More important to his own pursuits, Jones’ New Berlin digs sit at the hub of hundreds of miles of bike paths and recreational trails that stretch from the lakefront to Madison, Sheboygan down to Kenosha. He can wheel his bike along off-street routes to concerts in Cathedral Square, Brewers games at Miller Park or lunch in Delafield. He can also meander into the countryside over historic bridges, through lush wetlands and under hardwood canopies.
Thanks to an extensive – but not always well-linked – network of paths, anyone who can remember how to ride a bike has similar opportunities for exercise, recreation and self-propelled transportation, all within a few miles of their doorsteps. Hikers, runners, dog-walkers, in-line skaters and stroller-pushers also have easy access to a bounty of trails.
“Milwaukee is one of the hidden gems in the country that people probably don’t appreciate,” says Eric Oberg, manager of trail development in the Midwest Region of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “What’s surprising to most people is how much is there.”
By rough estimate, the total in the loosely bound Milwaukee metro area is at least 325 miles of off-street recreational trails and on-street connections, another 65 miles of mountain bike trails and well beyond 100 miles of park paths and segments of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Oberg says Wisconsin ranks third among the 50 states with 2,015 miles of multiuse trails.
Although the collection appears exhausting, the drive for more remains strong.
As Oberg describes it, much of the low-hanging fruit for trail conversion locations – the long, uninterrupted rail or utility corridors – have disappeared as urban sprawl spreads. The push now is to make connections that unite existing trails by building short, off-street segments.
“We want to bring these trails to where people live, not have them drive to a trailhead,” says Brigit Brown, the state trails coordinator in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Finding the money will be a challenge.
From 1993 to 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation allocated $206.5 million in federal dollars for bike trails and similar projects via the transportation enhancement and congestion mitigation programs, the primary sources of cash for recreational trails. The Department of Natural Resources shared another $10.2 million in grants for recreational trails from 1990 to present and spent $9.8 million on its own trails from 2000 to 2010.
That flow of funds has slowed at both the federal and state level. The biennial budget crafted in Madison this year recommends an almost 50 percent cut to the largest pot of money for bicycle and pedestrian projects. Project managers looking to build bike paths and pedestrian walkways will be fighting over fewer dollars later this year in the next round of grant allocations, the first since 2010. Proponents of reduced funding point to belt-tightening across the state and the need to rebuild major roads and freeways, while trail advocates argue that spending roughly 0.3 percent of a state transportation budget on recreational trails is neither frivolous nor foolish but a valuable investment in economic development, public health and quality of life.
For now, however, there are plenty of existing trails to explore.
“My favorite local recreational trail isn’t a specific trail,” Jones says, “but rather the variety of trails that we are fortunate to be able to choose from within the Milwaukee area.”
What follows are 35 of southeastern Wisconsin’s best. From biking to hiking and multiuse trails, options are plentiful and varied, from peacefully scenic to practical and urban. Go where the path may lead and encounter wildlife, natural splendor, fellow enthusiasts and maybe even a new commute.