Joyce conked out asleep by 10:30, and I was lucky if I got 4-5 hours of sleep (too excited, I guess). This morning, we ate a hot breakfast at the Cranberry Country Lodge (Wisconsin claims to be the #1 producer of cranberries) and then carried our gear and bikes downstairs to meet David, our bike shuttle driver from Speed’s Bike Shop in Sparta. He loaded our bikes on his racks and placed our panniers in the van. Joyce and I had a brainstom last night; we realized that might be able to leave our panniers in the van during the day while we biked the Elroy-Sparta. David said that would be fine so our load would be a lot lighter than originally planned 🙂 .
David filled us in on history of the Elroy-Sparta Trail and the surrounding towns on our drive from Tomah to the eastern trailhead in Elroy. After David took our pictures, we mounted our Garmin GPS devices and GoPro camera, filled up our water bottles, purchased trail passes in the Elroy Trail Shop, and started biking about 9:40 AM (20 minutes ahead of our schedule 🙂 .
The first six miles from Elroy to Kendell paralleled Hwy 71, passing through wetlands on both sides of the trail. We noticed several varieties of wildflowers, including yellow coreopsis, white daisies, purple lilies, etc. Our shuttle driver pointed out a few brown sandhill cranes in this area during our drive from Tomah, and we kept our eyes peeled while biking through this section in search of a close-up view of the cranes. We each spotted a pair of these majestic birds at a distance from the trail. We also saw red-tipped blackbirds, countless larks, and a few predominantly yellow birds which we could not identify, perhaps they were cedar waxwings. However, our most frequent animal spotting was that of brown rabbits scampering across the trail.
As we entered the township of Kendell, we noticed an Amish buggy hitched adjacent to a grocery store near the trail. We stopped at the train museum and browsed the displays and pictures describing the early days of the railroad in this region.
Leaving Kendell, we quickly noticed that we were pedaling uphill. For the next three miles, the trail ascended at a 3% grade leading to Tunnel #1. As we approached the tunnel, we turned on our headlights and head lamps in preparation for the dark ride through the pass. After getting our bearings, we decided to ride at a slow speed. I encountered a foggy patch about halfway through the tunnel, which forced me to dismount and push my bike. The fog reflected the light from my headlamp back into my face, making it difficult to see. After scooting along for several feet, I decided to turn off my headlamp and to rely solely on the headlight mounted on my bike. This was an effective strategy, and I was able to ride the remainder of the distance through to the other side of the tunnel.
The most striking feature of the tunnels on the Elroy-Sparta Trail are the magnificent wood doors on either end. During winter months, train watchman had to open and close these doors 50 times per day for approaching trains. Closing the doors maintained a warmer temperature inside the tunnels, which prevented ice from accumulating near the entrances. Over time, ice erodes the structure of the tunnel, requiring concrete reinforcements to prevent a structural collapse. While waiting for approaching trains, watchmen stayed in small shacks to stay warm and to communicate (via telegraph) with other watchmen along the line.
Leaving Tunnel #1, we felt the trail descend steadily as we pedaled six miles downhill to Wilton. If you blinked, you missed this small farming town! After Wilton, the trail climbed again for two miles leading to Tunnel #2. The entrance to this tunnel had concrete reinforcements, which made its appearance less appealing than Tunnel #1. Since this tunnel was narrower and the surface was bumpy, we decided to push our bikes for most of the 1/3 mile. On the other side, we swiftly descended the next five miles down to Norwalk where we planned to eat lunch at Lesa T’s Creekside Café. The small walk-up restaurant specialized in hot dogs. I chose the Wisconsin style dog, which was an all-beef hot dog, bacon, onions, baked apples (REALLY!), and shredded cheese. It should have been named heart attack dog, but I decided that I would burn far more calories today than I could consume so why not try something decadent? The hot dog was delicious, and I would recommend this trailside café to anyone riding on the Elroy-Sparta!
After a filling lunch, we biked about three miles uphill to Tunnel #3, the longest tunnel on the trail, spanning ¾ mile and known for the dripping water from the stone ceiling. We decided to put on our rain gear as we entered the tunnel; without our jackets, we would have gotten soaked. Due to the number of other bikers in the tunnel, we pushed our bikes instead of riding.
The remaining 7-8 miles into Sparta went by quickly as we passed in and out of canopied forests with brief glimpses of dairy farms and beautiful silos in the distance. The rolling hills in this portion of Wisconsin are an indication that this area was unglaciated unlike the surrounding flatlands.
We located Speed’s Bike Shop on the outskirts of Sparta and decided to let them know that we finished the trail but planned to bike into town to get some ice cream and to see Ben Bikin’, touted to be the World’s Largest Bicycle standing at 40 feet. Rose, at Speed’s gave us directions to the park where Ben Bikin’ is located, and we pedaled over to see this Gay Nineties cyclist perched on an old high wheel bicycle! Then, we biked across the highway to Rudy’s (similar to an A&W drive-in) for an ice cream cone.
Arriving back at Speed’s about 4:00, we were greeted by David, our morning shuttle driver who informed us that he would be taking us back to Tomah. We were thrilled because we knew that David would take us to see the painted cows, which were on display at a downtown park as part of a contest related to their annual fair and tractor pull. There were about 25 creatively-painted cows lining the highway, and I joked that perhaps these cows were responsible for producing the Wisconsin cheese since we really didn’t see very many live cows on the trail. Speaking of cheese, David also agreed to drive us over to the Humbird outlet where we purchased a small sample of cheese to snack on later. We planned to ship some cheese home, but they recommended that we wait until the fall when shipping is not so expensive. While we were in Humbird’s, a thunderstorm came through the area, and it was still raining pretty hard when we returned to the van. We were thankful that David was willing to drive us directly to the Amtrak station 🙂 .
The train was about 10 minutes late pulling into Tomah, but it was not nearly as full as the previous day. We had no trouble stowing our bikes in the lower coach and finding our assigned seats upstairs. We decided to grab dinner in the lounge car café, and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride along the Mississippi River. Our train ride followed the river for a couple of hours before turning west to Minneapolis, allowing us to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets that I have ever see.
We got a couple of hours sleep on the train before arriving in Staples. Detraining at almost 2 AM, we mounted our panniers on our bikes and pedaled about .3 mile over to the Super 8 where we crashed for the night!