The Wisconsin Adventure Bicycle Route is a top-to-bottom bikepacking route by Frank Hassler covering the entire length of Wisconsin with photography from Scott Haraldson. The route is ~70% unpaved and snakes through farmland in the south, deep forest in the north, and hits on everything we love about Wisconsin bikepacking in this epic adventure.
Created by: Frank Hassler
All Photos by: Scott Haraldson
This route strings together a series of gravel and doubletrack trail networks, via the most rustic and wild roads that we could find in-between. It's not always straightforward or efficient, but always adventurous and scenic. The route starts at the Point of Beginning. This is the spot where, in 1831 the surveying of the state of Wisconsin began. Every county, town and plot of land in the state is measured from this point (or rather a post about 1/2 mile east of the roadside marker). So it seems like an appropriate place to start.
The Wisconsin Adventure Bicycle Route has two courses for two different types of adventures: The Gravel Course and the Mountain Bike Course.
The Gravel Course shares most of the same route as the MTB course, but omits the singletrack trails and any roads or trails that would not be suitable for gravel and touring tires. The Gravel Course is therefore the more straightforward and easier options, and at times can serve as an alternative track for mountain bikers when wet trail conditions or other issues don’t allow one to ride the trail segments.
The Mountain Bike Course includes singletrack trails that are part of six different mountain bike trail networks along the western part of the state. This course also includes rough ATV trails and sandy roads that require technical riding skills and bigger tires.
There is an MTB version of the route as well, which includes 100 miles of singletrack and a handful of more remote and rock or sandy backroads and ATV Trails, growing to over 700 miles in length.
Getting to the Start: The fact that the route starts and finishes in rural and remote areas respectively is a feature of the route, but it also makes getting to the start and finish somewhat difficult. Best option is to have a friend drop you off and pick you up. Galena Illinois makes a good overnight town just a 5-10 mile ride from the Point of Beginning, and Bayfield is close to the north end.
There are many miles of ATV trails on the route. ATVs are the primary trail users, and in the interest of maintaining friendly relations between user groups, you should always yield the trail to ATV’s. They are noisy, so its easy to hear them a ways off and find a good place to pull off. Give a friendly smile and a wave as they pass, or a coy nod if you prefer. It may be best to skip ATV trail sections at times when they are busy, such as weekend afternoons in the summer months.
Consider this ambitious, 620+ mile route as a ’template for adventure’. The route is intentionally indirect, even circuitous in order to find the most rustic roads and remote trails. As such, feel free to adapt the route to your needs, if you need an easy day take a short cut. If there’s a site you’d like to see that’s off route, go check it out!
If You Go, Here's What You Need to Know:
1. Something different every day. With the route traveling through the Driftless Region, the Central Sands, the North Woods and Northern Barrens of Wisconsin, the scenery is constantly changing.
2. The historic Petosi Brewery is right on the route!
3. Views of the Mississippi River from the bluffs of Nelson Dewey or Wyalusing State Parks.
4. Ride through a 3/4th-mile-long railroad tunnel on the first rail-trail in the US, the Elroy-Sparta Trail.
5. The remote backroads of the Black River State Forest, where you may find more wolf tracks than tire tracks.
6. Get your feet wet at Koehler Ford!
7. The great gravel roads and lakeside campground of the Chequamegon National Forest are too numerous to mention.
8. Be sure to grab a pie at the Delta Diner.
9. Solitude on the back roads of the Bayfield Peninsula.
A $25 State Trail Pass is required to ride on the Elroy-Sparta trail or any state bicycle trail. Bicycles are allowed on any trail on federal, state or county land that the route passes through, unless otherwise signed.
This gravel route is intended to be ridable with 40c tires. With that said, I’d recommend some high volume, but fast rolling tires. the largest tires that would fit in your gravel or touring bike would probably be best to provide a little float in sand and smooth out the rocky roads and trails. 50c would certainly be better, with a small knob or semi-slick tread that will roll fast on the pavement sections.
The hills in the Driftless Region are no joke. Don’t underestimate how low of gearing you will need repeatedly climbing up 300 to 400’ climbs which typically have 5-10% grades on a loaded bike. Low gearing around 17 gear inches, or a 1:1.5 ratio (front:rear) or lower is recommended. A 24x36 or 30x51 low gear should be sufficient.
Insect pests include mosquitos, deer flies, black flies, and the blood sucking arthropods deer ticks and wood ticks. Their populations can vary greatly based on recent rainfall and various insect life cycles. Be prepared with insect repellent, a head-net, and even a Dragonfly Wingman. A daily tick-check is recommended.
When to Ride
Conditions should be pretty good from May to October. The best time of year to ride this bike is probably late-August to early-October as you will have the least pest insect activity and the temperatures will be not too hot, and not too cold.
You will need to rely on campgrounds or hotels and Air B&B’s for the southern third of the route. There are no state or national forests south of Sparta.
Once you get about half-way between Sparta and Millston (specifically, at the end of Cedar Rd after crossing Camp Ave) you enter state forest land. From this point on, the route is on public land more often than not. Major exceptions include the 15 miles south of Thorp, 20 miles north of Thorp, the 25 miles before you arrive at Hayward, and the last 9 miles of the route north of Hwy 13.
Primitive camping (aka dispersed camping) is allowed in both national and state forests. Many state forests require permits or fees, but attaining these on a bike can be logistically difficult. Technically you are supposed to be more than 100’ from a road, trail, or lake. In practice, it seems you are fine as long as you are not on a major road or trail as little camp sites are not uncommon along rutted two-tracks, especially in areas that are popular for outdoor recreation. This gives you a lot more options where to stop for the day. Please practice “Leave no Trace.” principals and clean up litter left by previous occupants, if you have the capacity to do so.
You should be able to get tap water at various parks, campgrounds and businesses, but I’d recommend bringing a water filter so you have more flexibility when you can get water, particularly in the less-settled northern 2/3rds of the route.
All the grocery stores, and many of the convenience stores on the route are noted with waypoints on the Ride With GPS map.
Many bars and restaurants are on the Ride With GPS map to but not all. You can usually find a bar that serves food in any small town in WI, and the larger towns there were more options than I had cared to make waypoints for.
There are two sections of the route where you will have a particularly long stretch without any water available on-route. The first is the 40 miles north of the Wisconsin River. The second is the final ~60 miles from Delta to Lake Superior. For the latter stretch, you can take a quick run off-route to Birch Grove Campground to fill up at the pump there.
You can probably get by on water you get from tap water you get from businesses and outdoor pumps. However, carrying a filter will give you a bit more versatility, and reduce the amount of water you need to cary with you. There are few good filtering options on the portion of the route south of Sparta, but more frequent tap water options. The clean-water streams and lakes increase as you go north, but you encounter tap water less frequently.
It is important that we acknowledge that the land through which we travel on this route is the traditional territory of several Tribes of First People. Despite the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which drove these people from their ancestral homes, many indigenous communities have reestablished reservations and tribal lands within Wisconsin in general and, near and on this route specifically. These people continue to work to reclaim the homelands that were wrongfully taken from them to this day.
The route begins in land that was once home to the Potawatomi people. Around the time you cross the Wisconsin River you enter Ho Chunk territory.
Somewhere between the Wisconsin River and Viroqua, you will cross the path of the “British Band” a group about 1,100 people of the Sauk, Fox and Kickapoo tribes led by Black Hawk, who tried who attempted to peacefully resettle east of the Mississippi River in Illinois in 1832. They were relentlessly pursued and attacked by the U.S. Army and local militia. Attempting to retreat west, Black Hawk and his warriors defending the many civilians in their party at the Battle of Wisconsin Heights near present day Sauk City. They continued west, and managed to stay ahead of the pursuing army until, while attempting to escape back west across the Mississippi River, they were intercepted by a U.S. gunboat and then attacked from the rear by Army and militia forces at what is now called the Battle of Bad Axe. While the warriors attempted a defense, hundreds of non-combatant woman, children and elderly persons fled for their lives, and were murdered and scalped by U.S. forces.
On the north end of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve you will pass through current Ho Chunk Nation Trust Land. As you pass through the Black River State Forest you will be just east of the Ho Chunk Nation. Roughly north of Hwy 73 (Thorp) you enter the historic lands of the Ojibwe (aka Chippewa) People, which extend all the way to Gichigamiing (Lake Superior). Approaching Haward the route passes just north of the Lac Course Oreilles (Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa) Reservation. The route finishes at Point Detour which is on the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation. Information Based on this map developed by Wisconsin First Nations Education.
Disclaimer: If you choose to ride this route, you do so at your own risk. You are 100% responsible for being prepared for all conditions and making sure that biking these routes is legal. Before riding, check local weather, road conditions, closures, and property ownership. Obey all traffic laws and follow land use restrictions. Do not ride these routes without proper safety equipment and navigational tools. The accuracy of these routes cannot be guaranteed neither can we guarantee that these routes are on public property. TheNxrth.com and its contributors are in no way liable for the personal injury or damage to property that may result from cycling this route or any other routes on this website.