An Expert Guide to the Best Bike Trails in WisconsinPublished on 05/13/2023 · 8 min readLooking for a new spot to ride your mountain bike? Wisconsin local and Cycling Expert Mikael Hanson lists 9 of the best trail systems in the Wisconsin area!
Photo by Mason Dahl
On the surface, one may not place Wisconsin on a list of destinations for mountain biking, as it clearly lacks any mountains, but as a young endurance athlete, one could not have asked for a better place to grow up. As an elite rider, WI had it all...rolling terrain through vast open farmland, an amazing secondary road system crisscrossing the entire state with scenic bridges, and of course pastures with cows for miles and miles! This Upper Midwest state offered four distinct seasons to enjoy both on the bicycle and in the snow, and thanks to the glacier coverage, all types of terrain from the flat lands of the eastern shore (covered by the glacier) to the rolling hills found in the southwest corner of the state.
I grew up just south of Madison, WI, directly on the edge of the Green Bay glacier coverage. At age 13, I started cycling competitively and there was no better place for year-round recreation or athletic training than southern Wisconsin. Ride east to the flats to work on your raw top-end speed, or southwest into some very hilly terrain to work on your climbing. As a road cyclist in WI, once winter arrived, that meant taking up cross-country skiing, and with the arrival of fall, we hiked, ran trails, and also pulled out our mountain bikes, and headed off-road! Perhaps this is why WI has produced some pretty amazing two-season athletes, notably former Olympian, Eric Heiden who not only won gold as a speed skater but was also the U.S. Professional cycling champion one year and rode the Tour de France!
According to Trailforks, the state of WI has over 2,200 mountain bike trails covering over 3,300mi of trails. Many of the trails are located on country or state-owned land and access is relatively cheap. The great thing about Wisconsin is just how accessible it is, with major airports in both Madison and Milwaukee. Additionally, Chicago, Illinois is just three hours away, and the western edge of the state is not far from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Mountain bikers unite! As a former Wisconsinite, here are my picks for the best mountain bike trails in Wisconsin, plus a few of my favorite crushed gravel bike trails to enjoy with the entire family where no mountain bike is needed!
1. CAMBA Trail System (Cable/Hayward)
Probably the most well-known trail system in the state is the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) system, located high up north near Cable and Hayward. This area features over 250mi of mapped trails and offers terrain for just about any level of rider from beginner to expert. The area has also been designated “Ride Center” by the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA). A Ride Center designation from IMBA recognizes the pinnacle of mountain biking communities and according to IMBA, “designations are as much about the process as the award, by helping community partners use the assessment as a guide and educational experience for becoming great places to ride mountain bikes”.
The CAMBA trails lie in and around the beautiful Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and feature nearly a million acres to ride your mountain, gravel, or e-bike in addition to hiking and Nordic skiing. This system has over 107 mountain bike trails starting from 13 different trailheads, over 80 hiking or trail running routes, and over 50 trails where the use of an e-bike is allowed. The trails range in ability from beginner (green – 15), intermediate (blue – 30), and expert (black and double black – 12). The color codes are similar to what you find on a downhill ski run with Green being easier terrain, Blue intermediate, and Black more expert in nature.
Most Popular Trail: The Rock Lake Trail, which is recognized by IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) as an “Epic Ride.”
2. Levis Mound (Clark County)
Located in north central WI, this area features more than 60 trails, covering over 50mi of varied terrain, and was one of the first systems in the area designated as an IMBA “Epic Area.” This system has over 60 mountain bike trails, over 60 hiking or trail running routes, and over 50 trails where the use of an e-bike is allowed. And for those heading back in the winter, it also has 15 nordic skiing trails. The trails range in ability from beginner (green – 23), intermediate (blue – 22), and expert (black and double black – 6).
Most Popular Trail: Swampcut and Sidewinder (blue and black rated).
3. Blue Mound State Park (Blue Mounds)
The Blue Mound Mountain bike trail system is located within the boundaries of Blue Mound State Park, just west of Madison. This trail system includes some of the most technically challenging terrain in the state, including plenty of intermediate trails and bailouts for those choosing not to ride the more challenging trails. Blue Mound just happens to be the highest point in southern WI at 1,719ft of elevation. The system has five mountain bike trails covering nearly 24mi in length, 22 trailing running or hiking trails, snowshoe and Nordic ski trails, and even features a pool for those wanting to cool off after a hot day of trail riding.
Most Popular Trail: Overload (blue intermediate).
4. Lowes Creek Trail (Eau Claire)
Located in north central WI, just south of Eau Claire, Lowes Creek offers a variety of trails spanning both sides of a trout stream. Located within the city limits, Lowes Creek offers twisty singletrack, quick climbs, and fast sections. The park is also home to the WORS Firecracker race. Lowes Creek features over 55 trails spanning 16mi. It is mainly devoted to beginner (34 total) and intermediate (19 total) trails and only two Expert trails. The trails include approximately 5mi of the double-track cross-country ski system.
Most Popular Trail: Thrillville (blue intermediate).
5. Quarry Ridge (Madison)
Located on Madison’s south side near Fitchburg, Quarry Ridge is a popular destination for those looking not to travel too far from WI’s capital city. Quarry Ridge has a total of 12 trails ranging from beginner-friendly singletrack to advanced downhill lines. The trail system was significantly expanded in 2013, and most of the trail was rebuilt in 2014 and 2015 with the addition of many jumps, berms, and wooden features. The total trail system mileage is approximately 4mi with 40 percent easy, 25 percent moderate, and 35 percent advanced singletrack trails. Additionally, this is a free park thanks to the City of Fitchburg. The system also has five hiking or trail running routes.
Most Popular Trail: Sandy Bowl (black expert).
6. Nine Mile Forest (Wausau)
So it is not a 9mi trail system as the name would suggest, but it’s actually 32mi of winding trails located in the great northern woods of WI (not far from Wausau). The Nine Mile singletrack system was updated in 2014 and 2015 by the local IMBA Chapter, CWOCC, and all singletrack are now interconnected with the trailhead near the south end of the chalet. The singletrack system is broken down into three loop clusters: the East Loops, Yin/Yang Loop, and the West Loop. Over 30 trails range in ability from beginner (green – 11), intermediate (blue – 15), and expert (black and double black – 7), plus, there are seven nordic ski trails for those heading back in the winter months! The trail costs $4 to ride and $25.00 for an annual pass.
Most Popular Trail: White Knuckle (black expert).
7. CamRock (Cambridge)
Located on the City of Madison’s west side, the CamRock mountain bike trails offer something for everybody, from first-timers to expert riders. Another plus is the fact that the trails are open year-round when ground conditions allow, and in the winter, they are groomed fat bike trails. The CamRock Parks are divided into three park zones, each having its own shelter and restrooms. The trailheads are located at Camrock 1 as well as CamRock 3 shelter in Cambridge on Water Street (trail passes are available at Camrock Sport). As this is a Dane County Park, a small user fee is required. Over 20 trails span 13mi and range in ability from beginner (green – 6), intermediate (blue – 5), expert (black and double black – 8), plus there are three Nordic ski trails.
Most Popular Trail: Area 51 (black expert).
8. Rockport Park (Janesville)
Mainly consisting of beginner and intermediate trails, Rockport Park is located in southern WI, not far from major hubs like Madison, Rockford, or Chicago. Rockport Park has a network of singletrack trails built around wide cross-country ski trails, which are groomed ski trails open during the winter season. With over 35mi in trails, you will find plenty to do. Beginner trails number 17 and intermediate 9, plus four Nordic trails.
Most Popular Trail: The Zoo (beginner).
Trails for the Non-Mountain Biker
In addition to the many mountain bike trails dotting WI, there are numerous recreational trails. Most have limestone surfaces that pack down to make for good riding for skinny-tired bikes as well as mountain bikes. Many of these trails have been around for decades and I even remember riding a few of them with my family long before I turned my interest to bicycle racing. Some of the more popular trails include:
- Elroy-Sparta State Trail
- Fox River State Trail
- Gandy Dancer State Trail
- Glacial Drumlin State Trail
- Military Ridge State Trail
- Kettle Moraine State Forest
- Capital City State Trail
- La Crosse River State Trail
- Badger State Trail
- Elroy-Sparta Trail
- Great River State Trail
- Mountain-Bay State Trail
So, while you won’t find the Rocky Mountains (or any mountains for that matter) in Wisconsin, thanks to the uneven path of the glaciers, the state was left with some pretty unique topography. This ideal Midwestern landscape is the home to over 3,000mi of mountain bike trails, offering terrain for just about any level of rider in addition to miles and miles of recreational trails suitable for the entire family.
To explore more Cycling articles as you pursue your journey in the sport, check out the Expert Journal here on Curated.