Monday, August 15, 2011

Bicycle touring SW Wisconsin

Day 1, Minneapolis to St Paul to La Crosse to Sparta:
A week ago last Sunday, five hardy excursionists (your humble narrator included) departed from St Paul via Amtrak with uncertainty, excitement, and even some fears, about the coming week on the road. As is quite often the case, Amtrak was running a bit behind schedule. Expecting this, the tour organizer planned for a short mileage day for the afternoon of the train's arrival. The group made the best of the delay at a cafe near the station.
Bonnie's Cafe is a gem of a breakfast venue, if you're into a 1960s-era diner style atmosphere and food of substance. The construction on University Ave has not been easy on Bonnie's. I suggest that everybody eat there as often as possible to help this place survive the temporary inconvenience of construction. Next HC Saturday ride is going there, and I might just order two breakfasts. Here's a photo I took of the interior of Bonnie's awhile back:

After breakfast, we returned to Amtrak to box up our bikes for the trip. The Amtrak boxes are rather large, and putting the bikes in them is a simple process requiring only a small degree of dis-assembly. Then the boxes get loaded onto Civil-War-era oxcarts, and onto the train:

A few hours later, we were ready to roll in La Crosse.
I had my bike loaded with Banjo Brothers Market Panniers on back and Waterproof Panniers on front, in addition to a top-tube bag for my camera and a Minnehaha large handlebar bag. This turned out the be far more capacity than I really needed, but the surplus capacity certainly came in handy when our marauding gang descended on small town grocers...

After a quick jaunt through La Crosse to stock up at People's Food Co-op, we headed into the boonies by way of the La Crosse River State Trail, one of several enviable state bicycle trails in the area. This trail took us to Sparta, Wisconsin, where we detoured off the trail a few miles for a pleasant surprise called the Leon Valley Campground. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this campground, but it was quiet, clean, beautiful, and had modern, well-maintained facilities.

Day 2, Sparta to Wildcat Mountain:
From here we commenced riding on the famed Elroy-Sparta State Trail. This trail was lovely, but the most memorable thing about it is the first tunnel we encountered. Rumor has it, the tunnel is a mile long, which seemed about right. All I can say for sure was that it is DARK!
Signs advised "BIKES MUST BE WALKED THRU TUNNEL", but we all rode, which was dangerous and exhilarating. Powerful lights are essential. Did I mention it's dark?

We stopped for lunch in a small town called Wilton. After we ate, we encountered, quite by coincidence, another small group on tour, which included HC-customers/personal-friends from Minneapolis and from southern California. We chatted for awhile about our tour plans, the pitfalls and rewards of organizing bicycle tours, etc. At that moment, I planned to continue down the trail to Elroy, then onto another trail, which I explained to my friends in the other group. Five minutes later, after reconvening with my tour group, that plan was thrown out the window (scrapping plans would become a habit) in favor of shaving off a few miles by heading south to Wildcat Mountain State Park. Who woulda thunk that Wildcat Mountain would be uphill? Whatever miles we saved were replaced with arduous climbing, and more climbing, then, right at the end, a total gut-buster of a hill leading up to the park entrance. Nobody died, and we all agreed it was worth the effort.
We learned that state parks in Wisconsin are a great value. Not only were they generally gorgeous, but they were cheap ($14 for non-resident camping split 5 ways...) and had good facilities, helpful staff, etc.

Day 3, Wildcat Mountain to Richland Center:
After leaving Wildcat Mountain, we pushed for a block of bold text on a map, which was called Richland Center, so named because it's the business hub of Richland County, so named, I surmise, because of the Rich Land that makes it good for farming. My hunch is that the Wisconsin River floodplain has good soil because of historical floods. This segment still featured some of the Driftless Area type bluffs and topography, but there was much more agriculture than we'd seen previously in the trip.
A few miles shy of Richland Center, we turned off for a campground that was marked on my map. I noted that there was no signage on the main road that would indicate that the campground is here, and I was concerned that perhaps my map was out-of-date. We almost passed the campground because there wasn't an obvious sign there either. When we pulled in, we were fairly confused until a rotund guy in a fluorescent yellow shirt marked STAFF waved us over. He told us we could camp and pointed out some vacant sites, but he wasn't 100% sure on the price, and in any case, he wasn't prepared to take our money or handle any formalities. We set up our tents apprehensively not knowing if we had any legitimate right to be there, but eventually the STAFF guy's wife showed up and handled the transaction and attended to our requests with the utmost efficiency and charm. It turned out to be a pretty nice place, but I'll be damned if I can recall the name... Again, we'd discovered a campground that was better than we'd expected.

Day 4, Richland Center to Wyalusing:
Richland Center was a delight. It was a nice little town that wasn't derelict and decrepit like so many of the small towns we passed. I suspect that the UW-Richland Center campus was the likely reason behind the apparent modest prosperity. Anyway, the town had a nice little natural foods co-op, right up our alley.

From Richland Center, we continued south and crossed the Wisconsin River into Muscoda (pronounced Mus-co-day). After being treated rudely at one restaurant, the group relocated to another place around the corner, which turned out to be excellent. They had some fun menu items, like a Burning Bunghole Burger, for example. The post-burger pie was some of the best I've had.

From Muscoda we followed the Wisconsin River downstream through Boscobel and some other very small towns, on a nice flat road.

The group had determined earlier in the day to make the long push to Wyalusing State Park. The county roads leading to the park are spectacular, and difficult. This was the top of Russell Hill, which was the longest, steepest, toughest climb I could remember:
The descent was exhilarating. A few minutes later, however, we found an even longer climb, which would put us on top of the plateau where Wyalusing is situated. After some screwing around and crowd-avoidance, we settled on a secluded campsite, which was pleasant.

Day 5, Wyalusing to Victory (Blackhawk Park):
After nearly 70 challenging miles the previous day, we opted to spend the next morning exploring Wyalusing a bit before getting back on the road. The views from the park were incredible.

I took this opportunity to do a yoga pose with an impressive backdrop.

Now we were left with nearly three days to pedal less than 80 miles. We dawdled in Prairie du Chien, and visited our friend Marty at The Prairie Peddler. Then we had lunch and screwed around a little bit. Then we wasted some time. Finally back on the road, we headed up the Mississippi River toward a campground called Blackhawk Park. It turned out to be slightly further than expected, and we made camp after dark. Blackhawk Park is a large campground operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. All night the background noise was dominated either by trains, river barges, or both - not bad noises, but ever-present.

Day 6, Victory to La Crosse (Goose Island):
We left Blackhawk Park, now only 25 or so miles to La Crosse, but with most of two days to get there. Again, we adopted a slow pace, with plenty of screwing around. We backtracked a few miles for pizza and contemplated a side-trip to Iowa. We ultimately scrapped the Iowa idea, but if I did it again, I think we would have approached La Crosse from the Iowa/Minnesota side of the river to avoid the harrowing stretches with narrow shoulders and fast traffic. Not far upstream, we arrived at Goose Island County Park. This park did not endear itself to us. The camping fee structure was $20 per sleeping unit, regardless of whether the "sleeping unit" was a 10-person RV or a 1-person tent. As we had four tents, this was going to be a very expensive campsite. The price was negotiated down to less than half of that princely sum, but we would have to occupy the "overflow area". There was a lot of trash around the sites, and in general the facilities were not up to par with what we'd experienced elsewhere. It was a pretty area, though.
This final campground was kind of a let-down after the first-class establishments we'd experienced earlier, but it certainly wasn't the worst I'd seen. Nonetheless, I probably won't stay there again.

Day 7, La Crosse to La Crosse to St Paul to Minneapolis:
We had just a few miles to ride from our campsite to the actual city of La Crosse. The short jaunt was made challenging, however, by a cold and driving rain and the complete lack of bicycle-friendly infrastructure entering the city from the south side. We all arrived in one piece to a restaurant called the Hungry Peddler, which had great food, better service, and an overhang area where we could park the bikes out of the rain. From there, we were able to get on side streets, and away from the retail strip-mall Hell we'd ridden through on our initial approach of the city.

With a whole day to kill, we stopped first at a coffee shop, where we warmed up, caffeinated, and charged our electronic devices. We went to an impressive guitar shop, which is owned by the uncle of one of our group. None of our group are into guitars or play guitar, but we all thought the shop was pretty great. Then a cheeseburger, etc at a neighborhood dive bar. We revisited People's Co-op and a nearby "patisserie" that was going out of business. Finally, enough time had been killed, and we moseyed our way back to the Amtrak station, all ready to go home, but reluctant to leave the rhythm of the road.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. The weather, the roads, the small towns, the state parks, and especially the friends who accompanied me were exceptional. Southwest Wisconsin is close enough to here to not seem exotic or exciting, but it is truly a world-class place to ride a bicycle. Please, keep that secret between us.


Chad Parrish said...

Nice write up Jim, I felt like I was there...

Thanks again for organizing a great trip and hope to join you again some time.

Apertome said...

Thanks for the detailed writeup, and photos. Maybe someday I'll get out there and join you ... your tours have looked phenomenal, based on the blog posts!

Anonymous said...

Jim -

Excellent (and fascinating) recap. Two detail questions: How many total miles did you accumulate and what was your average speed?

Jim Thill said...

Around 300 miles. What's that, around 43 miles per day? If my mental arithmetic is right, that's just under 2 miles per hour.

Anonymous said...


I should have stipulated that I meant average speed FOR THE TIME SPENT IN THE SADDLE. Apologies for not clearly articulating my question.

Additionally, I'm curious to know what your bicycle weighed when fully loaded with supplies and gear. What would you leave at home next time after analyzing what you did (or did not) use?

Thank you

Jim Thill said...

I don't keep track of weight or rolling speed.

I did bring quite a few tools and spare parts, which I didn't use. But I'd still bring them again

Sean said...

Nice writeup Jim, you beat me to the punch by a week!

Anonymous said...

Great write up Jim! It was fun seeing you and your happy group on the road in Wilton. I think our group went a bit faster and probably averaged 3 MPH.
Jim J.