Touring the Midwestern US on a Bike

In June of 2015, my Dad and I went on a weeklong bike trip through southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota.

Biking through Randolph Township, MN

This was my first time visiting either of these states, and I was excited to experience a new part of the country from the saddle!

Day 1: Airline Complications & Baraboo, WI

I missed the majority of the first day due to some airline complications. Rather than ranting about incompetent airport employees and terrible airlines, I’ll just get right into the bike trip.

I made it to the first campsite in time to grab some dinner, have my first Wisconsin beer, and set up our tent as it started to get dark out.

Nordic Pines campground, Baraboo, WI

The campsite (Nordic Pines Campground in Baraboo, WI) was nothing special, and the mosquitoes were out in numbers. I was pretty excited to be there regardless.

Most of the group retired to their tents at sunset to get away from the mosquitoes. Someone told me about a bar down the road that had over 100 local beers on tap, so I decided to go check that out.

I walked down the shoulder of the pitch-black road by the light of my headlamp and a soundtrack provided by a symphony of crickets and frogs. It was incredibly loud, and I felt super nostalgic as it reminded me of my childhood.

I tried out a few decent Wisconsin beers, and then decided to head back to the campsite. We always wake up early on these bike trips, so it was in my best interest to get some sleep. My walk home quickly turned into a sprint as I realized I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Day 2: Baraboo to Spring Green, WI (34.6 miles)

As we were leaving the campground, we decided to briefly check out Devil’s Lake State Park, as it was right outside our campground. We stopped in briefly and rode around for a few minutes. That’s a pretty huge lake!

Devils Lake State Park

I’ve heard that there are lots of really cool rock formations (and climbing routes!) in the park, but I didn’t wanna get sidetracked this early in the trip, so I didn’t stick around for long.

Right outside the park, there was an old abandoned amusement park that had mini golf, go karts, etc. At one time this place was operating under the name “Devil’s Lake Adventure Golf”.

Consider me sidetracked.

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

Naturally I had to do some exploring, as I’m fascinated with abandoned places.

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

The race track was in pretty rough shape, and the go-karts had seen better days.

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

Devil's Lake Adventure Golf

After poking around for a bit, we decided it was time to do some actual riding.

Things started off with a nice kick in the pants – a pretty serious hill, which had me questioning whether I was in proper shape for this trip.

First hill

I was drenched in sweat after climbing that first hill. Humidity was at 94% that day, which would explain why I spent most of the day looking like I just climbed out of a swimming pool.

My first impression of Wisconsin was that it felt a lot like certain parts of Pennsylvania: lush and green, with lots of farms and houses with big patios.

First impressions

It reminded me of Shippensburg, the town where I went to college – big red barns, cornfields, and tractors on the roads.

Tractor road

I tried not to stop for too many photos, but sometimes you see a llama hanging out in someone’s yard, so…

Llama

Sometimes you see a turtle in the middle of the road and you perform an act of kindness by moving him out of harms way.

A turtle hanging out in the road

And sometimes you laugh like a moron over a ridiculous street name in the middle of nowhere.

Funny street signs

The day’s ride consisted of a few more tough hills. Hard work going up, but lots of fun to bomb down on the other side.

As we got close to our campground for the day, we stopped for some ice cream.

Ice cream

We arrived at the campsite, Wisconsin Riverside Resort, around 2pm. I was surprised to find that it had a bar/restaurant, store, and swimming pool on site. Not too shabby!

I went to buy some beer and the lady in the store was raving about Chippewa’s Pride beer, so I bought a 12 pack of that and took it back to the campsite to share with my fellow riders. For a cheap local beer, it wasn’t half bad.

Chippewas Pride beer

So far, I was pretty satisfied with the Wisconsin beers that I had tried. New Glarus, in particular, had some great beers.

New Glarus Two Women beer in Wisconsin

Dinner at the campsite that evening was fantastic.

Dinner at camp

After dinner, it started raining. Living in Southern California, I had forgotten how mosquitoes flourish in hot humid weather. They were brutal!

I sought refuge in my tent before the sun even went down.

Inside my tent, avoiding rain and relentless mosquitoes!

It rained all night, and I could see the mosquitoes swarming around outside the tent, so I got to bed nice and early that night.

Day 3: Spring Green to Wonewoc, WI (43.8 miles)

We woke up early the next morning, and it was still raining. Putting away a soaking wet tent in the rain isn’t awesome. It’s all part of the adventure though!

Packing up our soaking wet tent.

After we got everything packed away, the rain was actually enjoyable. In that type of humidity you’re soaking wet no matter what, so the rain kept us cool.

The first few miles of the ride were rather… Plain.

Plain, Wisconsin.

An hour or so later, we made a stop at the Cedar Grove Cheese Factory, where I had curds for the first time in my life.

Trying curds for the first time

I went in with no expectations, and these curds rocked my world. They were super squeaky and delicious! My life will never be the same.

Curds

I ate entirely too many samples, and then bought two big ol’ bags of curds for the road. I kept them in my bike bag (which is definitely not temperature controlled) and continued to eat them throughout the trip.

Eating curds in WI

I spent most of the day (and most of the trip as a whole, come to think of it) near the end of the pack, as I stopped often to take photos and enjoy the scenery.

Riding near the end of the pack

I was totally content with this. I see no reason to be the first person to make it to camp when you have an entire day to ride. This is a part of the country that I had never seen before, and I was taking it all in.

I really enjoyed passing through little towns along the way. Most of them have a “Welcome to…” sign as you enter the town, and often these signs would proudly boast the town’s claim to fame. For instance, Loganville, WI is “home of the first Klondike truck”.

Loganville, WI

I stopped in Loganville for a bit and took some photos. It definitely had a certain charm to it.

day-3-IMG_5763

The charm of Loganville, WI

After Loganville, we spent the next hour or so riding on the shoulder of WI-23.

Riding on the shoulder of WI-23 in Wisconsin

We passed lots of old barns and rolling hills full of grazing livestock. One of the barns smiled at me.

Barn in Wisconsin with big smiley face painted on the side.

We stopped in Reedsburg for lunch, and then got onto the 400 Trail. Originally a Chicago-Northwestern railroad bed, the 400 Trail earned it’s name from a train that used to travel 400 miles between Chicago and St. Paul in 400 minutes.

Getting on the 400 Trail

The 400 Trail was a very nice change of scenery from WI-23. All of a sudden, instead of riding by barns and being passed by tractor trailers, we were riding past ponds with lilypads.

Lily pads on the 400 Trail

After about 12 miles on the 400 Trail we arrived at Chapparal Campground in Wonewoc.

Chapparal Campground in Wonewoc, WI

This was one of my favorite campsites on the trip. Our tent was nestled among trees that provided some much-needed shade.

Day 4: Wonewoc to Sparta, WI (49.5 miles)

Morning at our campsite at Chapparal Campground

Waking up with a dry tent was nice for a change!

We continued our ride on the 400 Trail. Signs posted along the side of the trail indicate that people ride up to 55 mph on snowmobiles on this path. This sounds dangerous… And awesome.

55 MPH... On a snowmobile?

I stopped in Elroy, WI to stretch my legs. I felt a bit apprehensive about leaving my bike without a lock, but this horse told me that he’d keep an eye on it for me. I left the bike with the horse and walked around for a bit.

Parking my bike next to a horse in Elroy, WI

Downtown Elroy is home to a number of shops and eateries, including “The Meat Place”.

The Meat Place

After poking around Elroy for a bit, I hopped back on the trail and approached the first of 3 tunnels.

Tunnels on The 400 Trail in Wisconsin

The first two tunnels were relatively short (the first was 1,694 ft, to be precise). I walked through these first 2 tunnels with a group of people, and between the talking and combined light from headlamps, I didn’t get the “true tunnel experience”.

I sped up a bit so that I could ride through the third tunnel by myself.

The third and longest tunnel on the 400 trail

This tunnel was a bit longer than the others (about 1 mile), and because it goes deeper it gets much darker inside. I really wish I had my DSLR and a tripod in this tunnel as I could have gotten some pretty cool shots.

Inside the tunnel facing the entrance as light pours in

Walking through the tunnel alone was pretty cool. When I turned my headlamp off it was basically pitch black inside, and all I could hear was the water flowing down the walls around me.

There was a lot of other cool terrain to see on this portion of the ride as well, from farmland…

Farmland and a bridge along the 400 trail

…To rock formations along the side of the trail.

Rock formations along the 400 trial

We stayed in a hotel that evening to get a solid night’s rest, and I’m glad that we did. I heard that the bugs were particularly bad at the campsite that night.

Day 5: Sparta to Trempealeau, WI (44.8 miles)

After a great night of sleep in the hotel, I got an early start on day 5.

Day 5 of riding

The terrain was almost all trail, and I spent a good portion of the day riding alone. It was a very scenic ride, with some cool bridges along the way.

Bridge

I stopped in a quaint little town called West Salem for some coffee.

West Salem, WI

A bit further down the path, I passed a gaggle of geese. They made it pretty clear with their loud hissing that they weren’t particularly excited to see me on the trail.

Hissing geese on the trail

I had been craving pizza for a few days at this point. Rather than meeting up at the established lunch break area, I decided to go off on my own in search of a slice.

I spent about an hour messing with my GPS and ending up at restaurants that had either closed or moved. Frustrated and with an empty stomach, I admitted defeat and decided to get back on track.

Since I was riding alone, I decided to listen to some music. I put on the new Between the Buried and Me album and starting riding pretty fast. I got so into the music, that in what seemed like just a few minutes, I had gone about 25 miles and was in Trempealeau.

Trempealeau, WI

Trempealeau is an idyllic little town with a lot of charm. It sits right on the Mississippi river.

Downtown Trempealeau

I spent some time exploring the small downtown area while I waited for the others to arrive.

To my delight, I came upon a local pizza joint!

Downtown Trempealeau

I’m not super picky, but let’s just say that this pizza left something to be desired. I still crushed 4 slices, because even bad pizza is still good.

I left and met up with my Dad and some fellow riders in an awesome little bar called Muddy Waters Saloon. As we settled in, it started pouring out. I don’t see rain like this in Los Angeles, so I was loving it.

Grain belt beer in Muddy Waters Saloon

I had a chance to try a nice variety of local brews as we waited for the rain to die down a bit. Afterwards, we walked down the street to the Trempealeau Hotel. This was a really cool spot on the water with decent food.

After dinner, we sat out on the balcony behind the restaurant and watched the sunset over the Mississippi.

Trempealeau sunset over the Mississippi River

Day 6: Trempealeau, WI to Wabasha, MN (44.7 miles)

We kicked off our sixth day riding through the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on the Great River State Trail.

Riding through this marshland was a welcome change of scenery, and we saw some pretty cool flowers and birds along the way… Neither of which can be seen in this photo.

Riding through Great River State Trail marshland

After riding through the nature preserve, we got onto Wisconsin Highway which took us through some cool little towns though, like Fountain City.

Fountain City, WI

Throughout the trip we passed a lot of interesting/funny signs and businesses, but on this particular day there were quite a few that caught my eye. Take “Road House Bar” for example – who would have thought there was a bar here?

Road House Bar

A town called Alma was our designated lunch stop. Right before Alma, there was an optional detour with a nice climb – 500 feet of elevation gain over about 1.5 miles. I was told that there was a park with a nice view at the top, so I decided to go for it.

Getting up that hill was the most physically demanding thing that I did on this trip. As I mentioned earlier, I was never in a huge hurry to finish riding, so most of the time I kept a pretty reasonable pace, but on this Buena Vista Park hill climb I was really getting after it.

Some of the other riders from our group were already up there when I got to the top, and we got a picture together.

Buena Vista Park

The view of the Mississippi from the Buena Vista Park overlook was incredibly scenic.

View of the Mississippi from Buena Vista Park

The other riders from the group were heading further up the hill to a winery and they invited me to join them. A wine tasting wasn’t the first thing I had in mind, but this was a vacation, so why not?

Danzinger Winery

After sampling a number of wines, I found a red that I really enjoyed, so I bought a bottle of that to take home with me. The winery stop was a nice break from riding, and the grounds were beautiful, as they overlooked the Mississippi River.

After a little bit of wine tasting, the ride back down the hill was probably a bit too much fun.

Alma Wisconsin

I continued to make my my Northwest until I hit Nelson, where I got a flat tire. No big deal, as I was only a few miles away from the campsite, which was in Wabasha, Minnesota.

I walked my bike across the state lines via a big ol’ bridge that passed over the Mississippi River.

Crossing into Wabasha MN

When I finally made it to the campsite, I was pretty excited to sit down. A cold beer at the end of a long day of riding is one of life’s simple pleasures.

This campsite was really nice, too. It had brand new showers, a nice laundry room, and the most luxurious bathrooms I’d seen in almost a week. It was a nice change of pace for sure.

I stayed up “late” (relatively speaking) hanging around the campfire and drinking cold Yuengling with a few of the other riders.

Day 7: Wabasha, MN to Hager City, WI (39.6 miles)

We started off the day by crossing back over the bridge into Wisconsin.

Riding back over the bridge into Wisconsin

I looked at the day’s itinerary and realized that one of our planned stops was at a pie shop. I’m not normally a pie guy, but something about being away from home on a trip like this – be it backpacking, riding, whatever – stirs up some crazy cravings. I now had pie on the mind, and not much else.

We continued to pass through neat little towns. Every once in a while I’d see something that reminded me just how differently people live here… Like an unmanned firewood “store” on the side of the road, with an “on your honor” payment system. Pretty cool.

Wood store, on your honor

If something like that doesn’t give you the “small town” feel, the population counts on the road signs will probably do it.

Stockholm, WI

I was excited when we got to Stockholm, because it was pie time.

Stockholm Pie

Stockholm Pie and General Store made some of the greatest pie I’ve ever tasted! I inhaled two pieces – a coconut cream and an apple pie.

Coconut cream pie and apple pie from Stockholm Pies

They were both ridiculously good.

Coconut cream pie and apple pie

Stockholm General Store also had an awesome selection of local beers.

Local beers in Stockholm, WI

I stashed a few bottles in my bike pannier and hit the road. I don’t think I’ve ever pigged out on sugar like that right before an aerobic activity. I felt like I had a rocket strapped to my back for the next hour or so!

As we road from Stockholm to Maiden Rock, we passed some rock outcroppings with with eagles soaring around them, which were pretty cool to see.

Looking at a Rock outcropping on the way to Maiden Rock, WI

Eagles flying around a rock outcropping on the way to Maiden Rock, WI

Maiden Rock is another awesome little town that you can ride through, from one end to the other, in about 90 seconds.

Maiden Rock, WI

Maiden Rock, WI

We stopped at a park down the road to eat lunch. The park had a big map of Wisconsin, and it was nice to get a little more context for where we’d been and where we were heading.

Looking at a Wisconsin map

After lunch, I decided to speed up and ride on my own for a bit. I told my Dad that I’d meet him down the road in the next town, called Bay City, and I took off.

There’s something pretty neat about that – having never been to a town, but knowing it’s small enough that it’ll be easy to meet up without depending on a cell phone or establishing a specific meeting spot.

That night, we ate dinner at camp, and then shuttled to a nearby hotel. This was the final night of the trip, and we needed to get our things packed up so that we could head right to the airport after the next day’s ride. Tomorrow was also a 60 mile ride, so I wanted to make sure I got a good night’s sleep.

Day 8: Hager City to Eagan, MN (59.9 miles)

When we woke up in the hotel, we knew that we made the right decision in staying there – it was pouring out.

We took a shuttle back to the campsite and had breakfast with the other riders. We were underneath a covered area, but the winds were strong. The rain was coming in sideways and blowing peoples plates away!

Due to the crazy weather, a few of our fellow riders decided to sit the day out and take the shuttle to the finishing point. My dad and I got our rain gear on and sucked it up!

Rain gear with Dad

Soon after we left, the rain calmed down quite a bit. It was still wet out, but it wasn’t raining sideways anymore.

Rainy Bridge from Hager City, WI to Red Wing, MN

We rode over a bridge from Hager City, WI to Red Wing, MN – home of Red Wing shoes.

Red Wing, MN

For a last day of riding, day 8 ended up being the toughest day of the trip.

It started off pleasant enough…

Biking through Vasa MN

But soon we were riding uphill with some serious headwinds working against us.

Biking through Randolph Township, MN

Biking through Randolph Township

From this point on, I was no longer moving at a relaxed pace and enjoying the scenery. I had a flight to catch in Saint Paul later that day and I had my eye on the prize (pre-flight pizza), so I was pushing pretty hard to get through the last 30 miles or so.

Biking through Sciota Townhsip, Dakota County

This was actually the only day of riding where I had a “why am I doing this?” moment – where the effort required surpassed the enjoyment I was getting. I have these moments sometimes while running, but rarely on a bike. There were points where I was pedaling pretty hard and I felt like I was barely moving at all as the wind laughed in my face. I’d finally reach what looked like a downhill section and get excited to relax for a moment, but the wind would keep me from moving much at all.

After a few hours of perseverance, I reached the bike shop parking lot where our cars awaited us. I’ve never been more relieved to get off of a bike seat than I was that day.

I had a ferocious appetite and we tracked down some pretty incredible pizza at a place called Pizzeria Lola. Finally, some good pizza!

Amazing pizza from Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, MN

After a physically demanding week with pizza on the brain, this was an incredibly satisfying meal, regardless of the fact that I inhaled it in the car on the way to the airport.

I’ve done a bike trip like this once before, but that was in a terrain that I’m familiar with. This trip was different because I had never been to Wisconsin or Minnesota, so it was very cool to experience them that way.

All in all, it was a fairly epic experience. Exploring this part of the country on a bike was a very cool way to see it for the first time, and it was very cool to be able to spend this time with my dad.

This has become something of a yearly tradition for us. I’m excited to see where the next trip takes us. Thanks for reading!

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4 Responses to Touring the Midwestern US on a Bike

  1. Mike Cecil
    January 11, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    It was good to get this to help remind of the tour. It was one of six my wife and I did last year, and they sometimes run together. And it was far enough in the past that I had forgotten some of the highlights.

    Reply
  2. John
    January 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Great photos and narration John. I had forgotten some of these items and settings, and your blog took me right back there. I agree, the final day was some of the hardest riding I have ever done due to the extreme and constant wind! Looking forward to planning and doing another trip. Thanks again for all your time and commitment to finish this blog.

    Reply
  3. Cousin Sharyn
    January 11, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Hi John,

    I felt I was on the road with you, though someone would probably need to call 911 after about 3 minutes.

    Johnny is my younger cousin. Your descriptions and photos just pulled me in.

    Hi to your Mom and Dad. Tell Johnny I am very impressed that you both take on these life challenges.

    Thank you for sharing this entertaining journey with me.

    Sharyn

    Reply
  4. mack ford
    January 13, 2016 at 10:36 am

    People at home asked me about all the obnoxious bugs; I told them i was surprised how few problems i had with the bugs…..now I realize my good fortune was because there was a “bug magnet” in the group sol I was spared…thank you!
    Great pics and text….definitely took me back.

    Reply

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