The Military Ridge Trail is a long-distance regional multi-use trail west of Madison, Wisconsin, traversing some 41 cross-country miles on a former railroad right-of-way between Fitchburg and Dodgeville. In Wisconsin multi-use means hiking and biking, as in most areas, but also includes snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in season. I “discovered” this trail a few years ago in connection with an annual summertime visit with my brother, and decided at the time to see how much of the trail I could manage to hike. My first hike started in Riley and went east for 7 miles to a trailhead about 2½ miles from the eastern end of the trail. The next summer my brother and I explored a short section of the trail near Mt Horeb; this time I re-hiked that section on my way through.
My brother was willing to drop me off and then pick me up several hours later, so I was able to hike over 19 miles point-to-point. Along the way I enjoyed views of the Wisconsin farm-based countryside. The railroad route passes through Barneveld, Blue Mounds, Mt Horeb, Klevenville, and Riley. I saw so many different kinds of wildflowers that I’m including some of those sightings in a separate post.
I started at a trail access point at Pikes Peak Rd, about 3½ miles west of Barneveld, and finished at the Riley trailhead where I’d started my first hike. The trail has mile markers, and the Pikes Peak Rd trailhead corresponds roughly to mile 28.7, while the Riley trailhead corresponds roughly to mile 9.6. (I’m not sure why my GPS indicates a slightly longer mileage, since I didn’t take any detours.) On the GPS track the orange dot indicates my starting point at the west end of this central section of the trail.
It is worth noting that, since the trail follows a former railroad right-of-way, it really is quite level: in my 19+ miles I only climbed 300 feet. The highest point is near Blue Mound State Park, where I have also hiked.
Because the trail is on a former railroad right of way, the surface is even and very well graded, and it is covered with crushed gravel. It passes sometimes between fields, sometimes between rows of trees and bushes, through any small towns along the way, and occasionally across roads and streams. Because of the grading (slope) requirements for the railroad, at times the trail is higher than the adjacent fields and at times it is lower. Here the trail passes between corn fields; this year the corn seemed to be doing well, i.e., getting sufficient rainfall.
One of my favorite aspects of a drive or walk through this area is noting farm buildings. Here is a nice example.
In the early part of the hike I happened to notice a bush with a branching network of reddish stems leading to sprays of small green balls, presumably berries of some sort. If the berries turn red later in the summer/fall this would be even prettier.
About 3½ miles from where I started, I arrived at Barneveld, a village with a population of about 1250. The railroad evidently passed through the center of town – or the village was built surrounding the railroad. The trail passes a number of houses, a water tower, a playground, and a Military Ridge Trail kiosk. Although I was unaware when I took the picture, this house apparently survived the Barneveld tornado, an F5 event which struck in the early hours of June 8, 1984, causing 9 deaths and nearly 200 injuries while destroying 3 churches, 93 homes, and 17 of the village’s 18 businesses – just in Barneveld.
A short distance past the village I noticed this bucolic view, with a lone tree in a neatly mowed lawn next to a hay field.
After leaving the area of Barneveld, the trail continues to the northeast and then swings more to the southeast to skirt the southern boundary of Blue Mound State Park. This view shows the namesake forest-covered hill or mound as I approached from the west. I don’t know whether the swing to the north was to reduce the grade of the climb of the rail route, which climbs 100 feet in a little less than 3 miles.
Once the trail gets a bit higher, you look down on the surrounding countryside.
As the trail passes the park it goes through a forested area. There are several stream crossings, with each bridge numbered. There is another trail kiosk where the trail crosses the park access road near the village of Blue Mounds, at the southeast corner of the park. After I had passed the eastern boundary of the park I encountered a family out for a Sunday bike ride on the trail.
The trail approaches and then runs parallel to US-18 for a mile and a half or so. At some point I passed some farm buildings where it appeared that a load of rolls of hay was being prepared.
About 1 mile before I reached the village of Mt Horeb, the self-proclaimed troll capital of the world, I was startled to see a pasture area in which a herd of llamas was grazing. Their coats ranged in color from white to black, and I paused for about 5 minutes to enjoy watching them.
After my break to watch the llamas, I continued to Mt Horeb. As I mentioned before, my brother and I had previously done a short exploratory hike in the area. Part of the reason we had chosen Mt Horeb was to look for a sign belonging to Planet Trek, a to-scale exhibit of the solar system that stretches some 26 miles from downtown Madison to Mt Horeb. And sure enough, we’d found the sign for Pluto – which I passed again this time.
East of Mt Horeb the trail again diverges from US-18 and passes through more countryside, descending into the upper Sugar River watershed. A couple of miles later, the trail drops in elevation to below 1000 feet and approaches the Sugar River. Roughly in this area I noticed a vine growing on the ground with quite a bit of red in its leaves. In fact, the leaves were primarily red, with green around the veins. I took the picture because it seemed unusual: most of the plants I’d seen all day were lush green, as is typical for the season.
The trail passes Klevenville, an unincorporated community, and then reaches Riley, another unincorporated community, where I had started my first hike on the trail. As I approached the trail kiosk I noticed that there was a Little Free Library branch. I encountered my first Little Free Library branch on the Military Ridge Trail not far from Verona, and I love the concept: take a book, return a book.
I had called ahead to coordinate with my brother, and I arrived at the trailhead just a few minutes after he did. I stretched my leg muscles after my 19½ mile walk, and then we headed back to his house.