When I first heard you can bike through railroad tunnels in southwest Wisconsin, I envisioned a cartoon character entering a dark tunnel only to be flattened by an oncoming train. Of course, that can’t happen in Sparta, Wisconsin, known as the Bicycling Capital of America, since the railroad tracks have been gone since before 1967, when America’s first rail-to-trail opened, sparking a nationwide trend. Today you can hike or bike 101 miles of four connected state trails in southwestern Wisconsin, running from Reedsburg to Onalaska, north of La Crosse.
You’ll pass through three tunnels on the Sparta-to-Elroy trail, so if you’re riing just one of the trails, that’s the one to do. And if you don’t want to bike the trails but want to walk through the tunnels, you can do that, too. Visit the Sparta Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, stationed in an old railroad depot, and where the Sparta-to-Elroy trail and the La Crosse River Trail meet.
The visitor center staff can map out parking areas with easy tunnel access. Tunnel #3 is closest to Sparta and is also the longest tunnel, at 3,810 feet. The tunnels can be twenty degrees cooler than the outdoor weather, so dress appropriately. You’ll need a flashlight, too, since the tunnels are completely dark. Bikes must be walked through the tunnels. Visit the Elroy-Sparta State Trail web site for details on state trail fees and bike rentals.
Where to eat
Several restaurants are available in Sparta. I enjoyed Ginny’s Cupboard, in Sparta’s downtown area, which offers sandwiches and soups made with fresh ingredients, many of them locally sourced. My turkey sandwich was made with thick slices of freshly-baked wheat bread and the pumpkin sausage soup was creamy but not too heavy, with a hint of an herb that I guessed to be sage.
The art background of the eatery’s owner, Deb Moore, is evident in the décor, nostalgic with lots of Coca Cola items, vintage Formica and chrome kitchen tables, and memorabilia from former local businesses. You can opt to sit on the back deck, surrounded by pots of herbs used in the dishes and overlooking one of four foot bridges in Sparta.
Be sure to stroll through the downtown area while you’re there to see foot bridges and visit specialty shops, like Maiden Wisconsin, where all products are Wisconsin made.
Sparta, Wisconsin, is located in Monroe County, about 30 miles east of La Crosse, off of I-90. For further information on restaurants, accommodations and other area attractions visit the Sparta Chamber of Commerce Tourism web site.
Thank you to Travel Wisconsin and the Country Inn by Carlson for their hospitality.
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