Frugal Family Fun: Biking State Trails

Wisconsin is laced with a network of bike trails made from abandoned railroad right of ways. These trails wind through farmland, forests, prairie, wetlands, small towns and cities, past rock formations, lakes, and along rivers and highways. Some trails are paved, while others are surfaced with crushed limestone or dirt. We ride our mountain bikes on these trails and find they work the best for us. Less worry about the trail itself and more time to enjoy the scenery.

We often ride the trails in our area. It is a very affordable family outing. Sometimes we bike on our local trail, and other times we throw the bikes in the back of the van and drive to one of the other trails in our area. Every year the trail system is extended, and different parts of it are linked.

We recently drove to the head of the Badger State Trail north of Belleville near the hamlet of Paoli. This part of the trail has recently been linked with the Capitol City Trail that leads to the heart of Madison. We set off from the trail head parking lot in the early evening after the major heat of the day had passed. We rode toward Belleville through forest with limestone rock formations into rolling farm country. The views were typical of this part of southern Wisconsin, sheltered valleys with small neat farms, their well cared for barns of various ethnicities, depending on the nationality of the people who settled the land.

We passed under roads and over creeks and streams; rode through wetlands and along the highway as we neared Bellville. We watched the sun begin to set and experienced the first cool of the evening—and the unwanted attentions of mosquitoes and deer flies! There was no time to linger on the way back to the trail head!

One of these rail trails runs the length of the small town in which we live. We can get to any store or run errands on a bike most of the time just as fast we can in our car. Every year we buy annual bike passes because we use the trial so much. Children under the age of 16 ride free. Anyone can walk the trails without paying a fee.

There are over 64 of these trails to enjoy in Wisconsin, over 1200 miles in all with 656 more miles of trails planned. There are a number of publications and websites that map the trails and offer information about the town and attractions that lie along them. We have friends who decided to ride every trial in the state and spent a couple of years doing it!

Most trails in the state are multi-use. In some areas they are open to four wheelers (ATVs), and in most of these areas almost no one else uses the trails because it is too dangerous for horse riders, cyclists, or pedestrians. (I used to ride my horse on some of these trails to get from one forested area to another when training for endurance and competitive trail riding events. I had to get my horse used to ATVs before we could use the trail safely.) In other parts of the state, the trails are only used by hikers and bikers, which is the case in our part of southern Wisconsin. During the winter, the trails are groomed by local snowmobile clubs and used almost exclusively by them (cross country skiers use the golf courses and state and county parks).

To get the most of this type of family outing, it pays to prepare:

  • Always bring water, even if you think you are not going to be on the trail long enough to need it. (Especially if you think you are not going to need it—because that is when you always do!)
  • Bring a snack of fruit, granola, or hard candy, if you are riding with younger children. Growing children burn a lot of energy and need to refuel often.
  • Break your ride up into manageable portions. Stopping for even four or five minutes can be refreshing and avoid dramas created by sore or overtired riders. Some trails have small covered shelters, benches, or grassy areas you can use for this purpose.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and helmets. You don’t have to invest in expensive gear (although, if you are going to be ride a lot or for longer distances, investing in a good pair of padded bike shorts or underwear and padded biking gloves or mitts is a good idea.)
  • Check your bikes’ breaks, seat adjustment, and tires before starting off. Bring a cell or Tracfone and a patch kit in case you break down or need help while on the trail.
  • Apply sunblock and insect repellent as needed.

Other states also have retired railroad right of way bike trails. Enjoy one near you! Begonia

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