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Another Bikepacking trip is in the books! Last year, I had the privilege of leading a Women’s beginner Bikepacking trip on the Root River Trail through Thrive Women’s Outdoor Adventures. We had THE BEST TIME!

We ‘got the band back together’ for another “Rails to Trails” adventure last weekend in Wisconsin and plan to make it an annual event!

Three days of friendship, gravel trails, good local food…and a long walk through THREE really cool old railroad tunnels! I hope our trip report inspires you to get out there and try something fun and new!



LENGTH 32 miles of crushed limestone trails – 70+ miles out and back with side trips.
DIFFICULTY easy with long, slow grades
DATE VISITED July 14-16, 2023
MAIN FEATURES The Elroy – Sparta State Trail is a gravel multi-use trail in rural Wisconsin between the towns of Elroy and Sparta. It is primarily used for biking, hiking, equestrian and snowmobiling. The trail is on the former Chicago-Northwestern Railroad bed and is considered the first “Rails Trail” in the United States. This was the start of the Rails to Trails initiative that has now expanded to 25,000 miles of railroads converted to trails nationwide.

The scenic trail winds through 5 small towns, dairy farms, forests, fields of wildflowers and over several bridges, making for a scenic excursion however you explore it. Since the trail was a former railway, most of the trail is flat and the hills are gradual and smooth. Historic train depots, local food, camping, indoor accomodations and plenty of scenic stops make this a great trail for all types of riders.

The trail intersects with five towns along the way making it easy to choose your distance. Distance between stops – mileage approximate, map reference:

  • 0 miles -Elroy, WI
  • 6 miles – Kendall, WI
  • 3 miles – Tunnel #1
  • 6 miles – Wilton, WI
  • 2 miles – Tunnel #2
  • 4 miles – Norwalk, WI
  • 3 miles – Tunnel #3
  • 8 miles – Sparta, WI

History of the Trail

The original railway was constructed from Madison, Wisconsin to Winona, Minnesota, between 1870-1873. The tunnel project’s construction cost over $5.8 million dollars – in 2023 dollars, that might look like $135,086,427 (according to this very unofficial inflation calculator I found online)

In 1911 a new railway was constructed that avoided the steep grades through Elroy and Sparta and the original route was no longer used by the rail system in 1964. The Wisconsin DNR purchased the property to $12,000, resurfaced the trail in 1970 and became part of the National Trails System in 1971. You can read more about the history of this beautiful trail here and here.

Driftless Area

Like our route last year along the Root River, this area is known as the Driftless Area or Unglaciated Region. It is a large region in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa that was essentially skipped over during the ice age, lacking the glacial deposits that formed the characteristic topography and landscape in the rest of the region. What makes this area unique are the relatively steep peaks and valleys. You will also find fewer or a complete absence of lakes in this region. The pointed hills or “mini mountains” give a beautiful contrast and backdrop to the wide open farm fields and river beds. You can learn more about the Driftless Region here.

Know Before You Go

  • The Elroy-Sparta Trail requires a daily trail pass which can be purchased in each of the towns along the trail. We bought ours at the Elroy Trailhead and it was $5 per day
  • Cell phone service is spotty to non-existent depending on your carrier, even in town. I brought my Garmin InReach in case of emergency in between towns since I have one.   
  • Bathrooms and water stops are limited to trail towns, so plan ahead, bring plenty of water, plus your Kula cloth and hygiene kit in case nature calls!
  • In the summer, the trees offer a shade on the trail, but there are also sections of full sun exposure – sun protection and hydration should be considered.
  • Before you hit the trail on a bike, familiarize yourself with bike etiquette and share the trail with others.
  • Special considerations: Prepare for dark, wet tunnels with freshly charged flashlights/headlamps, mud shoes, a light jacket and waterproof seat and bag covers.

Where to Stay

Each trail town has either camping or indoor accomodations available for those needing an overnight spot. I was not able to find a central website to reference, but we heard from other riders that there are Airbnbs, Bed & Breakfasts and campgrounds in each town. So, there are a few options along the trail depending on the length of your visit.

Our group camped for the two nights that we were on the trail, so we made the Village of Norwalk our basecamp and stayed at the Lions Park Campground. The city campground is a small very well maintained campground that has 4-5 electric sites (reservation fee), an open field for tents and a large picnic shelter. We chose to stay in Norwalk due to it’s central location for an out-and-back three day trip and it’s access to public bathrooms and showers. At the time of writing this, the tent campsites are free and they do not take reservations. They do occasionally have other events that may fill the park, so check with the city before your stay. If you are bringing a hammock, the only spot to hang is on the shelter posts or large pine trees near the RV sites (where only two will fit).

Trip Notes

Day 1: Elroy to Norwalk – 21 miles

Elroy: met at the trailhead at 10:30, loaded up and ready to roll by 11:30. The trailhead is an old train depot in the middle of town. It offers a small store with souvenirs, bike supplies, trail passes and a few cold treats in a cooler. Next to the store, you’ll find a large picnic shelter and a separate building with bathrooms, showers, and filtered water. The showers may or may not require a quarter to operate- I didn’t try it.

Kendall: Rode in the mid-day sun to Kendall for lunch. We stopped at a restaurant called Flippy’s, that had a big bike rack and a menu of comfort food and burgers. I ate an enormous fried chicken + bacon sandwich that was delicious and entirely too big. Salads and smaller meals for the rest of the trip.

Shortly after lunch in Kendall, we were peddling slow with full bellies in 85 degree weather, and felt a cool breeze out of nowhere. OUR FIRST TUNNEL!

Tunnel #1 was nestled in the cut rocks, with a large wooden door. The sign above the door indicated that bikers MUST walk their bikes, and we were able to see a tiny light of the other end of the tunnel in the darkness. Tunnel #1 had more of a carved, organic look to the inside with white, slick mineral deposits on the walls that looked like an old cave. The tunnel felt cool and refreshing on a hot day and we were glad to have our headlamps.

Wilton I don’t remember much about the village of Wilton our first time through it, but we made sure to stop on our way back.

Tunnel #2 Like Tunnel #1, we felt the tunnel before we saw it- the cool, misty air rolling out of the dark hill is was carved out of. Tunnel #2 had a brick/rock interior and was also flanked by two streams of water. It felt more like an old castle than a cave and was a short walk, like Tunnel #1. The cool, dark break from the summer heat was one of the highlights of the trip!

Norwalk: The village of Norwalk is a small community with a great, authentic Mexican Restaurant right next to our campground. Bonus! We ate at Bailey’s twice, and an ice cold tall glass of Horchata was a refreshing treat after a hot day on the trail.

Along with being the Black Squirrel Capital… the local church bells ring on the hour, and there is a 50th anniversary of the town’s truck and tractor pull display right in the park we stayed at.

Day 2:  Norwalk to Sparta and back 22+ miles

Norwalk:  Woke up to stories of curious racoons and mischievous teenagers visiting camp overnight. Somehow managed to sleep through it all. Friendly reminder: lock your bikes, secure your valuables and put away your food.

At the time of writing this, the only place for breakfast or coffee is the local gas station- so bring your own or hustle on down to Sparta if you want breakfast. Back on the trail at 9:30 on our way to Sparta and Tunnel 3!

Again, we were riding in the hot, humid sun and felt a cool wind before we could see the tunnel – TUNNEL 3! THE BIG ONE!

Tunnel #3 is 3/4 miles long and wet. We’d read about it before the trip, so we grabbed our headlamps, covered our bike seats and gear, and a few of us switched out of our bike shoes into crocs/sandals. I also put on this super reflective jacket I thrifted before the trip and lit up like a Christmas tree- I found this rather delightful.

These tunnels, crafted years ago with dynamite and masonry, feel more like caves than a tunnel due to the mineral deposits, water flow and earthy smell. The cool, wet environment was much appreciated after a warm ride – BUT, I wouldn’t want to walk through them alone or without a headlamp. Being in these cavernous tunnels with 9 other friends, singing in harmony and filling them with echoes of laughter was the way to go.

Sparta: Shortly after our Tunnel 3 adventure, we reached Sparta, and the end of the trail! We rode a few more miles around town, stopped for brunch at the Sparta Family Restaurant and did a little sightseeing. We skipped our plans for a swim at the local pool and hung out in a little shaded green space by the river and enjoyed ice cold drinks from the local coffee shop.

On our way back through Tunnel 3, we sang ’rounds’, church songs, and harmonized for the 3/4 mile walk. The acoustic effects were beautiful and definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

Other interesting facts: The Wisconsin DNR closes the doors to the tunnels early November protect them from freezing/thawing and to also provide a cool, humid and dark bat hibernacula.  There are 8 known bat species in WI…and hibernacula is the word of the day.

Norwalk: Back to camp for a shower and another delicious dinner at Bailey’s. I had a taco salad the first night and a Quesadilla with Horchata the second night. Refried beans and rice on the side…mmm HIGHLY RECOMMEND! There’s also a Bar and Grill in town, I didn’t visit, but if you are looking for a cold beer and some cheese curds – you can find them in Norwalk.

After randomly encountering one in Houston, MN last year, we were a little disappointed that we missed the big town tractor pull. The photo below shows the big tractor pull area right across from the campground.

Day 3:  Norwalk to Elroy 21 miles

Norwalk: We got up and said goodbye to a couple of folks in our group who had to leave early, packed up our gear and started rolling back towards home.

Wilton: Stopped at Dorset Valley School Restaurant and Mercantile for brunch. Wonderful owners and the omelette + homemade bread was DEE-LICIOUS! We shopped in the little mercantile shop while our food was being prepared, where they sell various homemade jams, jellies, honey and handcrafted goods.

Elroy: We finished our ride at around 2:00, celebrated a little and started the process of cleaning up, loading up and heading our way back home.

We had so much fun on this trip. It was another perfect combination of challenge and comfort. Like last year, none of us felt any desire to push long, hard miles and it was really fun to laugh and enjoy ourselves riding from small towns to tunnels, eating good food and camping in the city park. Fortunately, we all rode with loaded gear before this trip. But, no matter how hard you train, you’re still going to ride a little slower and a little differently with gear on your bike. So it was great to have an open timeline that allowed plenty of time for enjoyment.

Gear Faves

I basically brought the same set up as last year – but added a new lightweight sun hoodie, a FULL SIZED PILLOW, a lightweight camping chair (oh yes I did!) and inadvertently packed a bunch of stuff I really didn’t need-oops! My pillow was amazing and probably contributed to my sleeping through all of the night time commotion at camp. Check out my previous packing list here since that one is probably better that what I brought on this trip.

One of my favorite pieces of gear has been the custom bike bag I designed and sewed right before last year’s trip. I use it for grocery shopping, bike commuting, bikepacking and I love it’s multi-functionality! It is made from scratch out of repurposed leggings, buckles, a tote bag and some ripstop fabric I had laying around. It was the first big sewing project I have embarked on since sewing pandemic masks and making my own ultralight backpack a few years ago. New for this year: a water bottle bag that attaches to my handle bars. It worked so well, that I plan to make another one! These DIY projects are great creative outlet and its pretty satisfying to be able to make something so useful out of stuff I already have on hand.

Also, a HUGE shoutout to Marek from Rawlogy, for unexpectedly sending a set of cork massage balls for each person on this trip. We appreciated it so much and they got used every day! If you haven’t heard of Rawlogy cork balls, I bought a set for my original Superior Hiking Trail Thru Hike in 2018 and have been using them ever since. They are lightweight, easy to pack and target all of the naggy sore spots. This is not a sponsored post, they just seriously rock! Thanks Rawlogy!

Check out my complete gear & packing list from my first bikepacking trip here – including cooler weather items and food

*Note: I did not carry any substantial food on this trip aside from a some electrolytes and a whole bunch of snacks (that I ended up not eating). I added my new sun shirt, camp chair and a bathing suit (that I ended up not using), and eliminated my stove, cup, fleece, baselayers and sleeping bag liner due to warmer weather.

Final Thoughts

I think it would be fun to check out the other 3 trails that connect to the Elroy Sparta trail and and do a longer trip in the future. There’s definitely more to see here and it was a great beginner to intermediate experience. We’re looking at trails for next year’s trip – got a good one? Send it our way!

Have you been bikepacking, or are you itching to try your first trip? Have you ridden the Elroy – Spata State Trail? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a note in the comments or say a little hello on the Wandering Pine FB & IG.

Happy Trails!


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