Returning to Eau Claire on a bright
October day, I and my riding buddy,
Lars, immediately hop in the saddle to
explore town. Right across the Eau Claire
River from downtown is Phoenix Park,
a gorgeously designed new public space
featuring a farmers market, inviting
plazas, a strolling path, a railroad bridge
retrofitted for non-motorized traffic and,
of course, bike trails at the confluence
of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers.
It’s the trailhead of the Chippewa River
State Trail, our route for tomorrow.
Today we take the trail as far as Carson
Park, an impressive city recreation area
with a lake and a miniature railroad run-
ning 1/4-scale steam and 1/5-scale diesel
trains that whisk kids half a mile through
the woods past a roundhouse-style turn-
table and water tower all summer long.
After that, we head north out of Eau
Claire 12 miles to Chippewa Falls (home
of Leinenkugel’s brewery), then several
more miles to Brunet Island State Park
near the city of Cornell on the Old Abe
Trail. Eventually the Old Abe will be
linked to the Chippewa River State Trail,
but it can easily be reached today via city
bike trails and streets.
Back in town, we stop off for a beer
on Water Street—the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire business district
sporting not one, not two, but three
bike shops, and numerous restaurants
and bars. Nick Meyer, publisher of the
Volume One
newspaper who
first invited me to Eau Claire, strongly
recommended The Joynt as a classic
Wisconsin tavern. A neon sign announc-
ing “no light beer” makes us feel at
home right away. The bartenders pour
draughts in small glasses at eminently
reasonable prices so, if you like, you can
sample several of the local beers.
Downtown is jumping by the time
we get back. It is filled with college
students and others browsing antique
stores, art galleries, a Scandinavian gift
shop and a model train store. When I’m
a one-of-a-kind shop on Barstow
Street, is a veritable museum of rock
n’ roll memorabilia, including a suit
worn by Paul McCartney in 1964 and a
swatch of a towel used by John Lennon.
The next morning, after a hearty
breakfast burrito on Water Street at the
Nucleus Café, whose back door looks out
on the Chippewa River State Trail, we’re
off. The 38-mile paved trail follows a
Milwaukee Road line built in 1882 that
carried freight of all varieties for the next
years, making two passenger runs
daily between Eau Claire and Durand for
most of that time. The Milwaukee Road
abandoned this branch line due to finan-
cial problems in 1979.
We ride along the river for four miles
through historical residential neighbor-
hoods before reaching the countryside,
which blazes with red sumac and yellow
foliage. Riding a rail-trail always makes
me envy those old railroad engineers who
spent their working lives gazing out at
such pleasing scenery.
Ten miles from downtown Eau Claire
we hit Caryville, a sleepy settlement dis-
tinguished by an old-style grocery store/
filling station. Six miles farther comes
Meridean—a postcard-perfect village
with a well-tended farmstead where
every building is painted red and white
and a Norwegian flag flies alongside the
Stars and Stripes. Some enterprising soul
has set out a trailside ice chest advertis-
ing “pop” for $1 a bottle, on the honor
We now enter the Dunnville Wildlife
Area, an untamed landscape of sandbars,
sloughs, prairie and oak savanna where
bald eagles and osprey flourish. A tower-
ing 370-foot-long trestle bridge offers a
bird’s-eye view of the Chippewa River
valley. The bridge connects our trail with
the Red Cedar State Trail, which tra-
verses bluffs, forest and farmland along
the Red Cedar River. It runs 14 miles
north to Menominee, a charming town
that is home to another campus of the
University of Wisconsin.
But Lars and I head for Durand, the
southwest trailhead six miles downriver,
in pursuit of lunch. We pick up speed
over the last stretch as our stomachs
growl. We’re happy to find that the town
of 2,000 offers half a dozen eateries
along a classic Midwestern main street
that parallels a new riverwalk prom-
enade. We settle on The Village Inn
Café, lured by its creative assortment of
sandwiches on homemade bread, and a
full beer list. Ordering a Leinenkugel,
brewed in nearby Chippewa Falls,
we toast the great state of Wisconsin!
Jay Walljasper, author of
The Great Neighbor-
hood Book
is editor of
He rides the plentiful bike trails of Minneapolis
year-round for both fun and transportation.
Phoenix Park, top, and Carson Park, above,
are great trail destinations. This turntable
spins trains on two miniature railroads. Fall is
a great time to visit, with crisp, cool weather
and lots of colorful foliage.