While I love summer in Wisconsin, autumn is my favorite time to explore the state, especially by bike, when cooler temperatures and less-crowded trails make for a terrific ride.
It's easy to see where the Wild Goose State Trail gets its name. Running for 34 miles from Fond du Lac to south of Juneau in Dodge County, the trail parallels the beautiful Horicon Marsh for a portion of its journey. The marsh, the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States at 32,000 acres, is along a bird migratory route and is a stopping point for hundreds of thousands of Canada geese in the spring and fall.
The Wild Goose trail affords a few quick glimpses of the vast wetland and its avian inhabitants as it follows the marsh's western border. Listen carefully for the honking of geese, or even the distinct call of a sandhill crane.
The trail, which follows a former Chicago and Northwestern railroad corridor, is owned by the Wisconsin DNR and jointly managed by Fond du Lac and Dodge counties; it was the first trail in the state to be managed cooperatively.
Hikers and bikers are welcome on the trail year-round, along with their furry friends as long as they're on a leash no longer than eight feet. Horseback riders have access to an adjacent horse trail for 14 miles in Dodge County. In the winter, 20 miles of trail in Dodge County are open to winter ATVs and the entire trail is open to cross-country skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers when conditions allow.
Route: The northern trailhead is at Rolling Meadows Drive in Fond du Lac and the southern trailhead is at Highway 60 about 4 miles south of Juneau. A good starting point for a fall ride is the marsh.
Park at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge viewing area on the south side of Highway 49 (about three miles east of Waupun).
A short, paved trail from the entrance to the parking lot leads to the state trail. Turn left to follow the trail south. This beginning segment runs right alongside the marsh and provides the best opportunities for seeing the wetlands and wildlife.
As the trail meanders south you'll pass through farmland (Farm Xing signs are a regular occurrence), past prairie remnants, over numerous wooden bridges and across marked rural streets. Much of the trail is shaded by beautiful tree corridors which are nearing peak color and blanket the trail in reds, browns and yellows.
The small town of Burnett is a good turning-around point. Pause for a break before biking back to the marsh to complete your 18-mile round-trip ride.
Difficulty level: Easy. The crushed-limestone trail, like most rails-to-trails routes, is mostly level, wide and straight.
While you're there: If your legs are still feeling good after 18 miles, tack on an extra 3 with a ride through the marsh. From the entrance to the parking area, follow the Auto Tour route and stop at the informational kiosks to learn more about the marsh and its ecological importance. Don't miss the floating boardwalk, complete with a telescope for viewing geese, ducks and other wildlife.
Drive through Waupun for a look at eight bronze sculptures, including "The End of the Trail," a sculpture depicting the plight of American Indians who were displaced in the 18th and 19th centuries that was created by James Earl Fraser and commissioned by Clarence Shaler. Shaler, a Waupun inventor-turned-artist (at the age of 70), created six of the sculptures in Waupun and commissioned the other two.
Stock up on fresh-picked apples and baked goods at Tom Dooley Orchard. The nearly 50-year-old orchard is known for its delicious apple pies and turnovers. W5759 Highway 49, Waupun; (920) 324-3664.
How much it will set you back: Nothing. You don't need a trail pass on the Wild Goose trail, and admission to the National Wildlife Refuge is free.
Getting there: The marsh trailhead is about an hour drive northwest of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highways 45, 41 and 49.
Don't write off the drive. Highways 45 and 41 pass through the rolling Kettle Moraine, dotted with trees ablaze in color in autumn, and Highway 49 passes through the northern tip of the marsh. Gaggles of geese can be seen resting in shallow pools on either side of the highway.
More info: (920) 929-3135 (Fond du Lac County Parks), (920) 386-3700 (Dodge County Parks)
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