Travel Local: Military Ridge State Trail to Blue Mound State Park

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When traveling by bicycle, all the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that whiz by in a blur while driving at 70 mph present themselves to you while pedaling at 10. You mingle with the little shops in the little towns that the interstates bypass. You co-exist with the songs of birds, the intimate scenic details and the smell of dairy farms (live by the cheese, die by the cheese). There is no better way to experience the local countryside than by loading up the camping gear and pedaling the Military Ridge State Trail out to Blue Mound State Park. You can travel all the way from Madison to Blue Mound without ever riding on a road. And on a bike-only trail, the only danger is that you just might want to keep riding.

The trail traverses the heart of rural Wisconsin. From rustic pastures, fields and woods to quaint towns and crossroad bars, a bike ride on the Military Ridge Trail features the best attributes of Wisconsin. The trail is an old train corridor converted to a bicycle path. In many spots you will feel like you are miles from any civilization (sometimes you are), until it leads you right through the old center of a country town. And the only thing better than the ride on the trail is the destination: Blue Mound State Park, the geographic pinnacle of southern Wisconsin and undisputed champ of summer fun.

Note: Any Wisconsin State Bike Trail requires you buy a trail pass ($20 annual or $4 daily) which can be purchased at kiosks on the trail. One trail pass is valid for all of Wisconsin’s bike trails including the Elroy-Sparta, Capital City, and Glacial Drumlin to name a few, so it may be beneficial to buy the annual and then get biking to make sure you get your money’s worth.

Diversion: The ride itself may be enough diversion to fill the day. There are plenty of great stops along the way where you can get a drink of water, use a bathroom or sit on a bench and rest as you watch other bikers go by. But, the most important stops on a long bike ride offer a chance to refuel the “tank” (cars need gas, bikers need refreshments). Riley’s Tavern, a restaurant/bar in the easily unnoticed town of Riley right along the trail a few miles west of Verona, is a great place for repose. The patio offers shaded seating in the open air, or the air-conditioned, recently-turned-smoke-free interior is a great place to cool off and re-charge on a hot day. In the town of Mount Horeb, off the bike trail to your right, the Grumpy Troll is an all-time favorite. The Firehouse is open late (past 2:00 AM) if you are riding the trail at night with lights and decide to grab a drink.

On the trail you’ll pass close by countless other attractions such as Cave of the Mounds, Brigham and Stewart County Parks and the Trollway in Mount Horeb. The trail also extends past Blue Mounds out to Dodgeville, so if you are feeling adventurous and energetic, do some exploring and don’t be afraid to ask locals for recommendations.

If you have energy and daylight when you arrive at Blue Mound State Park, by far the best thing you can do is bike to the top of the hill! On the top, there are two observation towers, East and West, which provide unparalleled views in their respective directions. Also, you can hike to the top via one of the many hiking trails throughout the park. If you are hot or lazy go straight to the swimming pool (open 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM, $2 to enter).

Before you leave Blue Mounds, Hooterville Inn has the best breakfast in town. It is the perfect way to begin your ride home. Located between the general store and the big, white church, it serves affordable, hearty breakfasts and hot coffee until noon-perfect for the cycling tourist.

Trail maps can be obtained at the Blue Mound State Park campground office or HERE.

Route: It is about a 25 mile trip, one way, to Blue Mound State Park, but the ride is very flat, mostly shaded and you never have to ride on a road, save half a mile in Fitchburg. The beginning of the route is paved trail, but a large majority of the Military Ride Trail is crushed limestone which can be ridden by road bikes, hybrids, single speeds and mountain bikes alike. The pedaling is easy and scenic, but bring plenty of water and refill your bottles whenever possible, especially on a hot day.

Directions by bike: Leaving from the Monona Terrace, ride the bike path along Lake Monona heading west. Take a right at the lights at the intersection of John Nolen Drive and North Shore Drive. Then, take the next right on the Southwest Commuter Trail (which passes behind the Kohl Center and Camp Randall) to where it ends at the Capital City State Trail off Verona Road. Take a right on the Capital City Trail and, eventually, that will become the Military Ridge State Trail. Ride the trail 20 miles. Just after the town of Blue Mounds, a path clearly marked by a sign reading: “Blue Mound State Park” exits off to the right of the main trail. This path will take you uphill and into the park. The bicycle campground is the first left. The regular campground and other areas of the park are farther up the hill.

A map of the Southwest Commuter Trail and Capital City State Trail can be found HERE.

A map of the Military Ridge Trail can be found HERE.

Gear: A large messenger bag or backpack will suffice, but you may develop a sore shoulder or rear-end. At least a rack, to which you can strap your sleeping bag or tent, is highly recommended to accompany any tote bag. A pull-along bicycle trailer would be perfect as would a full touring rig with racks and panniers. Save weight and space by packing light. If you can, bring money to eat out and forego packing all your meals.

Accommodations: Camping in the recently complete bike-in campground is $12. There are bathrooms, running water, and a small wooden storm shelter with two benches. To take a shower you will have to bike five minutes to the main campground.

Conservation history: The region’s changing modes of transportation are reflected in the changing landscape of the Military Ridge passageway. In pre-European settlement times, animals traveling by paw or hoof and Native Americans traveling by foot created simple trails. When lead was discovered in the area and conflict persisted between the native peoples and the settlers, the US Military built a primitive road for use by horses and carriages. When the area became more heavily populated by farmers and permanent residents, a railway was built to transport people and goods. As the automobile was popularized leading up to the 1950’s, the railway was abandoned and the corridor was eventually converted into the current bike trail by 1985. With our transportation future uncertain, what will tomorrow bring for Military Ridge?