Off the Rails and on to Trails


400 State Trail Marks Milestone Anniversary

Back in the days before divided highways crossed the state and nonstop flights were readily available, the fastest way to travel from Chicago to Minneapolis was to ride the rails. Starting in 1939, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad offered the 400, an express train that got its name from the 400-mile journey it made from city to city in about 400 minutes, sometimes climbing to speeds of 100 miles an hour.




The 400 State Rail Trail
follows the Baraboo River, offering plenty of opportunities to spot wetland bird species along the way, is a great place to view wildlife. The trail crosses the Baraboo River 11 times. Bring a camera to capture the beautiful scenery! All photos courtesy of Friends of the 400. (Click photos to enlarge.)

That train ran until 1963, but a 22-mile stretch of railbed that it once traveled along is still very much in use. Known as the 400 Line for its role in the famous Chicago-to-Minneapolis journey, this former railbed was converted into the multi-use 400 State Trail in 1993 and now takes excursionists from Reedsburg to Elroy, passing through both Vernon and Oakdale Electric Cooperative territories.

The path is no longer known primarily for the speed at which it can be traveled, however. These days, users of the 400 State Trail traverse the path at a slower pace—on foot or by bike—that allows for taking in the majestic scenery as the trail crosses the Baraboo River (11 times!), passes through wetlands and pastures, and winds along the towering sandstone bluffs of the Driftless Region.

And although the 400 State Trail doesn’t extend the full 400 miles of its namesake train route, the trail is one of four interconnecting rail trails that together offer an impressive 100-plus miles of continuous trails through western Wisconsin.

It’s one of Wisconsin’s premier rail-to-trail biking trails, although use is not limited to bicycles. With snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing available in the winter, and even horseback riding allowed on a parallel stretch between Wonewoc and La Valle, the 400 trail makes for a fun adventure at any time of year. This spring, however, is an especially great time to visit, as the trail will mark its 30th anniversary in early June. This milestone will be celebrated at a number of coordinating events at the five communities along the trail’s path (see sidebar).

Community Lifeline

The anniversary events will not only pay tribute to the trail’s rich history, but they’ll also celebrate how the 400 State Trail has come, if not exactly full circle, at least back around.

Vernon Electric Cooperative member Lisa Askren is a member of the Friends of the 400, an organization of volunteers from each community along the trail’s path who help with trail improvement and promotion. Askren now lives in La Valle, but she grew up in Wonewoc and fondly recalls visiting the local five and dime as a child and seeing everything in the store rattle as the train passed through town. When the train passed through for good, the communities lost more than the familiar rattle.

“All these little towns were booming when the trains were there,” Askren said. “That’s what I remember. A lot of these towns had multiple businesses. We had three or four grocery stores, we had shoe stores, we had furniture stores. When the train left, so did a lot of those businesses.”

After the 400 train was discontinued, Askren explained, the area’s economic focus shifted to tourism, with many visitors drawn to the many outdoor recreation opportunities available thanks to the Baraboo River and the beautiful topography of the state’s Driftless Region. The former railbed, however, still sat unused, abandoned since the early 1970s.

That’s when Ron Nelson, then manager of Wildcat Mountain State Park, spearheaded efforts to turn the former railbed into a multi-use trail. Nelson was also in charge of developing the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, which is credited as the nation’s first official rail trail by Rails to Trails Conservancy. That trail opened in 1965 and connects to the 400 State Trail at the Elroy trailhead.




(Click photos to enlarge.)

Opened in 1993, the 400 State Trail brought a different kind of business back to the former whistlestop communities along its path. The shoe stores and furniture stores gave way to ice-cream shops, bike stores, canoe stores, campgrounds, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, gift shops, and art galleries—all great opportunities for a trail pitstop.

“A lot of these little communities now depend on tourists, and that’s what the 400 brought—tourism,” Askren said.

Stops Along the Way

There are still reminders of the trail’s original purpose along its path. Two of the original depots still stand at each end of the trail, both restored and repurposed.

In Reedsburg, where the trail begins, the historic 1905 depot now serves as the trailhead and is home to Reedsburg’s Chamber of Commerce. This depot is open seven days a week and offers a large adjacent “park and ride” for trail users. Chamber staff is available to provide information to trail users as they begin their journey.

From Reedsburg, trail users head north along the lowland valley of the Baraboo River, crossing streams and marshes as the trail parallels the river, and passing through a tunnel as it approaches La Valle. This community boasts multiple outdoor recreation sites, including Lake Redstone, Dutch Hollow Lake, and Hemlock County Park. It’s also home to a vibrant local art community.

Farther north, the trail passes through Wayside Park, with a picnic shelter and parking, as it approaches the mid-point of Wonewoc, where there’s a launch site for canoeing and kayaking and several campgrounds within easy reach of the trail.

(Click photos to enlarge.)

After Wonewoc, the trail continues on to Union Center and ends at Elroy, where it connects to the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. Once a prominent railroad center, Elroy’s rail history is evident throughout the community. The former depot has been fully remodeled and converted into Elroy Commons, a perfect place for a trail stop with restrooms (including showers), a picnic area, playground, and Trail Shop. An historical museum, open on weekend afternoons from Memorial Day to Labor Day, features a working model railroad display depicting the city in its railroad heyday.

From end to end, the trail passes through varying landscapes with breathtaking scenery, and wildlife of all kinds at every turn. No doubt the speedy 400 train offered an impressive journey, but the 400 State Trail experience is one to savor.—Mary Erickson

[ Events are pending; for updated information visit, contact the Reedsburg Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-844-3507, or contact one of the Friends of the 400 listed in the sidebar above. ]