David Michael Miller
Blue Mound State Park
When you think of the natural landscape of southern Wisconsin, what image first springs to mind? It's probably not mountains - or much elevation of any kind, for that matter. So it might seem strange to discover that the sport of mountain biking is not only alive here, but thriving. Cycling on pavement is a well-established means of both transportation and recreation here in the flatlands. Madison is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the country, with its miles of bike paths and bike lanes, dozens of bike shops, races and more. Practically next door in Waterloo we even have the headquarters of homegrown, international cycling company Trek, and Earth-conscious bike gear maker Planet Bike operates out of Madison.
Still, mountain biking? Is that even possible in an area where the highest natural vantage points around are moraines and mounds? It sure is.
The sport of mountain biking, born in California and since spread across the world to the point that it's now part of the Olympics, has more than a toehold in Wisconsin. In the past few years things have really taken off, with trail systems spreading as fast as the enthusiastic clubs and groups that create them can put shovel to soil.
Combining the thrill of trail running with the connection to the natural world you get from hiking, mountain biking also features a strong ethos of sustainability and conservation, a love of the outdoors and good-natured camaraderie that appeals to a wide range of people with differing abilities and drives.
If you're just looking to see some backcountry and enjoy relative peace and quiet from the saddle of a bike, then cross-country riding might be your thing. For something a little more technical (that is, involving a higher level of bike-handling skill and balance, plus the ability to navigate trickier, rockier paths), look into what are called all-mountain bikes and trails. Or maybe you're even more of an adrenaline junkie, and big drops, manmade stunts, jumps and other fun obstacles are what you're looking to conquer; freeriding is probably for you.
Whatever style you choose to explore, there are local options for places to play, groups to join and bikes to ride. In the Madison area, Capitol Off-Road Pathfinders (CORP) is a group of mountain bike enthusiasts who do much to dream up, build and maintain the trails you'll find in Dane County. They also gather for friendly group rides, meetings and the occasional camping trip. Madison's Female Off-Road Cyclists (Mad FORCs) is another organization focused on creating and supporting a community of both recreational and competitive women bikers. The community involved in the sport tends to be very welcoming of those with all skill levels so long as you maintain the same respect for others and the natural environment.
But let's say you have a helmet and a good bike with knobby tires and at least some front suspension. You're new to the area, or to the sport, and aren't really sure where to go. Well, you're in luck, because there are plenty of options within an hour's drive from downtown.
Approximately a 15-minute drive from Madison
Lat./Long. 43.003966, 89.483901
Head south on Verona Road, turn right at County Road PD and then immediately left onto Fitchrona Road, which you'll follow until coming to the trailhead on your left. There's a small parking lot, shelter and bathrooms and no fee to ride the trails. You can also access Quarry Ridge from the Military Ridge Trail.
One of the newer trail systems in the area, and also the closest to downtown Madison, is Quarry Ridge. Lovingly built and continually undergoing improvements and modifications (often by CORP), these trails are great for both intermediate and more advanced riders.
After passing through prairie, the singletrack (trail only wide enough for one bike at a time) winds its way up through the woods that run along a ridgeline overlooking a still-operational quarry. There's a large section of exposed limestone where riders with enough skill can tackle big drops, a few good kickers and a couple of jumps. Back in the trees, there's plenty of fast, smooth trail and hard-packed berms to play on, too.
One main loop is about a mile long, but plenty of alternate paths are cut down the side of the ridge if you want to change things up a bit. The Three Sisters trail, for instance, includes three successive wooden drops. The Tunnel trail, which forks off to the right from the main loop as it turns to go back downhill, features a series of banks that form a sort of natural halfpipe.
Approximately a 25-minute drive from Madison
Lat./Long. 42.97556, -89.03414
Follow Highway 12/18 east out of Madison and stay with 12 as it goes into Cambridge. Once in town, turn right on West Water Street and follow it until taking a left onto Highland Road. You'll stay on that, eventually going down a small hill, where you'll see the entrance to Cam-Rock III on your left. The standard trail fees apply.
Just south of the scenic town of Cambridge, Cam-Rock Park is a surprising gem of a trail system, with additions and improvements being made every season. It's also an excellent example of getting water from a stone; there's very little significant elevation, but through careful plotting and routing, the singletrack at Cam-Rock's area III manages to pull the rider along through fast, swooping sections and a couple of serious declines and inclines.
Beginners can certainly enjoy the trails at Cam-Rock, but scattered throughout the main section are several technical spots, including up and downhill runs covered in rocks and roots. But it's worth it to power through (or walk around) them, as the trail also wends its way through gorgeous meadows and Lothlórien-like woods. You'll also find yourself pedaling past horse stables and the winding waters of Koshkonong Creek.
A still-expanding advanced area includes plenty of berms, drops, bumpy climbs and more.
Blue Mound State Park
Approximately a 30-minute drive from Madison
Lat./Long. 43.02882, -89.84392
Take Highway 18/151 West past Mount Horeb and follow the brown signs along the highway to the right-hand exit at County Highway F. Turn left at County Road Id and then right at Mounds Road, which will take you into the park. Regular state park parking and trail fees apply, and you can pay at the attended booth (where trail maps and information are also available). Food and other provisions are available just outside the park in town at the Blue Mounds Grocery and Crafts on the corner of Mounds Road and Division Street.
Blue Mound State Park offers one of the largest mountain bike trail systems in the area, and the riding is some of the most technical you'll find in southern Wisconsin. Both state parks people and the folks at CORP have been working on these trails for years and add new features every season. Particularly adventurous beginners can attempt to ride here, but you'll generally want to have logged a decent amount of saddle time before rolling in.
Even the "green" sections at hilly Blue Mound present a challenge, but they're not insurmountable. They're also extremely fun compared to what passes for easy trail at other sites. The vast majority of the loops here are "blue," though - that is, intermediate - and they make you work for your lunch. The section called Blue Mound State Park, cont.
the Serpentine Climb, for instance, is a somewhat backbreaking, back-and-forth slog uphill. It's worth it, though. All the trails at Blue Mound go through some of the most spectacular wooded scenery you're likely to see anywhere, with dirt so black it seems like you could make coffee from it.
For the truly masochistic, the "black" (very, very expert) sections of trail are the thing to do. If you find yourself grinding through a series of narrow, sudden switchbacks, it's likely you've crossed the fire road and ended up on the appropriately named "Overlode." There's also "Holy Schist," a trail that pretty much speaks for itself. These loops are clearly marked, though, so it's your own fault if you find yourself on one.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit
Approximately a 50-minute drive from Madison
Lat./Long. 42.820000, -88.60323
Follow Highway 12 east out of Madison and just past Whitewater to the tiny crossroad of La Grange, turn left on County Road H and then follow it until you see the sign for the John Muir Trails. You'll need to buy a day (or season) trail pass, which is $7 for Wisconsin residents. Beginning and more advanced riders should check out Southern Kettle Moraine State Park.
The trail network here is great for those just starting out with off-road biking. They're well marked on maps available at the trailheads, and they're conveniently posted at points along the way. The Brown Loop is the shortest and set aside specifically for kids wishing to hone their bike skills. Families and newbies can hit the Red Loop, which goes for 1.25 miles through lovely woods and stands of evergreens. It involves very few technical patches while still providing plenty of chances to push yourself and have a good time.
Longer loops like the White, Orange, and Green offer more challenging terrain and pass through some really beautiful scenery. The Southern Kettles never get exceedingly technical, but there are plenty of roots, rocks and flowing singletrack to keep things more than interesting. For more serious business, you can always hop on the Blue Loop, a nearly 10-mile roll with enough switchbacks and short, steep climbs to make your legs and lungs burn.
The John Muir trail system also benefits from its proximity to the La Grange General Store and its attached shop, Backyard Bikes. It's a marvelous oasis in the middle of nowhere, a place to grab a bite to eat from the deli and load up on provisions like local microbrews and organic snacks. The store also rents both road and mountain bikes.
La Grange General Store is open pretty much year-round (it serves skiers and campers, too). The trails, however, are usually open from mid-April until February; they're also closed after substantial rainfall. For up-to-date trail conditions, call 262-594-6202.