Located between Chicago and Minneapolis, Southwest Wisconsin is a perfect place to shake the winter blues.
The two most notable destinations for hiking and snowshoeing are the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR) and the Sparta Elroy Trail. Many of you will recognize these trails as bike trails, but in the winter they are still open for many activities.
Just north of the town of LaFarge, the KVR is more than 8,500 acres with many miles of open trail. There is a headquarters in town, several winter campsites in the reserves, and picnic areas. In the past year, the wooden bridges have been completed over the river and the trail is open. They are not only beautiful, but they offer fantastic views of the river. The main trail follows the old Highway 131 and is wide and well groomed. It travels along the river bottom and is a low impact trail. There are several convenient parking spots, but you will need to buy a daily parking permit.
For a little more adventure, take advantage of the horse trails. Open to hiking and snowshoeing in the winter, these trails bring you into the heart of the reserve. I often chose to snowshoe this country to get closer to the wildlife. Snowshoeing is quieter and provides more traction when you climb to steep slopes to the exposed rock bluffs. When you are on the KVR trails make a point of investigating the ice caves. These are areas along the rock out-croppings where water leeches out of the rock. In cold weather this water freezes and creates amazing sculptures. When you stop at the reserve headquarters, ask if they will be conducting hiking tours of these caves or if they can point you in the right direction so you can find them yourself. This unique phenomenon is a must see.
Another interesting feature of the KVR is the presence of Native American art work. For many thousands of years Native American used the river and the surrounding area as their home. Evidence of their existence can still be seen today. A few years ago when the reserve was created, part of the land was given to the Ho Chunk Nation. These people realize the cultural and spiritual importance of this land and set aside part of the land to preserve the past. The location of the art and carvings are not made public out of respect for the Native American ancestors and also in attempt to eliminate vandalism. The art is not visible from the trails, but just knowing it is there reminds me of the sacredness of this ancient river.
A few miles north of the KVR is Wildcat State Park, so named because a wildcat was once hunted and killed on the mountain. This park offers additional winter camping, another trail, and a breathtaking lookout. From this high vantage point you’ll be able to see why the Native Americans name the river Kickapoo or “crooked river.”
When you are finished enjoying the woods, food and lodging can be found in the towns of Ontario and LaFarge. Also, the Rockton Bar in Rockton has an excellent chicken dinner. If you drive west down Highway 33 out of Ontario, you’ll find a concentration of Amish people who have many items to sell. With signs at the ends of the driveways, you’ll soon see what’s available. In the winter I make a point of viewing the homemade quilts and often buy a quart of natural maple syrup. If you want to buy something from the Amish, make a point to do it right away on Saturday. They are deeply religious and won’t sell anything on Sunday. Also, they won’t allow you to take their picture. If pie is what you want, go to Borgen’s cafe in Westby. Located on Highway 14, this quaint cafe offers regular fare in addition to the best Norwegian specialties including Lefse and more than 20 varieties of pie.
Roughly 25 miles north of Wildcat State Park is the town of Sparta and one of the end points of the Sparta Elroy trail. This trail was one of the first railroad lines to be converted into a trail. During the summer it is filled with bikes. But on winter days, you can have the place to yourself. Spanning 32 miles, this trail is wide and well groomed. It won’t have the steep inclines like the trails along the Kickapoo. Instead all of the climbs are on the old railroad grade. If you start in Sparta and head south on the trail, you may not notice you are going up hill until you head back.
This trail winds through woods and pastures as it makes it way south giving you ample opportunities to enjoy the rural Wisconsin landscape. One of my favorite features are the old railroad tunnels. They are along the entire route, so it is likely you will see at least one during your travels.
Food and lodging can be found up and down the trail. There are many bed and breakfast houses and restaurants that cater to the tourists using the trail. There are also local shops that offer technical assistance when your gear breaks down, however most cater to the summer bike business. If all else fails, you might want to consider driving the 30 miles to LaCrosse. There is a new Gander Mountain just off Interstate 90 that might just have what you’re looking for.
The KVR is planning to have its winter festival in early January. Check their Web page for full details. This festival is a wonderful introduction to the winter activities you can find in Southwest Wisconsin. Scheduled events include dog sledding, cross country skiing, w, and geological hikes. January would make a perfect time to check out these two trails.
For those of you new to the sport of snowshoeing and are thinking of giving it a try this winter, it has a low learning curve which makes it easy to start. Also, it is much quieter and easier than hiking because you walk on top of the snow instead of sinking into it. Anyone who has hiked during the winter and experienced compacted snow down his/her boot knows what I’m talking about. When deciding on a pair of snowshoes, think of how you will most often use them. For the horse trails and the main trail, I use snowshoes that are made for the hilly terrain.
Regardless, there are good manufactures out there that make a wide range of snowshoes for a variety of people and activities. Stores like Gander Mountain and REI can also get you going and you should find the cost to get started is very affordable. See you on the trails.