Built on an old railbed, the enigmatic trail is lined with eye-catching wetlands and woodlands.
Photo: One of several wooden bridges along The “400” Trail, which was built in an old railroad track bed. The trail opened in 1993 and runs 22 miles from Reedsburg to Elroy. Photos by Holly Marley-Henschen. Illustrated frame by Maggie Denman.
In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.
For years, I’ve been intrigued by and then promptly forgotten about a brown park sign along I-90 in Wisconsin Dells. It reads: The “400” Trail. Why the quotation marks? I pondered. Was it an actual trail? Was there any connection to the 2007 Russell Crowe movie [The “] 300[“]? When asking around about it, no one had been there or quite knew what it was. It was beginning to feel like a Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark entry.
A few weeks ago, I decided to get to the bottom of it. After strapping my bike to my car, I drove an hour 15 to the end of The “400” Trail in Reedsburg. An old train depot marks the spot. Nothing seemed to be haunted or even eerie. As it turns out, the trail runs 22 miles one way on an old railroad bed to the town of Elroy. (Cue The Jetsons theme.)
Here’s where those intriguing quotation marks come in. The trail is named for an express passenger train that zoomed 400-ish miles from St. Paul to Chicago in 400 minutes, more or less. The 400 had a solid run from 1935 to 1963. High-speed rail funding might once again be headed for Wisconsin again after human ham-and-cheese sandwich and former governor Scott Walker refused it in 2011.
The “400” Trail opened in 1993. I got to it on an 80-degree afternoon in early September. The smell of hot concrete faded to the scents of the forest and fields that line the trail. A thin sandy layer on the crushed, packed limestone trail created some audible gritty friction. Soon, I was rolling over short wooden bridges across the sleepy Baraboo River, which meanders (a technical river term that is also a geological phenomenon!) beneath the rail trail seven times. The wooden plank bridges were built alongside or directly into railroad trestles.
This trail, and others throughout the state and region, were built with help from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The organization partners with local governments and groups across the country to convert unused railroad corridors into multipurpose public paths. One famous example is Highline Park in New York City. Rails-to-Trails published a guidebook focused on Wisconsin and Michigan Trails that’s sure to pique the interest of trailgoers of all varieties.
The “400” Trail was suitable for my tread-tired road bike on a dry day. Any other bike would do fine. Hikers and joggers are also welcome and so, in places, are horses. In different weather, snow-shoers, cross-country skiers and snowmobilers take to The “400.” The trail is as narrow as a mid-century railroad track, so proper signaling keeps all trail users safe. The trail was alive with sounds and smells of nature. The Baraboo River is home to the sandhill crane, the great blue heron, tiny wood ducks and of course, mallards. Wild rice, cattails, and horse tails grow along the banks of the Baraboo River and nearby wetlands. A smattering of sandstone bluffs flank The “400.” On top of the water, that bright green layer of pond scum you see growing is millions of tiny plants called duckweed—a variety of pondscum and a snappy insult, should you need one. Getting a later start in the day, I encountered as many deer as people, the most magnificent of which was a four-point buck. I unwittingly chased him until he darted off to the side of the trail and stood there, as if waiting to gore me for my transgressions. Nope!
The “400” Trail passes through the small towns of La Valle and Wonewoc before reaching Elroy. The latter two have camping. But wait, there’s more! The “400” is part of a 100-mile-plus series of trails in Wisconsin. Camping, backpacking and bike camping—aka bikepacking—can be done throughout!
Reedsburg is just the beginning of that series of trails—or the end, depending which direction you’re going. In Elroy, The “400” Trail ends/begins where the Elroy-Sparta Trail picks up. This 34-mile rail trail, the first Rail-to-Trail in the country, includes three lengthy hand-dug tunnels. They were hewn through solid rock in the 1870s. Two of them are 1,600 feet long and the other is 3,800 feet. (The tunnels had doors to protect them from the effects of weather, and the railroad stationed employees at the doors to open them for incoming locomotives.) The Elroy-Sparta Trail connects to the La Crosse State River Trail in Sparta. It’s 21 miles long and runs through the La Crosse River Conservancy. The Great River State Trail continues north from the La Crosse State River Trail for another 21 miles and runs through a segment of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Then it skirts Perrot State Park and takes a detour through the 6,500-acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge before getting to the trailhead in Marshland. I’ve heard tales told that you can find a shuttle to transport you to one point in the trail so you can backpack or bike your way back to your car. I have not found a shuttle closer than Sparta. Please let me know if you do!
For the record, when you bring up The “400,” it’s punctuationally correct to use air quotes. The mystery’s been solved. But be safe out there, lest your trip become fodder for Scary Stories to Tell On The Trail.
There’s more where this came from.
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