July 14, 2024


STH-071“The Road Along the World’s First Rail To Trail”


WisMap71Western terminus: Jackson County, at Highway 54 in Melrose (running concurrently with Highway 108)

Eastern terminus: Juneau County, at the junction with Highways 80 & 82 in Elroy

Mileage: about 54 miles

Counties along the way: Juneau, Monroe, La Crosse (brushing the corner), Jackson

Sample towns along the way: Elroy, Kendall, Wilton, Norwalk, Sparta, Melrose

Bypass alternates at: Sparta

Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 71 is probably best known by bikers for its location paralleling the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail, the first “rail-to-trail” project in the nation. Winding over and around impressive landscapes in Wisconsin’s “unglaciated” territory (referred to locally as “Hill Country”), Highway 71 is short enough – and yet interesting enough – to make for a good afternoon drive.

Wisconsin Highway 71 Road Trip

The Drive (Southeast to Northwest): Highway 71 begins in Elroy (pop. 1,578) at the junction with Highways 80 and 82. Elroy is the hometown of Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Secretary of Health & Human Services; the town is named after the son in “The Jetsons” (okay, I’m kidding on the Jetsons one.) Buffs of the 1980s who played the wildly popular game Trivial Pursuit may be interested to know that 30 million Trivial Pursuit games were produced in Elroy from 1983 to 1985 – which is practically a trivia question in itself. It’s also where three major rail-to-trail routes meet: the Omaha Trail, which goes to Camp Douglas, the “400”, which goes to Reedsburg, and the “granddaddy” of them all, the Elroy-Sparta Trail. The Elroy-Sparta was the first rail-to-trail project opened in the United States and has welcome bicyclists since 1967. Along with a downtown strip featuring a great hobby shop, several bars and a number of craft store, there is also the Elroy Commons.

Highway 71’s Elroy end is right where you get welcomed, at Highways 80 and 82.
Highways 80 & 82 go through downtown Elroy, while Highway 71 begins just north of it.
Elroy Commons, once a train station and now a hub for bicyclists using the “400” and Elroy-Sparta Trails.

Built in 1991, the Commons is where the Omaha, “400” and Elroy-Sparta Trails meet and features an information center, gift shop, restrooms, showers and bike rentals. Rentals are $3 per hour or $12 per day. Schultz Park, a city facility, provides camping and RV facilities as well as a pool, tennis courts, volleyball, a children’s playground and more. If you plan on riding the trail(s) and making a day or two of it, Schultz Park is a good place to set up camp. If you prefer a motel, a number of them in Elroy and along the route cater to bicyclists. Highway 71 basically follows the trail for its entire length and serves as a shuttle route as well as a road alternate for bikers, so don’t be surprised if you see a lot of people on two wheels on this route.

Elroy Commons

Since it’s a historic trail, the Elroy-Sparta gets its own historic marker.

From Elroy, Highway 71 meanders up, over and around hills in a generally northwestern direction. The bike trail generally parallels the road, sometimes close and sometimes a mile or more away. And just like the trail, Highway 71 takes you through the heart of several small towns that once lived by the railroad.

The first town (and stop along the trail) is Kendall (pop. 469). Kendall offers the Elroy-Sparta Trail’s Headquarters, a facility open May 1 – October 31 each year.

Leaving Kendall, the Elroy-Sparta Trail crosses Highway 71 while the road prepares to tackle some big hills. The trail will be tackling some tunnels.
The stretch between Kendall and Wilton is only about six miles, but it gives you the best sense of this territory; steep hills, bluffs, beautiful valleys and attractive farm settings abound.

Just in from Tomah, Highway 131 hooks up with 71 for several miles into Wilton (pop. 509), which bills itself as the “Heart of the Trail.” A store and several bars are available for pit stops whether driving or biking. At Wilton, 131 heads off toward the Kickapoo Valley while Highway 71 heads toward more climbs over large hills. In fact, at the crest of the hill where 71 intersects with Keats Road, you’re actually over Tunnel #2 of the Elroy-Sparta Trail.

wilton_amishxing wilton_goldmedalmural

The Amish population is strong in this area; definitely watch for one- or two-horsepower wagons ambling down Highway 71 and nearby roads. In downtown Wilton, you’ll find some colorful murals that add a splash to this little hamlet.

Beneath this hilltop, bikers brandish flashlights while heading through tunnel #2 of the Elroy-Sparta Trail.
A bluff provides background to this church tower rising over Wilton in this view from Highway 71 approaching the town.

Norwalk (pop. 653) features a park along the Elroy-Sparta Trail junction along with a grocery store and Diamond Lil’s Saloon, popular with the motorcyclists who use Highway 71 as a major touring route.

Diamond Lil’s Trail Saloon in Norwalk, a popular stop for bicyclists on the trail and motorcycles on Highway 71.
Norwalk’s junction with the Elroy-Sparta Trail features a park, a hot dog stand and nearby a nearby grocery store.

From Norwalk to Sparta is 13 miles of winding between hills rather than over them, with the exception of one long drop (or climb, if you’re heading in the other direction).


After crossing over I-90, you reach Sparta (pop. 8,648), the Bicycling Capital of America. Sparta is the main town for about twenty miles around; that coupled with hosting Fort McCoy and the bike tourists means a commercial strip through town where you can get just about anything. Joining Highway 16, Highway 71 goes through this commercial strip as it also crosses Highway 21, which goes into Sparta’s main downtown area, and Highway 27, which it joins on the way out of town.

Sparta lies at the other end of the Elroy-Sparta Trail (obviously) and at that location, in Sparta’s old train depot, you can also pick up the La Crosse River Trail, which continues west toward the Mississippi.

At the Sparta Depot, a group of bikers begin the 32-mile trek toward Elroy.


The town’s enthusiastic support of bicycling extends to street name signs that bear bike symbols. Numerous motels and B&B’s cater to the cycling crowd while downtown establishments offer supplies for your bike and sustenance for your tummy.

The Deke Slayton Museum, chock full of bikes and space exhibits.

On top of bikes, Sparta has a number of attractions. Some kids who grow up in Sparta leave for big cities; Deke Slayton left for Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum honors the astronaut, native son, and head of NASA Operations from 1963 to 1972. And that fiberglass hippo, whose mouth you putt golf balls into while playing mini-golf? Chances are, it was made in Sparta at the FAST Corp. (FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks.)

spartaphantFAST does business all over the world, and few companies like it exist. A drive into their lot yields a sprawling field filled with fiberglass fun: large cows, alligators, elephants that double as childrens’ slides… the list goes on. You may traverse the field and marvel at their creations, as long as you behave and don’t climb on anything. Their lot can be found by following Highway 21 to the northeast edge of town, at the junction with County Highway Q. Look for giant fiberglass things.

FAST’s work is particularly evident in its hometown. The statue of a man on a bicycle that announces your entrance into Sparta along Highway 71 and the Clydesdale outside of the local Budweiser distributor are just two of the many pieces you can find in the area.

Made locally, “Ben Biken” greets you to the Bicycling Capital of America along Highway 71 & 16.


From Sparta, Highway 71 continues, multiplexed with Highway 27, northward toward Melrose. After about 10 miles, 27 branches off toward Black River Falls; Highway 71 heads back on a northwesterly course. Just after that split, you approach Wegner Grotto County Park, a nice art display of concrete sculptures decorated with glittering pieces of glass, seashells, Indian arrowheads, and other augmentations.

sparta_wegnergrotto01 sparta_wegnergrotto02

Above: A mere sample of the concrete and glass artwork on display at Wegner Grotto.

The drive toward Melrose consists not of major hill climbs or even rolling hills; one might better describe it as a series of little lumps. At the junction with Highway 162 at Four Corners, look south; you’re about 400 feet away from La Crosse County’s northeast corner and the sign is visible from the intersection. Meanwhile, you cross into Jackson County on Highway 71, with the hills and bluffs along the Mississippi River visible in the distance.

Joining Highway 108, 71 heads north across the Black River approaching Melrose (pop. 529). Highway 71 comes to an end at the junction with Highway 54. You can use 54 to head west toward Winona, Minnesota, or northeast toward Black River Falls.



After crossing the Black River, the two highways combine for the ride to the northern end, at a junction with Highway 54 approaching tiny Melrose (pop. 503). You can use 54 to head west toward Winona, Minnesota, or northeast toward Black River Falls.

One suggestion: double back and follow Highway 108 through the gorgeous Mindoro Cut! West Salem and La Crosse are on the other side.

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 80, Highway 82
Can connect nearby to: Highway 33, about 4 miles south

North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: Highway 54, Highway 108
Can connect nearby to: Highway 27, about 7 miles east

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *