Great Sauk State Trail
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
Of all the things I’ve worked on while in county government, the thing that I’m most proud of is The Great Sauk Trail. It’s also the thing that gives me the most personal pleasure.
There are many reasons for that.
First, the Trail itself is beautiful — it’s something we can all enjoy, and it’s only going to get better. Second, it delivers some terrific economic benefits, both directly and indirectly, to the people of Sauk County. Third, it’s a terrific example of cooperation between many separate units of government — state agencies, Sauk county itself, and multiple local city and township governmental units. And finally, it’s something that the County led. Much of what we do as County Commissioners is simply implementing policies set by the state. In the case of The Great Sauk Trail, we at the county level defined and drove the project ourselves.
And I’m proud that I personally have been involved from start to finish, as chairperson of the Trail Commission. Our goal from the Commission's first meeting was to build a world-class recreational trail, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
WHAT IS THE GREAT SAUK TRAIL?
The Trail is part of a statewide recreational trail system. We’re still building it, but when it’s done, it will stretch from Middleton, across the Wisconsin River at Sauk City, through the old Badger Army Ammunition Plant (now the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area), around Devil’s Lake, and through Baraboo, North Freedom, and Rock Springs and finally to Reedsburg. In Reedsburg, it will connect to the existing 400 Trail, which itself connects to the Elroy - Sparta Trail.
When everything is finished, you’ll be able to get on a bike in Middleton and pedal all the way to the Mississippi River.
The Trail is multi-use. It’s for hiking, bicycling, and snowmobiling. So far, we’ve built-out nearly thirteen miles of the Trail, from the Wisconsin River in Sauk City almost to the foot of Devil’s Lake State Park.
The Trail follows an old railroad corridor, and our County Highway Department did a great job. They had to pull out all the old rails and ties, lay a new base, and then pave it with asphalt to create a ten-foot-wide pathway.
Our goal is to build a world-class recreational trail, and that’s exactly what we’re doing
COOPERATION GOT US THIS FAR
The Trail runs through a lot of different jurisdictions, and it would never have been built if all those jurisdictions hadn’t pitched in, cooperated, and got the job done.
They all needed to provide direction; they needed to find funds; and they needed to engage the citizens and the business communities within their borders.
It started with the State of Wisconsin. It was the State — acting on a plan from Sauk County — that financed the purchase of the rail corridor, making the trail possible. Without that purchase, nothing more would have happened.
But what really drove things was the involvement of local communities.
Once we had the land, we formed a Trail Commission. The County was part of that, but the commission was a standalone entity that included Sauk County, Sauk City, and Prairie du Sac — the entities through which the initial leg of the Trail would run.
The first thing the Commission did was try to figure out what that first leg would cost. We had a study performed that told us we were going to need $1.2 million. And, of course, that number would ultimately be based on some decisions we had to make about things like building a hard-surface asphalt trail or a gravel trail, whether we’d limit the trail to cycling and hiking or would include snowmobiling.
So the next thing we did was to solicit public input to help us answer those questions. We held two or three very well-attended meetings in those communities, and we went through the process of determining what the local citizens wanted. The choices made by the participating communities added up, as I’ve said, to a decision to build something world-class.
Of course, we had to find the money to do that. That money came to us three ways. First, each of the involved jurisdictions — the County, Sauk City, and Prairie du Sac — committed funds. Second, we landed some grant money from State agencies. Third, local people put together a Friends of the Trail organization dedicated to raising private funds. And several of the area’s large employer’s made big contributions.
In total, we assembled $1.2 million for the first leg, with $400,000 coming from state grants, $625,000 from county and village governments, and $175,000 contributed by the private sector 'Friends of the Great Sauk Trail' group.
That’s a lot of money, but we believe that it’s going to generate economic benefits that far exceed the investment and that will stretch out into the distant future.
Some of the trail’s benefits are direct and obvious.
In 2017, the Partnership for the National Trails System, an advocacy group, recognized the Trail as one of the top ten new trails in the nation. That kind of publicity brings people from outside the area and outside the state. They come to Sauk County and spend money that goes directly into the economy.
The indirect economic benefits are even more powerful.
First, there’s new development that happens along the Trail, everything from existing businesses that build adjacent parks or trails for their own employees, to new construction, such as apartments that promote easy access to the Trail for their residents.
Vintage Brewing Company, a microbrewery and restaurant located along the Trail in Sauk City, is a good example of the development impact that the Trail can have. The brewery was established specifically to take advantage of the Trail, tearing down old, unused buildings and putting up a brand new facility. Originally aimed at Trail visitors, it's become a dining hub for the city.
Second, there’s the quality-of-life enhancement that draws people to relocate here. People don’t relocate to a new place just because a job offer looks good. They’re also thinking about what it will be like to live in that new community. They think about everything from schools and churches to restaurants and entertainment venues. They also think about recreational opportunities and such abstract things as natural beauty.
The Trail is the kind of quality-of-life enhancement that strengthens the ability of our employers to attract top-quality people, and those people, in turn, contribute to our local economy and culture. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
YET TO BE DONE: BRIDGE AT SAUK CITY
One of our big remaining tasks is to extend the trail, with a bridge, across the Wisconsin River to Dane County.
We want to build a recreational bridge — that is, it will be for pedestrians, cyclists, and snowmobilers; it won’t be used by cars and trucks. This bridge is essential for our ultimate goal — a single trail-way from Middleton to the Mississippi — but it also has important local safety considerations.
Today, snowmobilers coming into Sauk County from Dane County are forced to cross the river on a highway bridge that dumps them into downtown Sauk City. It’s dangerous, and part of the commitment we made in our early planning was that we would do something about that hazard.
Right now, we’re doing preliminary engineering. We’ve got a feasibility study and soil borings, and we’re going to put together a Request for Proposal to get a bridge design that we can use to put together a budget.
YET TO BE DONE: EXTEND TO REEDSBURG
Extending from Devil’s Lake to Reedsburg is going to be a big job. It’s going to be tough for two reasons. First, it’s a lengthy segment, running twenty-plus miles from the State Park to the train station in downtown Reedsburg. And, of course, a long segment means a big budget. But the second issue is that so much of the trail goes through rural areas. That means we don’t have access to the kind of financial resources that we’ve had on the portion of the Trail we’ve built so far. Rock Springs and North Freedom don’t have the governmental budgets, the big employers, or the population density that helped us out on the earlier legs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You can help with this.
Most importantly, you should take advantage of the trail yourself. It showcases so much of the natural beauty of Sauk County. Walking it or bicycling it is a pleasure, and I think it will give you a sense of pride in our County. And if you’ve experienced it yourself, you can share that experience with others, both locals and visitors.
Also, of course, you can get involved. As we move forward with the future legs, we will want citizen input and involvement. If you’d like to participate, let me know.
You can find more information about the Great Sauk Trail in many places. The 'Friends of the Trail' organization operates its own website, with maps, photos and videos. Sauk County has a web page about the Trail with more photos and maps. You can find detailed information about hours and admission at the website of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. TrailLink, the 'rails to trails conservancy' has pages about many trails, including the Great Sauk Trail. And a search on 'great sauk trail' will find even more useful pages.