Touring South-West Wisconsin

Early Sunday Morning Meetup

From August 7th through the 13th, four companions and I did a week-long bicycle tour of South-West Wisconsin. We met outside of Hiawatha Cyclery at 5:30 Sunday morning, for the ride to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Amtrak station.

Second Breakfast at Bonnie's Cafe

I’ve traveled by train several times before and found the experience far superior to air travel: on time, palatable meals, minimal hassle. This was not one of those times. The train was about three hours late in arriving because of flooding in North Dakota, so we did the only sensible thing under the circumstances: headed off for second breakfast at Bonnie’s Cafe. The food is well worth circumnavigating the road construction on University Avenue.

Remove handlebars

Remove Pedals (optionally re-install on the inside of the crank for storage)

Loins girded, we headed back to the Amtrak station and boxed up our bikes. One of the reasons I love traveling on Amtrak is because it’s so easy to bring my bicycle: for $15 they provide a shipping box that’s big enough to roll the bike in, just by removing the pedals and turning the handlebars. (Sometimes they also have used shipping boxes, which are free!) There is a $5 handling fee either way.

Day 1: Sunday, 7-Aug-2011, 41.24 miles from Hiawatha Cyclery, Minneapolis MN, to Leon Valley Campground, Sparta WI.

Ready to Roll in La Crosse

After unboxing and re-assembling our bikes we headed into town for provisions from People’s Food Co-Op.

You can tell a lot about a person by the food they eat. Supplies purchased ranged from avocados to dried pears (they only looked like pig’s ears) to ramen. Then we headed for the La Crosse River State Trail, which took us to the famed to the Elroy-Sparta Trail.

Sparta Water Tower

As the afternoon shadows lengthened we started looking for a place to spend the night. Near the town of Sparta we turned off the trail. Leon Valley Campground sounded promising, and we experienced climbing the first of many hills we would encounter in the so-called “Driftless Area“.

Although we had called ahead, we found the office empty when we arrived. Feeling creative, we again called the phone number posted on the office door. The phone inside the office obediently began ringing, to no avail, until the answering machine took over. Undeterred, we decided to scope out the place and settle up with the office in the morning.

Leon Valley Campground

Several groups of “permanent residents” were having a dinner party; noticing our aimless wanderings one of them pointed out the office manager’s RV, and then explained that the lack of a motor vehicle there meant they were likely at one of the first two houses outside of the campground. We headed back to the office, intending to start searching for the office manager when she came roaring in on a large four-wheeled ATV. We paid $40 for the five of us and our three tents (and one hammock) , which was less than the posted rates. We were directed to the secluded loop behind the main loop, which was empty except for us.

Camp at Leon Valley Campground

We set up tents, and then began cooking dinner. While some were busy making ramen or dropping their bratwurst in the campfire, I put my newly purchased MSR camp kitchen toolset to good use and was the envy of the group as I whipped up quinoa with avocado, tomato and sautéed onions over my Trangia alcohol stove. It was a simple dinner I sometimes make at home; yet somehow everything seems to taste even better when eaten outside while bicycle touring.

Day 2: Monday, 8-Aug-2011, 33.26 miles from Leon Valley Campground, Sparta WI to Wildcat Mountain State Park, Ontario WI.

We woke to pleasant temperatures and beautiful blue skies. After a leisurely breakfast we packed up and headed back towards the Sparta-Elroy trail. I also started my first long-term test of the Supernova Plug USB device charger with my two-year-old Blackberry Curve and found that it didn’t seem to keep up with the phone’s power draw when the phone was switched on. It did manage to charge the phone when it was switched off, assuming the mini-USB cable hadn’t fallen out (as it frequently did). Phones using the newer micro-USB connectors would probably fare much better as the micro-USB connector has a cable-retention mechanism built in, whereas mini-USB does not.

Sparta Trail Center

Map: Bike Wisconsin's 4 trails

After a few miles and several hills we reached the Sparta Trail center, where we purchased another round of trail passes ($4/person-day, or $20/annual pass). We met a fellow with a custom Peter White bicycle riding the Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern-Tier route from Washington State who had detoured to ride Wisconsin’s four trails.

We rode on, enjoying the modest 3% grade of the former rail corridor, the wide-open views of farms and fields extending to the edge of the valley, punctuated by the shade dense forests, all to the cheery sounds of summer insects (Cicadas?). If a summer day could get any better then I’ve never seen it. I felt like I could have ridden the trail forever, or at least to the end of the 101 miles.

Tunnel Tom, before tunnel #3

Eventually we reached “Tunnel Tom,” a retired furniture builder who had lived here all his life. He now ran a small trail-side concessions stand, selling flashlights, frozen candy bars, and cold drinks. Like most of the locals we met, he was happy to talk to us. We learned that the first tunnel we were coming to, tunnel #3, was nearly a mile long, pitch black, at least 30 degrees colder than the sultry 80F temperatures we were enjoying and “very dangerous.” After re-grouping and enjoying a round of frozen Snickers bars we set off to face the tunnel.

Tunnel #3

Tunnel #3 was imposing, with a sternly worded sign instructing us to walk our bikes. Feeling the cool breeze from the tunnel, I donned my rain jacket, switched on my headlight, and brazenly rode in. The darkness of the underworld that engulfed us was total and complete, unlike any night ride I’ve ever done in the city. I now understood “Tunnel Tom’s” cautionary warning about the ease of falling, because the formerly-flat crushed gravel trail was now dramatically crowned, diving sharply into drainage ditches on both sides of us, which were nearly full from the rain-like fall of water dripping from the tunnel’s roof. After a seeming eternity, we exploded from the underworld back into the light and heat of summer in Wisconsin; my eyeglasses instantly fogged up and I rolled to a stop in the grass at the side of the trail.

Boyscout Troop #205 bicycle outside of gas station just off trail

We rode on, finding tunnel #2 to be both shorter, flatter and drier. It was now getting into mid-afternoon, and we came upon a group of Boy Scouts (Troop #205) with identically equipped bicycles taking an ice cream break. Following their example, we explored the town and found lunch in a small cafe. Here we learned the group preference for bacon cheeseburgers with an ice cream chaser. We chatted with other cyclists who stopped in, seeing the fellow with the Peter White again, as well as two couples on tandems.

After lunch we debated the relative merit of following the trail another 30 miles to La Valle, as originally planned, or looking for a closer campground. Wildcat Mountain State Park was only 10 miles away; the gray skies and occasional raindrop encouraged us to choose the shorter option.

butterfly found on pavement

One of the nice things about bicycle touring is moving at a pace slow enough to notice things, and being able to stop at a moment’s notice to really appreciate them.

As might be surmised from the name, Wildcat Mountain State Parkwas at the top of a series of increasingly steeper hills.

Wildcat Mountain State Park, photo credit: J. Thill

The final push up the steep hill into Wildcat Mountain State Park

Although tired, like the rest of the group, I’ve always enjoyed climbing hills. The final climb into the park was, in my humble opinion, wonderful. (Despite what some of my companions might say, just for the record of course, I do not consider “woo-hoo” to be a squeal of joy, but that might just be a matter of semantics.)

Camp at Wildcat Mountain State Park

Wildcat Mountain State Park, like most Wisconsin state parks, featured modern showers and wonderful campsites for the modest price of $14.

Although Wisconsin isn’t known for it’s large wildlife, we faced plenty of raccoons on this trip. Given the large amount of food the group was carrying, I made a point of hanging a food bag from a tree to keep it safe. Tonight I ran into a bit of a snag, so to speak: after tossing the cord over a suitable tree branch, the knot slipped and dropped the carabiner and duffle bag to the ground. I pulled the cord down, re-tied the knot and, as customary, used my keys for weight while tossed it over the branch again. Instead of falling back to earth, the cord (and my keys) got stuck 30 feet up in the air. While I was putting on long pants, long sleeves and gloves, one of my companions, much to my horror, attempted to push the dead, very wobbly pine tree over. To (everyone else’s) considerable amazement, I climbed the skinny, branch-less dead tree trunk with ease, retrieved my keys and (with some difficualty) managed to untangle the cord. (Thankfully I didn’t pick up a new nick name.) Lesson learned: use something less valuable for throwing weight (the partial roll of duct-tape served admirably for the rest of the trip.)

Day 3: Tuesday, 9-Aug-2011, 39.23 miles from Wildcat Mountain Campground, Ontario WI to Alana Springs Campground, Richland Center WI

Making coffee at breakfast

Waking to a third day in paradise, we settled into the rhythm of making coffee, eating breakfast, and tearing down camp. The day was much windier than previous days, but not unbearable so.

Regrouping at the top of the first of many steep climbs

Fur shop

In La Farge we found an Organic Valley Farms co-op store open, and stocked up on precooked, frozen bratwurst and sausages.

Welcome to La Farge WI

After lunch (bacon-cheeseburgers and/or biscuits and gravy) at a small cafe, we found a road-side vegetable stand where we bought corn on the cob, and then took our chances in the small grocery store.

Regrouping at the top of yet another steep hill on County Highway A

The landscape was gradually becoming more agricultural, although we still found plenty of steep hills.

Patch Hill Drive

Ominous name to the contrary, no inner tubes were harmed passing Patch Hill Drive.

We finally rolled into the un-marked Alana Springs Campground just outside of Richland Center, on Covered Bridge Drive off of County Highway A. We were waved over by a large man in a an official-looking, hi-viz green “STAFF” T-shirt, who insisted that we pay for two sites but could spread out as much as we liked, although said he was unable to collect our money and he didn’t know what the price per site was anyway. Feeling somewhat dubious at the apparent contradiction, we found a section not occupied by RV’s, set up camp, and began grilling dinner of corn on the cob, bratwurst and sausages. Meanwhile a steady stream of people started driving into the campground. Finally one of them approached us, claiming to be the owner of the campground, collected $18/site, and told us the camp ground was hosting it’s annual potluck. Not receiving an invitation, we kept to ourselves.

Day 4: Wednesday, 10-Aug-2011, 71.82 miles from Alana Springs Campground, Richland Center WI to Wyalusing State Park, Prairie du Chien, WI.

The day dawned chilly and damp, so much so that I wore the SmartWool stocking cap and Patagonia packable quilted synthetic pullover I’d been lugging around for four days, just-in-case. Attempting to get my tent and yesterday’s still-wet laundry to dry in the morning sun, I was the last one of the group packed up. Fortunately my four traveling companions were good-natured about the delay, despite our plans to cover big miles.

Pine River Co-Op in Richland Center, photo credit J. Thill

We rolled into Richland Center, and found the food-coop didn’t open till 10AM. We killed time browsing through a Kwik Trip and a thrift store. When the co-op opened we stocked up on vitals, including three pounds of ground coffee.

Muscoda, WI

After many hills, we crossed the mighty Wisconsin River and entered Muscoda (pronounced Mus-co-day according to locals). We saw an unmarked building that looked like it might have been a bicycle shop at one time, with an Orbea time-trial bike and some un-marked high-zoot mountain bike hanging in the window, but no one around to ask. Scoping out the town for lunch options, I suggested Vicki’s Cozy Cafe, but was out voted by the other two of my companions who favored “Amo’s Bar and Grill” who assumed the presence of cars parked in front of it implied good food. We seated ourselves, and twiddled our thumbs until the bar tender decided we weren’t going to go away. Without a word of greeting she thrust two menus at the table. When I said that we would have five people, total, she ripped the menus off the table and waddled off to the back room in a huff, muttering incoherently. Dumbfounded, we walked out. While we were unlocking our bikes she grunted at us from the door “I said I was setting a table for you in back.” We wound up at Vicki’s Cozy Cafe, where the menu proclaims “Order what you want. Eat what you get.” Featuring such specialties as the “Burning Bung-hole Burger” and strawberry-rhubarb crumble pie. And both the food and the service were excellent.

Open road, clear skies.

After lunch we settled in to really putting in some miles. We found two really good hills on County Highway C, and a final good one into Wyalusing State Park.

Wyalusing State Park

When we got there we reserved an electric site in the campground with the working shower house. It sounded good. The view was even spectacular. As long as you didn’t mind having 60 neighbors within snoring range. It was like being back in the cube farm at work. Ick. We scoped out the other campground. The one without working showers. All four loops. And found it much more to our liking.

Day 5: Thursday, 11-Aug-2011, 54.93 miles from Wyalusing State Park to Army Corps of Engineers Blackhawk Park, De Soto WI

Our string of good weather continued. After yesterday’s grueling hills and high-mileage we talked about taking a rest day and staying in Wyalusing State Park. Some people trickled off to the other camp ground for sightseeing and showers. I indulged in a post-breakfast snack and finally got a chance to journal some of what had taken place so far. Some time around noon the group had all returned to the camp site and we decided to head for Prairie du Chien. We rolled out a little past one. On reaching Prairie du Chien the riding conditions took a turn for the worse: Wisconsin State Highway 35 went from two lanes with rideable shoulders to four lanes and no shoulders at all. Further, we were having difficulty locating our first destination, The Prairie Peddler bicycle shop. Our first opportunity to escape the strip malls and main-street traffic took us past a “correctional facility,” complete with 20-foot-high chain link fences and concertina wire. On reaching The Prairie Peddler, Marty, the proprietor, showed us his collection of Singular brand bicycles. Imported from England, they featured derailleur hangers, vertical drop outs and eccentric bottom brackets allowing both geared and single speed configurations. He then recommended the coffee shop next door for lunch. Finding the menu bacon-cheeseburger deficient, I ordered a horseradish/roast-beef sandwich and coffee. Both were excellent, although not as filling as I would have liked. I rectified that with a raspberry crisp bar and more coffee. We contemplated our evening’s destination. Marty said there was a park “about 40 miles” north on Wisconsin Highway 35 that was better than any of the other options on the map. Looking at the map, we decided we had already passed our best bet for groceries on the south end Prairie du Chien. We bid adieu to Marty and headed back south.

Valley Fish & Cheese House

On the way we came upon Valley Fish and Cheese House, selling both edibles and novelty items. Not finding anything to my liking, I retired to the shade outside. We retraced our path to a “Piggly Wiggly” grocery store, and restocked. While we were unlocking and packing up, we saw a man on a BMW motorcycle showing off considerable talent: with a vertical bounce and a twist of the throttle he powered off the center stand, and then turn a corner so sharply his knee was only inches from the pavement, before gunning the engine again and powering out of the turn. Shaking our heads in amazement, we headed back north through the main street traffic. Somehow I wound up in the front of the group. Given the steady traffic, our late departure (it was now just 3 hours till sunset) and “about 40 miles” to our expected destination I took advantage of the tail wind (and feeling refreshed by lunch) and soon found my heavy touring bicycle cruising along effortlessly at 18 MPH. Since there were no turns to take and no way to get lost I just kept riding at high speed, looking for some shaded place to stop and regroup. An hour or two later I saw two cyclists, both pulling heavily laden two-wheel two-seat child trailers. They eagerly waved me over. The two of them were full of questions about where I was from, where I’d ridden, and what was ahead of them. The only reluctantly revealed their names, David and Becca, and that they were riding from Chaska, Minnesota to some undisclosed location in Florida. Before I could ask anything of them they announced that they had to keep moving before it got dark. My companions later reported hearing these two shouting “Florida or Bust!” but not stopping to talk. Given the expensive look of their mountain bikes and trailers yet complete lack of lights, helmets, gloves or any other concessions to bicycle touring, as well as the one-sided conversation we later guessed they might have been fleeing a foreclosure or some other equally nasty financial situation.

Pump your own water at wayside rest stop

Eventually I came to a wayside rest with a manually-pumped well and a map. The water was refreshingly cool, although it had a strong mineral taste. Two of my four companions rolled in, and we guessed the un-named campground Marty recommended was actually Blackhawk Park, near the town of De Soto, which meant we had about another 20 miles to go. The sun was now low on the horizon, and it was obvious we would be riding well into the darkness. Intending to ride as many miles in as possible in the remaining light we were about to continue when the remainder of our group joined us, and protocol dictated we wait for them to take a rest. I had attempted to recharge the MiNewt headlight battery pack for one of my companions using my dynamo hub via the Supernova Plug. This model battery pack lacked any kind of charge indicator, so I didn’t know if it had fallen prey to the loose connector problems that kept my phone from charging reliably. Plugging the light in revealed that it was “much brighter” than it had been, so we hoped for the best, and rode on.

As the sun began to set I stopped to switch on lights and don an orange reflective vest. According to Google Maps we had another 13 miles ahead of us to Blackhawk Park, but we still didn’t know what we’d find for amenities. Shortly thereafter we came upon a park in De Soto that had running water, and I filled my four liter MSR “Drom Lite” water bag and topped off my three water bottles in preparation for stealth camping. The wind off the river had become much cooler after the sun set and I was getting chilled (my “climbers build” not affording much for natural insulation) so I put on my long sleeve wool jersey and broke out the long socks I’d previously begun to doubt the value of packing. Eleven miles later we saw a welcome sign “1 Mile to Army Corps of Engineers Blackhawk Park, Fishing and Camping.” Just as we turned off the highway onto County Road Bi/Blackhawk Road a train came roaring by and blocked the intersection. We laughed at the timing and enjoyed a snack of “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts” (GORP). Following the winding road, we came upon the park office, just five minutes before they closed for the night at nine o’clock. Two “Army Corps of Engineers Fee Collectors” greeted us with a look of exasperation and a smile. The fee structure was somewhat convoluted, but what would you expect from an Army of Engineers? (I am an engineer by trade and training, and still manage to find this humorous.) It’s $18 per site, with two tents allowed per site, but there were no marked sites as the park featured “free-range camping.” We asked about the hammock, and were told that there is no charge for hammocks as long as they don’t touch the ground, but the other three tents still pushed us into the “two site” fee bracket, so I paid the $36 and they closed the office as we left. We rode around till we found a clearing between the river and a drainage pond, set up camp in the dark, and had a pot-luck dinner of grilled bratwurst, boiled sugar-snap peas-in-the-pod, bow-tie pasta and alfredo sauce from a jar with added diced onion and green pepper.

Day 6: Friday, 12-Aug-2011, 28.39 miles from Army Corps of Engineers Blackhawk Park, De Soto WI to Goose Island County Park, La Crosse WI

We awoke to one more day of perfect weather. We went through the usual leisurely routine of massive amounts of French Press coffee, breakfast and tearing down and repacking. We discussed how to best make use of our fortuitous situation of more time than miles to ride in the remaining two days, and decided to backtrack south in search of lunch, maybe even crossing the Mississippi River into Iowa.

I rode off to try my luck with the pay showers: 50 cents for first four minutes, 25 cents for each additional two minutes. The bath house was clean an modern. I discovered that luxury can be found even in a four minute pay shower: having completed my washing in a the first minute left three minutes with nothing to do but enjoy the gloriously warm water. So much of bicycle touring (and life in general for that matter) is about attitude, and appreciating the little things as much as the big things.

We stopped at Great River Roadhouse and decided on pizza. Used to the downsizing of metropolitan pizzas in Minneapolis, we ordered two “medium” 16-inch pizzas, dubious of the waitress’ assurance that it would be enough for five hungry cyclists. Much to our surprise, what appeared looked like two extra large pizzas appeared. None of us having packed a tape measure (or standard reference pizza), we just dug in, destroying one and seriously putting the hurt on the second pizza. Stuffed to the gills, we cried uncle and strapped two take-out boxes of leftovers to a someone’s front rack.

Victory (Unincorporated)

We resumed our northwards journey in a pizza-induced food-coma, and marveling the whole time at the river in between close calls with high speed highway traffic now that the ride-able shoulders had disappeared.

Goose Island Campground, La Crosse County Park

Despite our best efforts to go slowly, we still reached Goose Island Campground by late afternoon. Much to our dismay, Goose Island Campground’s rates disproportionately subsidized ginormous RV’s, asking $20 per “sleeping unit”, tents and hammocks alike. A flurry of smart-phone-consultation ensued, as we were only 11 miles to the city of La Crosse. Our search for other accommodations was less-than encouraging, as motels in La Crosse and the only other campground nearby were equally expensive. Salvation emerged when one of our group displayed unprecedented negotiating skill, saying “we’re bicycle tourists. We’re tired, we don’t need any of your RV services; we just want a place to set up our tents for the night. We’re not willing to pay $80, but we’d really like to stay here.” The $80 group fee suddenly became $38, and we agreed. We were directed to the “overflow camping area,” off the main RV loop, away from the less-than-first class showers. It would have been perfect, featuring seclusion, fire pits and flimsy picnic tables but the mosquitoes were attacking with vigor. We played a round of frisbee before polishing off the left over pizza. As dark fell we built up a smokey fire from scavenged downed wood in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay, and reflected on the trip. The bicycle touring rookie amongst us was excited at her accomplishment. The guy pulling the Bob-trailer for the first time was happy with with it’s performance (much to my surprise because on two previous trips trailer’s had been a source of frustration). I was sad to see the trip coming to an end, feeling like we’d just gotten into the rhythm of life on the road.

Day 7: Saturday, 13-Aug-2011, 12.07 miles from Goose Island County Park, La Crosse WI to Amtrak-La Crosse; 6 miles from Amtrak-MSP to Hiawatha Cyclery. 18 miles total for the day.

It was a sleepless night as we had much overnight raccoon activity; they even managed to drag the take out boxes and the remainder of the pizza out of the 50 gallon drum trash cans, making quite a racket in the process. This was followed by rain and heavy thunderstorms that continued till 10 o’clock in the morning. Taking advantage of a brief lull in rain, we packed up and rode the gauntlet of Wisconsin highway 35 into La Crosse. We arrived at the Hungry Peddler very soggy, and were grateful to find a large overhang where we could park our bikes out of the rain, cheap prices and large portions. We lingered over breakfast until the rain let up and the lunch crowd starting coming in. Still having eight hours till our scheduled train departure and only five miles to ride, we set out in search of good coffee.

(travel?) Coffee Grinder at Bean Juice

Our search for good coffee lead us to Bean Juice, a coffee shop featuring it’s own coffee roaster. Enjoying a post-breakfast snack of yogurt parfait’s and coffee in giant mugs, we whiled away another hour. Somewhat chilled from the excessive air conditioning, we retreated to the humid warmth outside, and wound up at Dave’s Guitar Shop, which happened to be owned by the uncle of one of our group. Although none of us played guitar, we still managed to wander in amazement at the huge variety for another hour. Then we retreated to a neighborhood dive bar for one last round of bacon cheeseburgers. Contemplating our likely dining options on the train, we stopped again at People’s Food Coop. Feeling pie deficient, we found a “patisserie” that was going out of business, and indulged on sweets, gelato and coffee, but alas no pie. Running out of options, we slowly rode back to the Amtrak station, but found ourselves there half an hour before they re-opened for the evening train at 6 PM. Somewhat before six o’clock the baggage handler appeared and helped us locate our bike boxes. To our surprise, not only were all five of our boxes still waiting for us, but also several more boxes from a few more recent Minneapolis-area travelers.

bike boxes awaiting the train home to Amtrak-MSP

After boxing up our bikes there was nothing left to do but wait. And wait. And wait some more. The baggage handler eventually let us know our train was running about an hour late. So we continued waiting. We talked about future trips; noting that Amtrak had service to Glacier National Park, as well as Portland, Oregon (where I and on of my companions from this trip are heading next month to ride the coast).

Amtrak-La Crosse

Of all the clothes I brought, the only thing I never used was a pair of rain pants; the temperature was warm enough that I didn’t wear them even in the rain. There were several things I only used once, including the SmartWool stocking cap and Patagonia Nano-Puff pullover. We fortunately had no mechanical difficulties, but I would probably bring the same tools and spare parts (folding tire, two inner tubes, two brake cables, two shift cables, two fiber-fix Kevlar spokes, and four brake pads) again.

All-in-all, a wonderful trip, with wonderful companions, and near-perfect weather. My only regret was that it ended so soon.

You can see another view of this trip on Jim’s blog.

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