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Travel: Prime real estate

Scenic variety and wildlife highlight central Wisconsin's Columbia County
And the Alliant Energy plant.
We headed north out of Fall River on the George Kaschub Memorial Trail toward Cambria.
Heading south on Route 49 we ran near the Wisconsin River and Lake Wisconsin.
Then west past Wyocena.
ROUND THE LOOP - There are plenty of interconnecting trails in Columbia County.
PLEASANT RIDE - A sunny day after a good mid-season snow provides a fun ride in Wisconsin's Columbia County.
Mike Carr photos
Smack in the middle of Wisconsin sits Columbia County, a lesser known snowmobiling stronghold that compares favorably with many of the Badger State's better known locales.

Columbia County has it all: rolling hills, open farmland, mixed forests and roughly 300 miles of trails, with plenty of loops and connectors to make riding a pleasure - without ever having to backtrack.

Prime time
I toured Columbia County last January, after nearly a foot of fresh snow had blanketed central Wisconsin. A study of the county snowmobile map showed a wonderful network of trails, offering many route options.

I began my odyssey from the town of Fall River in the county's southeast corner, heading counter-clockwise toward the region's major geographic feature, the Wisconsin River, which makes a big bend in Columbia County, forming part of its western edge. A small portion of the county is west of the river, but lacks trails, so all of the sledding action is east of the waterway. Most of the county is a combination of rolling agricultural land and mixed forests, with more wooded areas and elevation changes closer to the river.

The county's southern and eastern portions are dotted with farms and the excellence of the snowmobile trails is due to the generosity of hundreds of individual landowners.

The first leg of my afternoon journey was out of Fall River and onto county trail No. 27, the George Kaschub Memorial Trail, named to honor a prominent Columbia County snowmobiler. This took me north across a succession of farm fields, then past the Casino Supper Club, a popular restaurant situated on a quiet country road.

The trail crossed a bridge spanning the Canadian Pacific's main rail line connecting Milwaukee, Wis., with Saint Paul, Minn. Sled routes cross this busy track at more than a half dozen places in the county, so seeing trains is common.

It wasn't long before the nicely groomed trail headed past a pine plantation and into some woods where a large whitetail deer stood by the trail before bounding off into the bush. The twisting path made for fun riding and as I exited the woods, three wild turkeys watched me scoot by.

The undulating trail led to the town of Cambria in the county's northeast corner, where a series of junctions offered numerous options. Turning west, the trail toward Pardeeville ran past a Del Monte complex, a seasonal canning plant and a cluster of housing units, which were deserted in the midst of this off-season.

The trail paralleled County Road P for almost 7 miles. Much of the ride was along, or just inside, the Peter Helland Wildlife Management Area, a large parcel of public land characterized by grasslands, marsh and mixed forest. The last mile into Pardeeville was on an abandoned railroad grade. At the edge of town, a trail intersection offered a choice and I turned southwest toward Wyocena, just 3 miles away.

Wyocena is a sleepy little burg where an occasional train provides most of what passes for excitement. The trail went right through town, which has a gas station, so I used the opportunity to refuel.

Southwest of town the landscape changes from farmland to forest. I headed for the Wisconsin River, with the trail snaking between a mix of pines and hardwoods. Another deer and more turkeys were seen along the trail, but none seemed bothered as I motored past.

From atop each hill, the massive Alliant Energy power plant was visible for miles on the western horizon, making it the most prominent landmark and a good reference point from different locations. The closer I got, the larger it loomed until the trail passed by the southern end of the property, where the plant was visible across Lake Columbia. This huge cooling pond stretched for more than a mile, with steam rising off it into the cold winter air.

The trail continued southwest within a mile of the Wisconsin River, passing over Interstate 90/94 on a county road bridge. Near the waterway, there were more wooded areas and ravines with plenty of twists and turns. These trails were a delight.

Along the way, three different spur trails offered access to the frozen river and I took a brief excursion to the shore of Lake Wisconsin just to take a look. A lot of snowmobile tracks on the frozen surface went off into the distance, but I returned to the main trail and continued on the uplands above the river valley.

The last leg
Just outside of Lodi there were several trail junctions and that's where I turned east. My final segment took me back over the freeway, then along the county's southern edge. This leg was 34 miles over gently rolling agricultural land, interrupted only by Arlington and North Leeds. With the setting sun at my back, it was a quick and pleasant cruise back to Fall River - 101 miles for an afternoon.

This was my first tour of Columbia County, but it won't be my last. The trail system's 300+ miles includes 70 miles of unfunded routes, maintained by county snowmobile clubs. Many link in with the 23,000 miles of Wisconsin sled trails.

"Our clubs operate 16 pieces of grooming equipment," says Steve Pate, a county association director. All are operated by club members who volunteer their time. With that kind of a commitment to grooming, it's no surprise that I enjoyed a hundred miles of smooth riding!

Columbia County trails are maintained by 10 snowmobile clubs, all members of the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs (AWSC). The clubs include the: Arlington Prairie Drifters, Cambria Moonlighters, Camper Country Snowriders, Columbus - Fall River Blazers, Doylestown Snow-Hoppers, New Haven Sno-Streakers, Randolph Trail Busters, Rocky Run Riders, Winnebago Ridge Runners and Yellow Thunder Snowmobile Club.

For a Columbia County trail map, call 608-630-2533. For info on trail conditions, call 608-227-7433.
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