Madison to the Kickapoo

June 20-22, 1998

Scott Ellington


Our route this weekend takes us from Madison north to Elroy, then by an indirect route to Rockbridge, just north of Richland Center.  On Monday we’ll return to Madison.  It’s a long trip, mostly through southwest Wisconsin’s unglaciated driftless area.  Along the way are the Baraboo Hills and part of the Kickapoo River valley.


We meet Saturday morning in Madison.  Today’s route takes us through Prairie du Sac, North Freedom, and Reedsburg en route to Elroy.  It’s going to be warm and humid, but we’ll have a tail wind most of the way.  There are four of us:  Roger, Wendy, Kelly, and myself.  Before we even get out of the city, I manage to lose track of the others, but we regroup at the grocery store (where else?) in Prairie du Sac, 28 miles from the start. 


After  a snack, we head for the Baraboo Hills.  The climb up Balfanz Rd. is deceiving.  It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the reward is the 47 mph descent down Freedom Rd.  Replenishing our water supply in North Freedom, we hear the whistle of the steam train leaving town.  A few more minor hills and we’re in Reedsburg.  There’s a great grocery store downtown, perfect for a late lunch.  Relaxing in the park, however, we see an ominous gray mass building in the west.  Roger and Wendy decide to take the bike trail to Elroy, while Kelly and I take the longer route via County K and O.  The storm is building slowly, but as soon as we get on the road we can see that it’s worse than we thought.  Haste seems like a good idea, especially after the lightning starts.  County K is a bit busy for my tastes.  The 28 miles go by quickly, but the lightning is within a couple miles as we approach Elroy.  At one point, a van pulls along side Kelly, and someone suggests we seek shelter, but we’re almost there.  The rain starts just as we reach the shelter in town.  Roger and Wendy are already there, covered with sweaty grit from the trail.  Fortunately, there are showers.


The grocery in Elroy is way out at the other end of town now, it’s late and raining hard, so we give up on cooking for the evening.  A bar has food, and it’s dry inside.   Afterwards the storm seems to have passed, so we climb the hill to the deserted campground.  My odometer reads 97 miles, including some side trips.  Shortly after  all the tents are up, another storm arrives with more lightning and lots of wind.  The  wind blows until after midnight, but the rest of the night is quiet. 


Sunday starts cloudy, then turns sunny, warm, and humid.  There’s a strong west wind, but it’s a beautiful day.  Roger and Wendy have to return to Madison, so Kelly and I go on alone.  We’re taking a most indirect route to our next campsite at Rockbridge, looping far to the west.  We’ll pass through Trippville, cross the Kickapoo River at Rockton and then follow County P to County S down the West Branch of the Kickapoo.  When we meet the Kickapoo, we’ll follow it upstream past Viola, turn east, and eventually follow County D to Rockbridge.  It’s a great classic driftless area route, mostly following valleys with just a few big climbs.


It’s 9 AM before we get on the road, after stocking up at the Elroy grocery store.  We won’t be passing another one today.  South of Mt. Tabor, a short jog on highway 33 gets us to Fish Hollow Road, which turns out to be paved, and a great descent into the valley.  Approaching Rockton we hear dogs.  Lots of dogs.  A sign at the Rockton Bar reads “Coon Dog Trials Today”.  We stop for lunch, amid howling hounds.  (They don’t seem the least bit interested in cyclists, though.)  Atop a pole in a cage is a very unhappy raccoon.  Periodically, another group of dogs comes barking up the trail, and the winner is sometimes auctioned off right on the spot.


Over another ridge, down the West Branch, and we come to Avalanche.  The little store has ice cream and the Sportsmen’s Club campground provides shade and water.  The ride down the valley on County S is the high point of the trip, as always.  For some 11 miles the deserted road follows this beautiful valley.  Finally, though, the West Branch joins the Kickapoo and we turn north.  After a short stretch on highway 131, we take the gravel road along the river to Viola.  Water replenished again, we head uphill on Welker Hollow Road.  It’s gravel, but easy riding with our road bikes.  County MM takes us into another valley to County D and our final climb up to West Lima.  From there, it really IS all downhill.


I’ll never forget Bloom City.  Nearly 20 years ago I pedaled into town, and heard the sound of two violins playing Bach in the old town hall.  Even the town hall is gone now, but the ride down the valley is still one of my favorites.


The little store is closed when we arrive at the county park at Rockbridge, but we’re prepared.  There is a large group of Amish folks having a picnic, and a couple of the women ask us all about our bike trip.  (I’ve never been quite sure what the Amish thought of bicycles.)  We set up camp and make dinner, carried 88 miles from Elroy.  It’s been another sweaty day, so we warm up some water to wash.  We each get a luxurious shower of 4 large water bottles.  It’s light until well after 9 this summer solstice evening, but we’re tired enough to climb into our tents early.  It’s a very quiet night.


The store is open at 7 Monday morning, so we have fresh milk with breakfast.  It promises to be another warm, humid day.  There’s scarcely a breeze all day.  The route home takes us down County NN to Ithaca, east over a couple ridges to Plain, then along Honey Creek to Prairie du Sac.  From there the route back to Madison is the way we came Saturday.


Kelly charges up the first hill, and soon we’re cruising down the valley of Little Willow Creek.  There’s another climb east of Ithaca over the ridge to Bear Creek, where a pleasant surprise awaits:  The Bear Valley Cafe.  A second breakfast is immediately declared.  The food is good and the price is right. 


Another climb and descent bring us to the broad valley of Honey Creek north of Plain.  We bypass Plain and follow the gentle valley to Prairie du Sac.  Once again the grocery store provides lunch.  Then we cross the Wisconsin River for the final stretch back to Madison.  At County K and Brower Road, we crest the hill and leave the deep valleys and ridges of the driftless area.  Ahead of us is the rolling glacial plain dotted with drumlins. 


Late in the afternoon, we come back into town on Pheasant Branch Road, and face hordes of frenzied Madison commuters.  We, at least, have pleasant memories of those quiet valleys to the west.