“Utter darkness is as much a part of the scenery along the Elroy-Sparta State Trail as the views of the rolling hills and farmland. That’s because visitors pass through three hand-dug railroad tunnels on their 33 mile journey from Sparta to Elroy on what is widely acknowledged to be the oldest rail-trial conversion in the United States” — Trail Link Website
My husband and I drove down to Sparta, Wi a couple weekends ago to traverse the Elroy-Sparta Trail. Here’s a brief summary of our adventures!
On Saturday, we left the hotel in the early afternoon so we’d hit the warmer afternoon temperatures and avoid the morning rain. We got to Kendell, Wi which is roughly 8.5 miles into the trail (which starts in Elroy, Wi). A dad and his two daughters were in the parking lot when we pulled in and we had a nice chat about their new E-bikes (electric bikes). My husband and I set out on the trail before them and we biked 3.5 miles up to Tunnel #1.
Each approach to the tunnel has a consistent uphill grade. In addition to that, we also had a headwind and both factors really made me feel spongey and weak. I wasn’t trying to push myself super hard on this ride. I looked at it as a leisurely stroll type of ride since I had my husband with me, but the approach to this first tunnel made me realize that I was going to get a workout whether I wanted one or not.
Biking up to the first tunnel was — in short — cool. The air gets denser and you feel the moisture in the air. The bluffs rise up on either side of the trail which makes you feel small and insignificant. Approaching the first tunnel felt like we were explorers coming up on a secret passage to a new land. We had found evidence of an ancient civilization. What’s inside the tunnel? What’s on the other side? There are signs outside each tunnel reminding bikers to dismount from their bikes and walk through the tunnel. So we did, and I felt a little like I was in the Fellowship and we were walking through the Mines of Moria.
The first tunnel must have been the newest one because it was the best maintained and the coolest (ha ha — pun intended). The cave walls were made of limestone and you could still see the marks where workers struck the walls with pickaxes. The floor was a smooth dirt/stone surface which could get slick if the conditions were a bit wetter. Still, walking ten feet into a tunnel like this sparks an instinctual adrenaline rush. We had a flashlight and a light on our phone (I forgot to bring my nice fishing headlight) and the walk through this 1,600ft (487m) tunnel took about ten minutes.
There wasn’t much to do on the other side except take some pictures. The trail was closed between this tunnel and the next town, so we walked back through the tunnel, got on our bikes, and enjoyed a nice 3.5 mile downhill run back to the car.
We drove to a small town called Wilson, Wi. Their town’s motto is: We are the heart of the trail. How fitting! There was a railcar caboose parked at the start of this segment with a little heart on the side of it. Naturally we had to get a picture.
The trek to the second tunnel was another workout as it involved another consistent uphill that went another 3 miles. This segment of the trail was busier. We had to be aware of bikers coming up from behind us to pass or coming towards us. The trail is a crushed limestone/stone trail similar to the Gandy Dancer, but the Gandy Dancer is a touch wider. Typically the traffic wasn’t a problem and people did their best to social distance as we passed them or they passed us.
Tunnel #2 was a bit more of a challenge as the ground was uneven and muddy. This tunnel is the same length as the other one, but the inside of this tunnel is made of brick blackened with soot from the trains that once passed through. Both of these tunnels took 1.5 years to build. Workers carved the tunnel with dynamite and pickaxes working on either end. Unfortunately, this tunnel was the most populated and there were several children biking through the tunnel on their small kids bikes without lights or headlamps and no parental supervision, so my husband and I didn’t linger for very long at this one.
The journey to Tunnel #3 was rough. We stopped at the next town for a quick bathroom break and found that we both consumed more water than we had expected. There were no public water sources for us to refill from and neither one of us had our face masks with so we couldn’t go into a restaurant and ask for/buy water. Nevertheless, we soldiered on because we heard rumors that there was a spring-fed water pump right outside of Tunnel #3.
We passed picturesque farmland and countryside and we stopped to get a few pictures in.
There was a family ahead of us and they were going at a leisurely pace, so I thought I’d pass them and keep them behind me. Well…that was the plan until I bonked. It wasn’t a bad one but I felt it coming. I was getting hangry, I was sucking wind more than I should’ve, and the gradual uphill to the tunnel meant that I had to constantly pedal which made my skin start to chafe where the chamois met my inner thighs.
Each turn on the trail offered the false promise of the tunnel, and the day was starting to get a bit warm and my perception was getting skewed. Was I biking uphill or were we on a downhill grade now? If we were going downhill, then why was biking so damn hard? I never got answers to those questions (probably because my dehydrated and carb deprived brain wasn’t asking logical questions), but we eventually pulled into Tunnel #3 where a hand pump stood which provided us with sweet, sweet (AND CLEAN) well water. Oh…and I ate a cliff bar and all was right with the world from then on.
Tunnel #3 was a trip. This tunnel is nearly double the length of the other two and it took us a full 20 minutes to walk through it with our bikes. There was so much groundwater seeping through this tunnel that it was like walking through a summer rainstorm. The water felt amazing on our heads, but I imagine you’d want to bring rain gear in the Spring or Fall. Occasionally, we’d come across some mini waterfalls inside the tunnel where the groundwater coming from the tunnel’s roof eroded some of the limestone which allowed water to flow unimpeded. If we weren’t exhausted, I would’ve wanted to stay in the tunnel and just listen to the ambient sounds. But alas, we made it to the end of the tunnel and then turned right back around and walked the 20 minutes back through it thus ending our trip … well almost.
On the ride back to the car, my husband slowed down a bit and complained that the muscles behind his knee were hurting. He slipped on the ice in January and really hurt his back and his knee. The last thing I wanted was to push him past his limit and then have him be out of work due to his knee. He was in the military for 10 years and he’s the type of person to just “suck it up” and push through the pain, but I reminded him that this was meant to be a leisurely couples’ activity and not a PT test, so I asked if he wanted me to bike back to the car alone and pick him up at a crossroads. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea but agreed that it was probably best not to push his luck.
So I set off on the last 4.5 miles on my own. Almost all of it was downhill and I got to go back through Tunnel #2. I biked these last miles faster than ever — partially because I was worried about my husband’s knee and partially because I could now cruse at my normal biking speed without worrying that I’d outpace and abandon my husband (love you babe!). I made it back to my car in record time, loaded my bike up, and went back to get my hitchhiking husband.
All in all, the trip was a resounding success and it was a nice getaway before school picked up. The best part of all was getting to spend time with my husband doing something active and fun.
Oh … and I finally crossed the 1,000 mile mark on this trip and I have officially entered Texas based on my virtual cross country biking goals. So that’s pretty cool too.