Fat bikes are coming to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a sprawling 8,600-acre nature preserve and recreational area hidden away in the substantial hills and hollows of western Wisconsin.
And they’re arrival may lead to even bigger things.
The reserve board of directors has approved an experimental opening of some of the reserve’s many miles of mixed-use trails. Reserve property manager Jason Leis said fatties will be allowed on some of the trails this winter to see whether they fit in. If they pass the test, this could open up the reserve to greater winter bicycling.
Currently, the reserve allows bicycling only from May 1 to November 15. An exception is the Old Highway 131 Trail, which cyclists can use when snow cover is sparse.
Leis said there have been inquiries by bicyclists over the years about winter biking and expanding bicycling opportunities generally.
“This year it was a bike group that likes to come here in the summer asking about it. One of the guys owns a bike shop in Viroqua. So we took it to the board and they voted to allow fat tire bikes on a portion and left it up to the staff to make the rules for it,” Leis said.
The section that was selected is actually a series of trails used by equestrians in the summer. The almost eight miles of singletrack picked for the trial includes Cut-off Trail near the Rockton bridge, Hoot-Owl Trail and Big Valley Trail.
“These are horse trails in the summer time,” Leis said. It’s singletrack and we are not grooming it.”
Some of the other multiuse trails on which bicycles are allowed in the summer are groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter. The conflicting use excludes bicyclists when skiers are out.
There are some rules for the fat bike trial. Bikes must have tires at least 3.75 inches wide – the size of the tires on the original Surly Pugsley, the bike that touched off the fat tire movement. There must be at least three inches of snow as a base and frozen ground. And the temperature must be 25 degrees or colder.
These rules are designed to protect the trails, which, in the unglaciated area of Wisconsin, are very fragile and easily erodible.
Cyclists interested in trying out the designated trails can call the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Visitor Center at 608-625-2960 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for conditions and to make sure the trails are open.
Reserve born from controversy
The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has a history awash with controversy that goes all the way back to 1930, when a dam was first proposed to control frequent severe flooding. The Kickapoo River had a tendency to deluge the valley with fast moving water flowing through hollows off the surrounding hills. Devastating floods repeatedly took their toll on local residents, infrastructure and property in this area. Ten people were killed in a 1951 flood.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was directed by Congress to come up with a solution. Proposals included a flood control dam at La Farge with a 400- to 800-acre reservoir and construction of a 1,780-acre lake. Political controversies, cost overruns and environmental opposition eventually killed that effort.
What did happen was a state takeover of the land that had been acquired, and in 1994 the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created by the Legislature, with a locally nominated, governor appointed board to manage the property. In 1996, Congress finalized the reserve, which was dedicated in 2001.
Bike shop arrives, access sought
In 2005, a newcomer arrived in nearby Viroqua. Bicyclist Peter Taylor thought the area was ripe for a bicycle shop, so Bluedog Cycles was born. That event began a revolution for bicycling in a remote part of Wisconsin and that has now impacted the reserve.
“We are the closest shop to the reserve. We made inquiries about opening up some of the 28 miles of singletrack that was horse only to bicycles,” Taylor said.
“Representatives from IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) would visit and we showed them where we were building trails on public and private lands. And then we’d take them out to the reserve,” Taylor said. “And every one of those IMBA guys said this could be the best destination spot in the Midwest.”
“At the reserve, we now have access to, I would guess, about 13 miles of singletrack,” he continued. “It’s all shared use. You can hike and ride a horse on it. It’s not contiguous, so if you want to ride all of the singletrack in one day, you would end up connecting it with a little bit of gravel here and there and maybe a little bit of paved, and that 13-mile ride could very easily become a 25- to 30-mile ride. And hopefully this summer we’re going to gain another seven miles of singletrack out there. It’s come along nicely. It’s slow, but positive.”
Taylor added, “When we moved here there wasn’t one legal mile of single track. Now we’re up to about 26 miles. They may see only six or seven of us (fat bikers) out there (in the reserve) this winter, if we have a winter, but there are cyclists all over the state and beyond that are just starting to hear about the reserve.”
Taylor can be reached at Bluedog Cycles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Hauda is president of Friends of the Badger State Trail and a member of the Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council and Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin Board of Directors.