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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A boardwalk opens a wildlife area to residents and visitors who want to observe birds and animals, find solitude and get some exercise. © Robert Queen
A boardwalk opens a wildlife area for people to observe birds and animals, find solitude and get some exercise.
© Robert Queen

August 2002

Hit the trails!

The Year of the Trails celebrates the wonderful paths we've built and the healthful outdoor routes we hope to form.

David L. Sperling

What makes a good trail?
Walking to health and happiness | The could-be trails
Join the fun any week until year's end
State trail tally

The road maps rarely show them. The highway riders barely see them. But across Wisconsin's landscape on hillsides and ridges, down logging roads and farm fields lie networks of trails. By foot, wheel, snowshoe, ski, sled, horseback, paddle power and under water, you can explore mile upon mile of Wisconsin in relative peace and quiet.

Our Year of the Trails celebrates these wide-ranging opportunities. There are dandy events each week through December that you'll find posted at state parks, county offices, national forests, historic sites, campgrounds and Tourism Information Centers. Those who surf the Web can stay on track with trail events at Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas & Trails.

Trails are arteries that become more vital and more powerful as they link to other trails to form a body of outdoor recreation. "In a growing number of places we can provide outdoor experiences that give the hiker, biker, skier and paddler the freedom to explore an area of Wisconsin all weekend or all week without relying on paved roads that carry car traffic," said Sue Black, DNR Parks and Recreation director. "That chance to slow down the pace, to get away from the lights, away from traffic noise and back to nature is a welcome bonus to the benefits of healthy exercise."

What makes a good trail?

Linked trails call for cooperation and a collective vision to provide the self-propelled traveler with ample routes. As the Year of the Trails celebration shows, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources partners with county parks, city recreation departments, other state agencies, the National Park Service, friends groups, outdoor clubs, foresters, tourism councils, nature centers and private campgrounds to form webs of connecting trails.

To make the most of opportunities to expand trails, DNR recreational planners look for certain features as they plan new trail segments. The State Trails Network Plan, adopted in January 2001, outlines the characteristics quality recreational corridors share. First, the state is quicker to consider new paths near population centers because they serve more people and are more likely to connect to a network of existing city and county trails.

Second, the state considers aging rail corridors likely to be abandoned. "The Department of Natural Resources doesn't take a position on abandoning railroad routes, but we certainly stay in contact with the railroads and the Department of Transportation," notes State Trails Coordinator Brigit Brown.

Thanks to a 1983 amendment to the National Trails System Act, over 3,707 miles of potentially abandoned rail corridors have been turned into a trails throughout the country. Rail corridors have proven to make terrific trails.

A kiosk along the Elroy Sparta Trail provides visitors with maps and information about food, lodging, cultural events and local services offered by local businesses and communities. © DNR Photo
A kiosk along the Elroy Sparta Trail provides visitors with maps and information about food, lodging, cultural events and local services offered by local businesses and communities.

© DNR Photo

It's easier to redevelop rail routes as trails than acquire new parcels. The land along the route is already owned. Railbeds provide a pre-made hardened surface for a trail. The railroads do a good job of cleaning away overhanging vegetation and keeping the corridor clean. Railroad grades are already engineered to have gentle slopes, and the routes often travel right through the heart of downtown communities. "They make good recreational routes and good commuting routes," Brown said.

Third, the trail plan advised looking for segments that adjoin or connect historic sites, tourist attractions, and state and county parks. "The idea is that trails can provide another way to reach these attractions and that people can link together a nice mix of experiences if they combine a bike ride with a nature walk, a picnic and a cultural outing," said Shawn Schmidt, DNR Year of the Trails Coordinator.

For the same reason, we look for new segments that link to existing federal, state, county or municipal trails. We're also on the lookout for parcels to bring trail users closer to rivers, vistas, scenic landscapes, and unique geologic features like the glacial edges of the Ice Age Trail that ribbons through 1,200 miles of Wisconsin.

Other aspects of land development could provide excellent prospects for trails. Corridors set aside for power lines, gas lines, phone lines or other utilities offer fine off-road recreation, particularly in urban areas where the routes can serve as links to other trails. As new roads are developed or reconstructed, paved shoulders or separated paths can become economical trail connectors.

Wisconsin properties also form important links to interstate trails. For instance, the North Country National Scenic Trail will become part of a 4,200-mile trail crossing seven states from Crown Point State Historic Site in New York to Lake Sakakawea State Park on the Missouri River in North Dakota. It will cross 390 miles of Wisconsin, of which 170 miles are on public lands.

A trail outside your door could take you on a nationwide journey. For instance, the Southwest Bike Path, a paved railroad spur that now runs past neighborhood backyards on Madison's west side, is the trailhead to the Badger State Trail. The Badger trail heads south and will link to the Jane Addams Trail at the Illinois border. Continuing down to Freeport, riders will find a hub of the Grand Illinois Trail, which is part of the American Discovery Trail extending east to west across the United States coast to coast. Anyone willing to make the ride could travel the nation by trail starting from downtown Madison.

We'll also look for ways to form water trails. Rivers were our historic highways for commerce and recreation. The State Historical Society is also exploring how sunken boats and other underwater archaeology sites can be protected, marked and managed to encourage underwater maritime trails.

Although canoe and kayak travel remains tremendously popular, the provision of lodging, bathrooms, picnic areas, campsites and livery services at regular intervals along waterways has not been well coordinated in recreational plans. Schmidt observed that paddlers, bikers, and hikers are out for an experience as much as for exercise, which means their travel plans may well include camping, lodging, meals, and the opportunity to enjoy evening entertainment.

Communities along wet or dry recreational corridors have the chance to cater to the needs of the trail traveler by offering car shuttles and making it easy to find overnight accommodations, restaurants and community attractions.

Walking to health and happiness

For those who need a little incentive to celebrate the Year of the Trails every day, here's a message: Any time is a good time to start regular exercise, and the benefits are long lasting.

As recounted in Healthy People 2000, a national fitness report from the U.S. Public Health Service, physically fit people remain a very small minority of the U.S. population. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation's adults exercise for more than 20 minutes, three days a week. We're not talking about heart-racing aerobics, running marathons or swimming mighty rivers, just getting your heart rate to a modest 60 percent of its capacity.

The good news is that it is well within each of our abilities to vastly improve our health. The Public Health Service reported, "low to moderate aerobic exercise such as walking and bicycling yields substantial health benefits...[that] may be just as beneficial to your overall health as the breathless exercise we thought we had to endure for fitness."

Public bike trails are an excellent choice for exercise because they have very mild slopes, and they pass by beautiful, tranquil places with quiet, relaxing atmospheres.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's case study on the benefits of biking and walking classifies the bottom 20 percent of people on the fitness scale as "low-fit." This group is more than twice as likely to die from cancer, heart disease and all other causes. Just training for moderate fitness by walking a trail at a reasonable pace for two miles in less than 30 minutes only three times a week can offer major health benefits, including weight loss, an increase in bone density, and prevention of problems from heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol. It may just get you that promotion, too: Regular exercise has been linked to greater productivity, reduced absenteeism, fewer workplace injuries, lower turnover, a more positive outlook to handle work stresses, and reduced tension and anxiety.

The could-be trails

Trails enthusiasts are optimistic people, and they envision even greater opportunity for future routes. As segments become available, perhaps the Department of Natural Resources can help buy them, or provide personnel and funding to help develop the new trails. Partners could equally develop, maintain and operate trails as cooperative ventures. Here are samples from the wish list of potential trail segments in each region of Wisconsin drawn from the State Trail Plan:

Northeastern Wisconsin – Trail Segment 3 would run east and west about 22 miles in Oconto County connecting Stiles Junction to Gillett. This link would connect Oconto, Stiles Junction and Oconto Falls to the Nicolet State Trail. Between Oconto and Stiles Junction, the trail would run parallel to the Oconto River, popular for fishing and float trips. Users could take a float trip, then hike or bike back on the trail to retrieve vehicles. Part of the trail may be formed adjacent to roads scheduled to be widened and upgraded.

Northern Wisconsin – One of the most ambitious proposals, Segment 17, might run 135 miles north to south from Washburn to Abbotsford alongside active railways. The trail would link to the Tri-County Trail in Ashland, North Country National Scenic Trail, Copper Falls State Park, and the Tuscobia State Trail. This trail corridor would run from the Bayfield Peninsula through forested lands in Ashland and Price counties and the Chequamegon National Forest, crossing many streams and adjacent to some of northern Wisconsin's most distinctive bog, lake and forest landscapes.

Southern Wisconsin – One neat could-be route, Segment 29, would follow rail and road for 53 miles from Madison to Reedsburg. It could provide unique opportunities to travel from the capital city across Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac Ferry, onto Devil's Lake State Park providing a link to the 400 Trail, the Elroy-Sparta Trail, the Great River and La Crosse River trail corridors. This trail segment could also connect with the Ice Age State Scenic Trail at Lodi, Merrimac and Devil's Lake.

Southeast Wisconsin – Segment 6 is currently a mix of rails, roadways and utility corridors, but it has the potential to be one of the great coastal routes. It would follow the Lake Michigan shore from Green Bay past natural areas and dunes, through coastal port towns and harbors that would give riders the option of continuing south towards Chicago or swinging west and linking up to the Glacial Drumlin and Military Ridge trails.

Central Wisconsin – Segment 18 currently serves as a road and utility corridor between Tomahawk and Wisconsin Dells. One day it could link with northern and south central routes to form a continuous trail from Ashland on Lake Superior all the way to the Wisconsin/Illinois line. This would link many of the northern trails to the Green Circle Trail surrounding the Stevens Point area, down to the Wisconsin Dells spreading westward along the edges of the lower Wisconsin River.

Join the fun any week until year's end

Special trail events are being hosted almost every weekend between now and the end of the year. One of the biggest, the Friends Across Wisconsin Trail Tour, is coming up August 13-17. Throughout the five-day, 300-mile journey, riders will snake through forests, hills and farms past picturesque rural and urban landscapes. They will ride on back roads, public trails and Wisconsin's famous converted Rails-to-Trails segments. Each day on the tour is guaranteed to provide a variety of scenery, cultural sights and friendly communities.

Other Year of the Trails events include candlelight night hikes, beach walks, guided prairie nature walks, ATV rallies, mountain bike races, fall color tours, educational interpretive walks, fall wildflower tours, history strolls through old neighborhoods, parks work days, guided hikes on the Ice Age Trail and several Halloween hikes. DNR Service Centers and the DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation can help you find your way to join these fall and winter events. Come on and hit the trail with us.

State trail tally
Designated UseMiles of State Recreational Trails
Mountain bike1,028
Cross-country skiing671
Touring bike634
Inline skating76
Note: Thousands of miles in county trails, city trails, commercial logging roads and private trails are not included in this total.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. For more information about the Year of the Trails, ask Shawn Schmidt, Year of the Trails coordinator, (608) 264-8957.