Thirty-three miles long, this was the first official rail-to-trail when it was opened in 1965, and probably was one of the most expensive of the trails because of the three tunnels we went through. Martha’s trail book stated that the Island Prairie Trail in Chicago was the first conceived trail from an abandoned railroad line, but the Elroy-Sparta Trail opened first. Our shuttler, David, from Speed Bikes in Sparta, also told us that he had heard that the trail was first named the Sparta-Elroy Trail, but politicians changed the name somewhere along the line. The little towns it went through—Elroy, Wilton, Kendall, Norwood, and Sparta—were all small Midwestern towns that seemed to take pride in the trail and kept it groomed well, with resting benches along the way and restroom and water facilities in each town. We ate lunch at the one and only place we saw along the trail, but it was at a good picnic area near the Village Park in Norwood.
Mostly it was wooded or dairy farm or cornfield scenery, but it was pretty, with all the green and the multitude of wild flowers next to the trail, and the weather was just warm enough to enjoy the alternating sunshine and cool shade of the canopy of trees in the wooded parts. The trail was hard-packed dirt and crushed limestone, so it was a good surface for either hybrid or skinny tire bikes. The tunnels added variety to the trip, in addition to a little excitement of getting out our head lamps and turning on our bike lights so that we could see, as they were all long enough to reinforce that we were really in a tunnel under a mountain (or rolling hill, as probably was the case). Although we were supposed to dismount the bikes and walk through all of them, Martha and I rode our bikes slowly but steadily through most of the first one because it was paved, and we could see the light at the end. We walked all the way through the second one because the surface was rather rough and uneven, and we didn’t want to ride into the little “creeks” on both sides of the trail. The third one was definitely the longest and the most interesting. We walked through almost all of this trail, except when we got near the end and could see the light and the surface well enough to ride. This one was quite wet, with water seeping through the top and dripping at times pretty heavily down onto us. The walls also had the look of being in a cave, although without the stalactites or stalagmites—mainly the colorations and textures of the tunnel walls. The surface of the trail was pretty wet, with some puddles to avoid stepping into. These tunnels are definitely one of the unique features of the trail and add to our enjoyment of riding it.
At times along the trail, I felt that we could have been on the Katy Trail in Minnesota, the Long Leaf Trace in Mississippi, or the Prairie trail in Kansas. This is because much of the scenery so resembled these trails, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty. It just reinforces the reality that there are some pretty places in America. What helped make this a memorable trail was the good weather, the well-kept trail, the tunnels, the cornfields and pasture cows, the friendly people we met along the way, the many bunny rabbits we saw scurrying across the trail ahead of us, and the historical significance of the trail.
At the end of the trail, about three blocks into the town of Sparta (which has the slogan “the bicycle capital of America”) was a statue of a man riding one of the old-timey big wheel/tiny wheel bike. That was interesting, and then we got us an ice cream cone at the local dairy/hamburger place in town. Following this, and having ridden 35 miles with the little side trips, we got back into the shuttle with David, who drove us back to Tomah and along the way stopped for us to take pictures of the “parade” of wooden cows along Superior Street, the main drag through town. When we asked him if he would drop us off at the Humbird Cheese Store, he agreed. The plan was to buy some cheese and then a Subway sandwich nearby and then ride back to the train station. Because of heavy traffic on the road leading to the cheese store, David offered to wait while we were there and then drop us off at the Subway on the other side of the bridge. We are definitely glad he did! The cloudburst started about the time we left the cheese store, and we would have been riding for 15 or 20 minutes in a hard rain and then been soaking wet on this long Amtrak ride to Staples, Minnesota. Fortunately, we were again blessed with this timing, and David took us back to the Amtrak station nice and dry. Now we are on the train riding along the Mississippi River, watching the sun set on the river, and loving every minute of our train ride.