116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SPARTA, Wis. — There were times during a recent trip to southwest Wisconsin when I didn’t know whether I wanted to grip my camera or my paddle.
Paddling along a section of the winding Kickapoo River near Ontario, each turn of the winding river seemed to reveal rock formations more interesting than the ones immediately before it, the sheer faces of the sedimentary rocks dropping straight into the river. The lush trees and landscape and overcast skies made the trip feel almost prehistoric at points, and the rock bluffs were pulling me like magnets to lean back and look up.
My iPhone spent most of the 13-mile paddle in my lap so I could quickly capture as many photos of the bluffs as I could.
The rolling hills and sparse population of southwest Wisconsin lead to some fantastic opportunities for paddling and biking and a visit to Sparta, about three-and-a-half hours from Cedar Rapids, will put you in the middle of some true outdoor gems.
While the crowds can be large on weekends, dropping in for a midweek paddle or bike ride is a much different story. That’s when you can get a fantastic experience that you can customize in a number of ways.
What: Sparta, Wis., is a great outdoor recreation destination about 3.5 hours from Cedar Rapids, or about 30 miles east of La Crosse, Wis. The Kickapoo River is located nearby and is one of the most popular paddling locations in the state (which has many great options). The Sparta-Elroy bike trails is one of the most popular biking destinations as well. Both are popular weekend destinations, but a midweek trip in peak season offers fantastic experiences without the people. While the region has many outfitters, both the paddling and bike shop were great experiences.
History: Click here for a Wisconsin DNR story map about the Sparta-Elroy trail and its history.
Bikes: Speed’s Bicycle Shop provides rental of mountain, tandem, electric bikes and other accessories: speedsbike.com or (608) 269-2315.
Canoes: Titanic Canoe Rental provides canoe ($40/day), kayak ($30/day) and tube ($20/day) rentals and offers shuttling services. A daylong single kayak rental was around $30. https://www.titaniccanoerental.com/ or (608) 337-4551.
Map: Here’s a map of the Kickapoo River.
A day of paddling
On the Kickapoo, the river is winding, yet narrow. The river was swift even in the last days of July this year, making a projected six-hour paddle one that we knocked out in four hours.
The segment of the Kickapoo River between Ontario and Rockton is known for its rock bluffs, and is one of the most popular paddling spots in a state with some fantastic ones. The massive stone outcrops feature amazing details and formations and make you wonder about the history of this river. The different formations were stunning, frequent and really transformed the paddle into something akin to the Upper Iowa, the crown jewel of local paddles in Iowa.
The rental kayaks were a fantastic bargain checking in at $30/day regardless of how far down the river you wanted to paddle. Several outfitters are in town, each operating pretty similarly. On my trip, we went about 13 miles, so the shuttle ride at the end of the day was a fantastic value.
You’ll want to plan ahead on some things. The river doesn’t have a lot of sandbars, so it’s best to plan a break at one of the boat ramps spaced along the trip. The river is in a rural area without many food options, so packing a lunch that you can eat while kayaking is a great option. Finally, you’ll want to keep track of the bridges, which are numbered as you pass. On our trip, we traveled under bridges 1 to 14.
We had planned to return for a second day of paddling from just south of Rockton to LaFarge, but strong overnight thunderstorms and heavy rain meant the river was too fast for a second day of paddling. This portion of the river is known for some of the tallest bluffs and rock formations, and also is less busy than the upper portion. You’ll want to work ahead with the outfitter to see if you can get a shuttle to this starting point, which they’re typically able to do on weekdays.
But the change in plans didn’t derail the trip. In fact, it got even better. Within minutes of getting the cancellation, we Googled and learned about the 32.5-mile Sparta-Elroy bike trail. It features three rock tunnels and passes through five towns: Sparta, Norwalk, Wilton, Kendall and Elroy.
A smooth, 28-mile ride on an e-bike
Since the biking portion of the trip was totally unplanned, we were at the mercy of walking up and trying to rent bikes. We ended up at Speed’s Bike Shop, a family-run business that owner Milt Leis started in high school in 1978 and has been renting from its current store since 1989.
But there couldn’t be a better business to drop in on. The bike shop is now right along the Sparta-Elroy trail, so you can park and get your rental (or shuttled elsewhere) from the lot.
The team at the shop hooked us up with our trail passes and e-bikes for about $80 (other bikes range in the $25-$30 range) and did a great job explaining how to use the e-bikes. Each rental comes with a small gear bag with tools for repairs, and allows you another space to pack sunscreen and bug spray. The bike shop is located along the trail in Sparta, meaning you can drive up and leave your car at the shop as you ride.
While we hadn’t used e-bikes before, it provided a great assist for someone who hadn’t been on a bike in the past decade. We completed a 28-mile ride and used less than half of the bike’s battery in the process.
The packed crushed limestone trail makes for a smooth ride, and the easy grades throughout the trail let you really enjoy the fantastic prairie, farms and wetlands you’ll see along the way.
Trails and tunnels
The trail itself has a neat story. It’s the first rail-to-trail project and was completed in the mid-1960s. While upward of 55 trains passed between Elroy and Sparta in the early 20th century, other routes nearby were quicker and easier and the railroad abandoned the route in the early 1960s. Although it started out as a hiking trail, it opened to bikes in 1966 and to snowmobiles in 1968.
The trail also features a three-quarter mile tunnel you must walk your bike through. Bring a flashlight or headlamp for this portion, although an iPhone can get you through in a pinch. The tunnel walk is a fantastic break during the ride, and the mid-50s temperatures in the tunnel gave us great relief from the 90-degree temperatures and high humidity. If you’re biking after a recent rain, you’ll get wet in the tunnel as the water drips from the ceiling.
The tunnel entrances are a great place to stop and take a few pictures and you should expect the heaviest traffic in this area. (They’ve even put a stand there for you to take a time lapse shot.) The tunnels have large doors built at both ends to prevent the damaging effects of freeze-thaw cycle and were closed from mid-November until March.
The towns along the trail have places where you can grab a bite, and you can certainly sit in the grass and enjoy a break many places along the way. While Sparta has some options, starting or ending the day in nearby LaCrosse opens up even more dining and lodging options. The city of LaCrosse has some fantastic short hikes on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River that can be great add-ons to these hikes.
Weekend travelers should expect to see larger crowds and more tubing and float trips, while midweek travelers can have a lot of customization options with a bit of advance planning. No matter which you choose don’t forget to bring your camera.