolling hills and dairy farms. This would be a fantastic trail for enjoying fall colors.
Riding the Elroy-Sparta is an opportunity to learn about the railway days. The life of a tunnel watchman sounded solitary and stressful. Their job was to open and close the gigantic tunnel doors during the winter months to keep the snow out. With up to 50 trains a day they likely ended up being outside their shack more than inside.
Don't ride the trail without stopping at Lisa T's in Norwalk!!!!!!!! Hands-down....best I've ever devoured....I'm still dreaming about it...chocolate shake was enjoyed there at the end of our ride.