KENDALL — The bridges are rebuilt, the slopes restored and the tunnels are open for the season: Nearly four years after it was shut down by storms, the granddaddy of America’s trails is back.
On Saturday the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will celebrate the reopening of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail after completing some $2.3 million worth of repairs to a 20-mile stretch of the popular route, which runs through Monroe and Juneau counties.
With stunning landscapes and a deep connection to the past — including historic train depots and tunnels — the crushed limestone trail attracts about 60,000 visitors a year to the rugged Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin.
“It’s a popular trail,” said DNR trail superintendent Andrew Haffele.
Connecting state trails to the east and west, Elroy-Sparta is part of an off-road route that stretches more than 100 miles between Reedsburg and the Mississippi River village of Trempealeau.
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Some riders come once or twice a year from Chicago or Milwaukee to ride for a day or two, camping or spending the night in one of the small motels along the way. Others pass through on their way to bigger adventures.
This week, Sandy Loucks brought her fourth-grade class from Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee for their annual bike trip, tackling the 32.5-mile trail over two days.
Loucks said she loves the trail and tunnels and giving her students a firsthand look at the unique terrain they studied in the classroom.
“If we’re going to study Wisconsin geography, we should experience it,” she said. “We study the Driftless. We can create it with, you know, clay, but to actually be biking it is an important thing.”
Lincoln Steward parked his bike — loaded with about 80 pounds of gear — outside the Eagle Eye Bar and Grill in Elroy Wednesday and had a plate of chicken pot pie casserole with chocolate pudding to fuel the rest of his trip from Lodi to West Salem.
It was day 11 on a journey from his home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to Alaska.
“This trail’s really nice,” Steward said. “The gravel’s in good condition, no traffic.”
Visitors like Steward bring much-needed spending to communities along the trail, such as Wilton, Kendall and Norwalk.
“The trail is a lifeline for a lot of these businesses and towns,” said Heidi Prestwood, executive director of the Sparta Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s bringing new life into these small towns.”
Eagle Eye owner Vince Sinkule said the trail is good for business. He even stocks his bar with a couple of India Pale Ales that are popular with cyclists.
“They come in here and eat and have a couple of beers if they’ve got time,” he said. “It’s been very vital to us.”
Nicknamed “the granddaddy” of trails, Elroy-Sparta was the nation’s first rail-to-trail conversion, following the route of the former Chicago and North Western railroad, which served cities like Sparta and Winona, Minnesota, starting in 1873.
After the railroad pulled up the tracks in 1964, the state purchased the right-of-way, including the bridges, stations and three hand-carved tunnels that were required to limit the grade to 3%. It opened to bike traffic in 1966.
But in August 2018, a series of storms dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of Monroe County over the span of just two days, triggering landslides, washing out bridges and culverts, and eating away entire sections of trail.
There were more than two dozen sites that needed repair.
A section of the Kickapoo River was restored with boulders to slow the current and reduce scouring and root balls from downed trees to protect the bank and provide fish habitat.
The DNR also replaced two timber bridges that stood on piers with clear span bridges made of steel and concrete, and raised the surface above the hundred-year floodplain to make the trail more resilient to the increasingly frequent and severe flooding wrought by climate change.
“They call it a hundred-year flood, but we’ve had how many of those in the last decade?” Haffele said. “It seems obvious that, unfortunately, 2018 wasn’t the last time that we’re going to see a big flood like that. This was one of those things we could do to help protect our investment.”
What took so long?
Politics and bureaucracy both slowed the repairs.
Republican lawmakers from the area put $100,000 for trail repairs in the 2019-20 budget, but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the earmark, and the money was eventually spent on Dane County trails.
The repairs turned out to be far more expensive, though, and in 2020 the state Building Commission authorized spending $1.85 million on the Elroy-Sparta and two adjacent trails. But that wasn’t enough to cover the lowest bid, so in October 2020, the commission approved about $450,000 more.
DNR spokesperson Sarah Hoye said Evers’ veto gave the state more flexibility and allowed the agency to leverage an additional $250,000 in federal funds to tackle more repairs throughout 49 state parks, 15 forests and 44 biking trails.
The work was completed late last year, though the three tunnels are closed from Nov. 1 to May 1 to protect the trail from the freeze-thaw cycle and provide bats a place to hibernate.
Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, said he’s happy to see the trail reopen, though he said the repairs took far too long.
“Every day that the trail remained closed was another day that visitors and tourism dollars were not flowing into Juneau and Monroe counties,” Kurtz said.
And while the trail is reopened, the DNR has closed another bridge west of Norwalk because of rotting timbers, resulting in a roughly 2-mile detour on local roads.
Haffele said the extent of the decay wasn’t discovered until an inspection in December. The DNR plans to replace the bridge in the next two years.
Temporary repairs should allow the bridge to reopen by early June, but the detour has frustrated trail boosters like Kurtz who question why the damage wasn’t discovered during the trail closure.
“People ... want to see that trail’s open, period,” he said.