Mountain isn't a word usually associated with Wisconsin.
We can thank the glaciers for that. But we can also thank the glaciers for giving us the beautiful, rolling Kettle Moraine, which is about as close to mountains as we'll get in southeastern Wisconsin. And it's there that a network of trails provides some of the best — and most popular — mountain biking in the area.
"They're the most ridden trails in the state," said Jim Wiser, the president of the Southern Kettle Moraine chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association. The group doesn't track total riders, but more trail passes are sold in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit than any other property in the state parks and forest system, according to Paul Sandgren, forest superintendent of the Southern Unit. And while those passes are also good for cross-country skiing and horseback riding, many visitors use the pass for more than one activity, and the number of passes sold is significantly more than the next closest property, Sandgren said.
The John Muir and Emma Carlin systems in the Southern Unit combine for more than 55 miles of single-track mountain bike trails. The larger John Muir trails, 8 miles east of Whitewater, feature five loops ranging from less than 2 miles to 12 miles plus a kids/beginner loop, a small skills course and two connector trails linking it to the Emma Carlin system. This system, north of John Muir near Palmyra, has been greatly improved over the last five years and features three loops ranging from 2 to 6 miles.
"Most of that system is new, more challenging, more exciting," Wiser said. "We call it the best kept secret in mountain biking in Wisconsin."
Both systems feature steep hills, descents and switchbacks, making for a fast ride. Overall the trails aren't terribly technical — i.e., not a lot of difficult obstacles to traverse — but the Emma Carlin is reputed to be the more difficult of the two systems.
Wiser, 56, lives in Wauconda, Ill., and has been biking since the '90s. He's not the only Illinois resident who heads to the Kettle Moraine's trails; sometimes a quarter or more of the vehicles at the John Muir trailhead on any given weekend are from our neighbor to the south, and Sandgren said the trails' proximity to major population centers in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago contributes to their popularity.
"They're probably the set of trails that provides the most as far as mileage as any trail system in that area," he said.
Part of the draw is also how well maintained the trails are, Wiser said. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is proactive about closing the trails when they're too muddy to prevent long-term damage, and a dedicated group of volunteers led by Dave Mangan works on building and maintaining the trails every spring.
Wiser is part of that "dirty dozen" group of volunteers who regularly work on the trails.
"There's no such thing as the trail fairy," he joked. "It's built by volunteers."
Neither trail system was originally designed as a mountain biking trail, Sandgren said, which led to some significant erosion issues when mountain bikes became more prevalent in the '90s. After a failed attempt at rebuilding the trails on existing routes, the DNR decided new trails needed to be built. Most of the trails today are new routes reviewed and approved by the DNR and built by volunteers.
Those volunteers are trained by members of IMBA and work on weekends from March through June on building the trails in a sustainable way according to the organization's standards.
"The volunteers that Jim works with have done a phenomenal amount of work," Sandgren said. "Over the last 10 years the volunteers have rerouted, constructed and reconstructed many miles of trail. This is work that has a direct positive impact on the users and resource; it likely would not have been accomplished without the volunteer help."
The John Muir system also has a well-developed trailhead with ample paved parking, vault toilets, water and a bike washing station. Signs on both systems are plentiful, and since the trails are all one-way, navigation is easy.
Trail tips: Wiser said his favorite rides are the blue loop (12 miles, difficult) in the John Muir system and the green loop (6 miles, hard) in the Emma Carlin trails.
For beginners, the John Muir system offers a short "kids loop," plus an easy, 1.25-mile brown loop. Both are relatively flat and wide, and Wiser said you could even get away with riding a hybrid bike on the beginner loop.
That's where I first tested my mountain biking skills a couple of years ago, and it's still my favorite loop for an easy, but fun, ride. Many bikers use it as a warm-up for the longer and more difficult trails.
Both systems are also open to hikers, so be cautious when turning corners, and pass hikers and other bikers at a safe speed.
Morning and weekday rides provide the most solitude, Wiser noted, and night rides — the trails are open until 11 p.m. — can be a lot of fun. Just be sure to use lights and bring a friend.
Even though the trails are busier on the weekend, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be riding wheel-to-wheel.
"It's a big system, so you don't run into a heck of a lot of people even on a busy day," Wiser said.
To bike on these systems you'll need a state trail pass in addition to a vehicle admission sticker. Daily trail passes are $4; a yearly pass will set you back $20. Admission stickers are $25 for the year or $7 per day for Wisconsin residents.
Before you head out, call the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit's trail hotline at (262) 594-6202 for up-to-date conditions and closings. You'll face a hefty fine if you ride the trails when they're closed, not to mention risk damaging them.
While you're there: The La Grange General Store, just south of the John Muir trailhead at W6098 Highway 12, is a favorite post-ride gathering spot. The restaurant-store serves up soups, salads, sandwiches, smoothies, beer and wine, and also rents mountain and road bikes. Call (262) 495-8600 or go to backyardbikes.com.
Once you've conquered the Kettle Moraine's trails on a mountain bike, give an 1890s tricycle a try. Old World Wisconsin's new Catch Wheel Fever! exhibit allows visitors to hop on a replica tricycle for a spin around a short track. The exhibit is included with regular museum admission. Call (262) 594-6301 or see oldworldwisconsin.org.
Getting there: The John Muir trails are on County Highway H near Whitewater, about one hour southwest of Milwaukee via I-43 and Highways 20 and 12.
The Emma Carlin trails are about 7 miles north on County Highway Z.
More information: For more on the trails in the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kms/trails.html.
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