400 State Trail

The 22-mile 400 State Trail winds through scenic western Wisconsin. The trail celebrates 20 years in 2013. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Biking the 400 State Trail

Take a two-wheeling trip back through time and across some of the state’s most scenic hills and valleys

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The lowdown

The 400 State Trail follows the path of the long-gone Chicago & North Western Railroad, which claimed to traverse the 400 miles between Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul in a neat 400 minutes. The 22-mile packed limestone trail, which opened in 1993, is tucked into the Baraboo River Valley. Numerous planked bridges cross over wetlands and the river as the trail winds its way through scenic Juneau and Sauk counties among the communities of Elroy, Union Center, Wonewoc, La Valle and Reedsburg.

Backstory

Cruising through this bucolic river valley on a breezy summer day, it’s hard to imagine that this was once a pulsing artery of commerce and industry. Early settlers quickly recognized the potential of the 115-mile-long Baraboo River (which flows from Hillsboro to the Wisconsin River near Portage) as a valuable power source, and set about putting the water to work.

The area’s 19th-century industrial boom is poignantly recalled at the Wonewoc Canoe Landing, just south of the trail on County Highway FF, where a riverside park and picnic shelter have replaced the town’s former industrial district. A historical marker commemorates the site of some early structures, including gristmills, a tannery, and an 1851 log dam. Arthur Gale’s 1917 Power House and Dam, a forerunner of Wisconsin Power and Light Company stood here until 1996.

The railroad charged onto the scene in 1872, spurring growth in whistlestop towns like Elroy, which was rattled by 16 passenger trains a day at the turn of the 20th century. Today the locomotives are a distant memory, and a coalition of civic and environmental groups have successfully campaigned to remove every dam on the Baraboo River. In 2001, when that goal was achieved, the River Alliance of Wisconsin hailed the project as “the longest mainstem of a river returned to free-flowing through dam removal in American history,” and forecast a future of improved fish populations and water quality.

En route

At the trail’s northern end, launch your expedition at Elroy Commons Trail Shop, a trailhead pit stop offering bike rentals, ice cream, cold drinks, hot showers, train whistles for the kids, and tools and tire patch kits for the unlucky. The trail’s southern terminus, Reedsburg’s handsome brick depot, doubles as the Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce and trail headquarters, with bike rentals, a helpful staff, and a supply of brochures and maps describing local hot spots.

Although it’s often flanked by craggy limestone outcroppings or cattail-fringed wetlands, the trail itself is blissfully level and well-maintained, making riding a breeze for kids or novice bikers. Distances between towns are relatively short (4 to 7 miles), and shelters and restrooms are available along the way. Union Center’s Eagle Parkway boasts a playground as well as basketball and sand volleyball courts, and Wonewoc’s hilly, heavily forested American Legion Park has a public pool and camping.

There’s no telling what you might find on your journey. Great blue herons and wood ducks shelter in pea soup-green backwaters, rosy wild plums dangle temptingly from trailside trees, red-tailed hawks keen overhead, and bald eagles nest in treetops. Keep an eye out for horses — they’re allowed to share the seven-mile stretch between Wonewoc and La Valle.

Stop at Wonewoc-Center Outdoor Learning Area maintained by the Wonewoc- Union Center School District. Signs explain local lore and point out landmarks like the castle-like rock outcroppings, while a boardwalk, observation deck, prairie restoration area, and a short walking path provide room to roam.

At secluded Hemlock County Park, next to the trail just west of La Valle, take a break beside the lake and watch the sun play over the sandstone bluffs.

The digs

A short pedal away, September Farms Bed & Breakfast is a comfortably updated 1880s farmhouse, complete with a magnificent wraparound porch where weary cyclists can shift gears and survey acres of rolling green fields, gardens, and nearby Hemlock County Park.

“Take some vegetables!” implores Lynne Yauchler, the genial innkeeper, as she greets guests fortunate enough to land on her doorstep during harvest season. As an ordained minister, counselor, farmer, gardener, grandmother and Reiki/massage therapist, Yauchler can surely cure whatever ails you. Patchwork quilts, lace curtains, hanging plants, a friendly old dog named Lucky, and a breakfast featuring fresh-picked raspberries are all part of the warm, homey atmosphere here — the kind of barefoot comfort that soothes body and soul after a long day on the trail.

Chapparal Campground & Resort, just southeast of Wonewoc, offers pine cabins, woodsy campsites, laundry facilities, swimming pool, sand volleyball, a restaurant (Club Chapparal) and two cocktail lounges. Rent bikes and canoes here, too.

Eats

The comfortable, log cabin-style River Mill Food & Spirits in La Valle overlooks the Baraboo River, with outdoor seating, a hopping evening bar scene and Saturday prime rib specials. Right off the trail in La Valle, Trail Break Restaurant is a perfect stop for lunch, ice cream, or a homemade pizza dinner.

The Wooden Spoon Bakery & Sandwich Bistro in Reedsburg serves gourmet tea and coffee and an impressive selection of artisanal bread and baked goods, made-from-scratch soups, salads, and sandwiches, including Chef Max’s signature tomato bruschetta. Open for breakfast and lunch. Closed Monday.

Worth a dismount

The Elroy Area Historical Society Museum, housed in a redbrick 1914 Masonic lodge, is a friendly repository of area history, with life-size re-creations of bygone Elroyana that include a schoolroom, vintage millinery, dry goods, apothecary and doctor’s offices, as well as a re-created Elroy Theater. A model train exhibit celebrates Elroy’s heyday as a rail hub. And no Elroy museum would be complete without a Wall of Fame which includes native son Tommy Thompson.

Looming over a bend in the river in a former gristmill, The Treasure Mill is now a sprawling antiques shop that also offers a rare glimpse of local history. Free tours of the 1903 water turbine are available upon request. Across the street, in a tidy white house perched on the edge of the bike trail, the Village Artworks gallery specializes in the work of Wisconsin artists.

Lake Redstone County Park, near La Valle, is a scenic family-pleaser, complete with rocky bluffs and beautiful lake. Take a muscle-easing dip, nap on the beach, or turn the kids loose at the playground before you resume your ride. From the trail, go north on County Highway V to Douglas Road.

Detour

It’s all relative: The 400 Trail connects to its cousins, the Elroy-Sparta, La Crosse River, and Great River state trails, to cover a 101-mile swath of west-central Wisconsin. Feel like a long haul? Go for it. You’ll never stray too far from water, since the Baraboo, Kickapoo, La Crosse and Trempealeau rivers grace your journey en route to the banks of the mighty Mississippi and into the marshy heart of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.

Laura Beausire writes from Monroe.

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