The Sugar River Trail – A Winding Trail of History

We drove through rolling hills and expansive farmland to arrive at, “America’s Little Switzerland,” or New Glarus, Wisconsin where the Sugar River Trail starts.  You could instantly see what attracted the small colony from Switzerland that emigrated in the 1800’s and settled in the area.

New Glarus, Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

The quaint town with its alpine style architecture and flower filled window boxes was welcoming and homey. It’s the home of the New Glarus Brewery and the New Glarus Hotel that has been around since 1853.  According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, it housed a social club and saloon. Its claim to fame was in 1960 when John F. Kennedy ate lunch after delivering a speech at the New Glarus Theatre.

The trail itself runs along the old route of the New Glarus Branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Like the White River State Trail and the Pelishek-Tiffany Nature Trail, this too is a former rail turned to trail. At the renovated train depot where the trail starts, you’ll find the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce that serves as a visitors center for the State Sugar River Trail. They have trail information and souvenirs.

The day was cool in the morning with a big blue sky overhead and we were eager to start our ride early. Getting on the trailhead by 8am – not too early, yea, I know but it took us an hour and half to drive there – was a good decision as the temperature rose throughout the morning and it got much busier. From the depot, you’ll ride a short distance – all clearly marked – and then cross WI 69 to get to the main trail. If you look left, you’ll see the brewery.

We had set out to ride only a portion of the 23 mile Sugar River Trail, but ended up doing the entire round trip of 46 miles. What’s the key to going that extra mile you may wonder?  Bring a friend that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Thanks, Allison! 

No regrets though.  I’ve found that it’s a different type of soreness that sets in the day after a long bike ride, much different than the intense soreness following a good weight lifting session or the achy joint soreness of a run.  It’s more like a mild pulsating of goodness in the legs where the blood has been pumping and circulating around all your muscles, ligaments, and bones.  To bring that flow back to your upper body, just prop your legs up on some pillows, take a short nap and you’ll wake up feeling perfectly fine and even better the next day. 

Sugar River Trail

We were eager to get out on the path; I had read some poor reviews on Trailink from a rider lamenting that it was not well maintained due to too many potholes.  Happy to report, that while I did see a few holes from chipmunk burrows, anyone with a mountain bike could withstand them and looking ahead could easily avoid them.  It was a wide path, maintained fine and perfect to get a good long ride in. 

What I love about these rails-to- trails is that I don’t have to worry about cars. There is an overall graciousness that you experience when you are on these wide family friendly paths.  If you are a fast cyclist, there is plenty of time to warn people ahead of you that you’re coming in hot.

The trail itself is mostly crushed stone and travels from New Glarus to Brodhead. You’ll cross some tributaries of the Sugar River, the little Sugar River and then eventually the Sugar River.  We caught some kayakers heading down the river with a boom box blasting 80’s music, having the best time.

In about the middle of the trail you may see (if you’re lucky) bikers or hikers on a path running alongside of you near Monticello, that’s the Badger State Trail. For much of the trail you’ll be in the New Glarus Woods State Park, surrounded by the forest with its canopy overhead. 

There will be fourteen bridges that you’ll pass if you go the entire way, along with farmland and old farm houses and prairies. 

One of the bridges is a replica of the Clarence Covered Bridge that was built in 1864.

The Swiss in New Glarus

The settlers of New Glarus were from the Canton of Glarus, Switzerland.  The 108 colonists were given parcels of land for harvesting lumber, which now is the New Glarus Woods State Park. They built barrels that transported their famous Limburger cheese (now not so famous) and then Swiss cheese. The cheese was carried down the railroad line making its way to other parts of the country.

At one point in time, New Glarus had the most cheese factories in the US.  The demand eventually died down and when a condensed milk factory opened, they made product the factory needed; but then the plant closed too.  The town’s leadership knew they needed to figure out a way to sustain the needs of the community, so they consulted with the University of Madison and decided on creating a tourist destination spot focusing on their Swiss culture. Businesses were coached on focusing their product or service to reflect the Swiss tradition which is why you see them maintain the Swiss architecture and serve old style food.

They host fun festivals like Polkafest, Swiss Volksfest (Switzerland’s Independence Day), Wilhelm Tell Festival, and Oktoberfest.  These fests have been closed due to Covid, but with the support of the New Glarus Brewery and the Bank of New Glarus, they’re hosting their first outdoor Christkindle market from December 11-13th2020.  It’s free and masks and social distancing are highly recommended.   

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail

For a small stint near Monticello, the Ice Age Trail crosses the Sugar River Trail. The only reason I found this out was because we ended up running into Gary Katuin, who was doing the entire 1200 miles of the trail. 

He was keeping a journal of his trip on the Crazy Guy on a Bike website. He rode 1,419 miles over 52 days starting from August 10, 2020 to September 30, 2020.  Perhaps something to aspire to once I retire in about 20 years or so. He was a real inspiration and it was then that my 46 mile ride for the day didn’t seem as momentous as I thought! 

Ice Age Trail Alliance

That is quite the trail!

Hope you enjoyed my short historical jaunt through the Sugar River State Trail.

Looking forward to another adventure!


Published by Ride Bikes. Eat Local.

Just a soon to be empty nester mom that is looking to enjoy a healthy lifestyle and share it with others.

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