A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a relatively short ride along the Military Ridge Trail in southwestern Wisconsin. This was a Black Friday ride - much of the family goes shopping or gets lost in video games (or maybe plays video games about shopping? I’m sure they exist), and so I took the opportunity to go out for a ride.
The last couple of years we’ve done our turkey day closer to home, but this year we headed back up the cheddar state. Given this I made special arrangements to get the Catrike strapped to the roof of our Honda Fit and figured I’d give the Military Ridge Trail another go.
I wanted to go either further, or in a different direction than last time. From Ridgeway, my starting point, the trail offers the opportunity to ride to two different state parks. To the east, the section of trail I’d already spent some time on, the trail heads over to the town of Blue Mounds, and rides along and through the southern end of Blue Mound State Park, a 10 mile ride (though last time I’d begged off due to the effects of turkey and wine and stopped in Barneveld). To the other direction it heads into Dodgeville and Governor Dodge State Park, for 9 and 8 1/2 mile rides, respectively. These were similar distances, and I might have gone for the novelty of the other direction, but fortunately my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are familiar with the trail, and indicated parts of it were cut off due to construction in the Dodgeville direction. So Blue Mounds it was.
The trail is mostly dirt or crushed stone, though parts of it are really just sand. I started relatively early in the day - about 8:30 - and this guaranteed that the softer bits would still be frozen. While it’s still technically autumn, we’ve had a bit of snowfall across the Midwest, and much of the trail is shaded enough that many patches of it remain
Military Ridge Trail cuts through the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, so the landscape is different than other parts of the state. Here sits an ancient, mostly buried mountain range, and the views give you that feel from time to time. You can be looking off into the distance and see what seems like a distant peak:
And then you think "that can’t be a mountain - I’m in Wisconsin". But it is, technically. It’s just that the valleys around it are mostly filled in through years of erosion. And, of course, you can see it because you are also high up in the mountains. These thoughts - the result in part of a geography class I signed up for in undergrad nearly 30 years ago, mostly to round out my credit requirements for a semester - accompany me every time I ride or drive through this area.
Barneveld is the first town stop along this course. It’s a small town, though certainly bigger than Ridgeway. There are a couple of taverns/restaurants along the trail, so folks looking for a pit stop on their ride along the Ridge have their opportunity here. The early morning nature of my particular ride didn’t really leave this an open opportunity, so I can’t vouch for the businesses themselves, but many of these little places in Wisconsin offer a fine meal for those unafraid of a little cholesterol.
Barneveld is also the gateway to Botham Vineyard. For those who enjoy a glass of Wisconsin wine with a view, the winery offers tastings with a view of the vineyards and Wisconsin countryside. For the warmer weather this would be an excellent side trip, particularly if accompanied by a picnic lunch. Days and hours available for tastings are specified on their website. I didn’t visit Botham on this ride, but MLW and I have been there before and enjoyed the trip.
As you ride out of Barneveld you also ride away from the highway that the trail parallels for much of the first part of the trip.
From there the tree cover is more dense, and you begin to feel much more alone and in the wilderness. About three miles past Barneveld you enter the southern edge of Blue Mound State Park. There are occasional signs mounted to the trees off the trail that tell you this.
Another half-mile or so in there is an asphalt trail to the north that leads up into the park’s campground area. For those looking for a hill climb this offers a nice opportunity.
The trail itself ends up in the park, so the way in is also the way out. The descent is fun, of course, though ice and snow on the path limited my speeds on the way down. Be aware that, depending upon time of year, hunting is allowed in the park. Though there were no campers that I could find, I did come across a batch of gentlemen in blaze orange planning to head up into the trees. I was thankful for my brightly colored gear, flag, and flashing lights.
There are other trails in the park, and some of them can be seen off the camping drive. These are more rustic, however, and not suited for my trike. Folks riding up on a mountain bike or similar would likely be able to tackle them, however.
I continued on past the park into the village of Blue Mounds.
Mounds View Park was my turnaround point. While the town itself is smaller than Barneveld, it too has a couple of taverns for the hungry and thirsty. They are a little further off the trail, but in a town this size that’s not saying much. There also appears to be, according to google maps, a yoga studio and a meditation center (go figure).
Cave of the Mounds road crosses the trail on two spots following this and will take you (unsurprisingly) to the Cave of the Mounds. I’ve never been, but according to its website, it is the "premier cave in the upper Midwest and the jewel box of America’s major show caves" (some carful parsing went into that description). It does appear to be open year round, however, so winter cyclists can absolutely make this a stop if they wish.
From there it was just a matter of turning around and heading back. The trail itself, as mentioned before, is mostly crushed stone, and so is relatively soft. In the warmer air and partial sunshine of my return trip it had gotten softer still. The surface is such that it was slow going in general - I averaged 8.21 mph for the ride, and I’m usually in the 11-13mph range on the Catrike. The broader footprint of the trike made the trail navigable on its road-ish tires (Schwalbe Marathons). If I were on an upright I’d want mountain bike tires - I’d imagine a road bike would be a challenge on parts of the trail even on a dry summer day. There was a brief, sandy uphill section that required dismounting the trike and walking it up, making me briefly wish for a fat-tire trike of my own. Not that it would have mattered - I recall struggling on the same section three years ago on MLW’s Schwinn which, while certainly not fancy, has what one would assume would be the "right" type of tires for such a situation.
As I mentioned back then, sections of the trail do parallel the highway, and provide a more... agricultural view, particularly between Ridgeway and Barneveld. The additional distance into Blue Mounds, as opposed to stopping at Barneveld, makes a big difference in the scenery. I’d recommend going the extra miles or, alternately, starting in Barneveld and heading east on the trail if you are looking for a shorter trip and a view. If you are simply looking for some peace, quiet, and alone time on your ride of choice, however, any part of the trail will do nicely.