While many classic mountain bike trails dating back to the hazy, smoke-filled beginnings of our sport were once hiking trails, horseback riding trails, or moto trails, Levis/Trow Mounds may just be one of the first trail systems ever built by mountain bikers, for mountain bikers. Normally referred to as just “Levis Mounds,” the rocky sandstone mounds abruptly rise 300 feet out of the glacially-flattened Clark County Forest in central Wisconsin. Located 13 miles southwest of the small town of Neillsville, population 2,463, the number of dedicated, local mountain bikers can be counted on one hand. Instead of a locals’ paradise, Levis functions as a Midwestern mountain bike mecca that requires a bit of a pilgrimage to get there.
The history of mountain biking at Levis dates all the way back to the mid ’80s when two best friends, Steve Meurett and Dean Glaze, bought matching red Rockhoppers for $419 each and jumped into the sport tires-first. They began by riding on the cross country ski trails and old logging roads that ran through the area, but in a few short years they started building sections of singletrack to bypass the ski trail. The first singletrack trails at Levis, dating back to 1987, were built mainly as a means to avoid boggy areas the cross-country ski trails ran through, since they were originally intended for winter use only.
As things began to progress, Meurett and Glaze decided to take advantage of the unique topography of the mounds. “You start walking around that area and you see cool rock ledges and outcroppings, and say ‘that’s a cool place, let’s build a trail there,’” said Meurett. “[We said], ‘we need a trail on top of the mound and we need a trail to get off the mound,’ and it kind of [grew] from there.”
Unlike many of the original mountain bike trails that began as renegade tracks and were only legalized later on, Meurett and Glaze began by first asking permission of the local land managers. Since the land is all owned and managed by the county, the process of getting trails approved was pretty easy at first. “The forest service had no interest in developing it,” said Meurett. “We’d say, ‘we’d like to build a singletrack from A to B,’ and they’d say, ‘fine, go ahead.’” “As long as they didn’t have to stick any resources into it, they didn’t really care.”
Since Meurett and Glaze were both teachers at the local high school, they were able to dedicate the majority of their summers to riding and building. With their enthusiastic drive, the trail system grew quickly, both in size and in popularity. The trails started gaining regional and national renown, achieving IMBA Epic status in 2002. The local trail organization that Meurett and Glaze founded, the Neillsville Single Track Inhabitants (NASTI), put on a race from the ’90s into the mid ’00s called the Buzzard Buster, which had 67 riders in the first race and had grown to 800-900 for the final edition.
While Levis boasts a long and storied history, it hasn’t followed the trend of some famed trails that are now has-beens or used-to-bes. Instead, Levis continues to increase in popularity even today. Now, riders travel from all over the Midwest on a regular basis to sample the goods at Levis, coming from the Twin Cities, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and beyond. Looking even farther afield, anyone from out of state who is serious about riding mountain bikes and is passing through central Wisconsin will (or should) make an effort to stop and spend a day on the beautiful Levis Mounds singletrack
Levis remains relevant today thanks in large part to the creative trail design. Old favorites such as Toad Road and Cliffhanger with their challenging singletrack winding through deep rock clefts and under the overhangs of impressive sandstone cliffs have been joined in recent years by instant classics such as Sidewinder. Both Meurett and Glaze cite Sidewinder as their favorite trail. “Sidewinder [is my favorite] for sure, that’s no doubt,” said Meurett. “It’s the only one-way trail, which simplifies things tremendously, and I know when I laid that trail out that’s the first one that we put in where we used every inch and every feature of this particular mound. [It has the] best views, best flow, and it’s three layers tall.”
Sidewinder is a very “visually-intimidating” trail due to the serious cliff-side exposure. At several points the singletrack trail is a mere 18-24 inches wide with a near-vertical rocky hillside going up on the left and a sheer drop off of 30 feet or more on the right–with no margin for error. “It’s not physically a hard trail because there’s no climbing on it, but you have to be a good bike handler,” said Meurett.
Since Sidewinder is so far removed from the rest of the trail system and is well-removed from any of the major highways, it “really feels like you are in the middle of nowhere while you are there,” said Glaze. Of course, being located in rural central Wisconsin, the entire trail system exudes that middle-of-nowhere feel.
While Levis has 25 wonderful miles of singletrack trails, it is hardly just one massive loop. Instead, this is a complex (but well-marked) network of shorter trails that can be arranged into several very different, very unique rides.
Levis Mound (Front Mounds)
The front mounds, with the largest named “Levis Mound” (providing the common name for the entire area), contains some of the oldest, most technically-challenging, and most scenic trails in the trail system. One of the most efficient routes for experiencing what the front mounds have to offer begins by climbing up the sandstone goodness of Porky Point. Then, climb up the shady North Face trail to the top of the mound, pausing to catch your breath. Drop down Cliffhanger and experience a true deep-forest feel with delightfully loamy dirt—a radical departure from the sandy soil in the rest of the trail system.
From there, continue onto Switchback to head across the side of the mound, either climbing the optional set of steep, challenging switchbacks, or taking the bypass as most people tend to do. When you reach Toad Road, hang a right and prepare for a technical climb back up to the top of the mound, with a unique experience riding a wooden bridge through a cleft in a massive sandstone rock dubbed “Plumber’s Crack.” Once on the top of the mound, ride the ridge top trails around counter-clockwise, taking time to detour to the many gorgeous overlooks atop the 75-foot sandstone bluffs. After touring the top, pick up the recently rerouted Corkscrew trail and descend back off the mound, and move on to another trail!
If you decide you want to venture out into the rest of the trail system, try heading right and picking up Swamp Cut, and continue with the “Trow Mounds” route below.
Total route length: about 5 miles, although several more miles of riding would be required to return to the trailhead.
Flat Loop around Levis Mound
For those who don’t think they’re yet ready for the thrills of the sandstone rocks of Levis and who don’t have the legs to attempt a longer ride out to the Trow Mounds, there’s a flat, beginner-friendly loop encircling the base of Levis Mound. While it rides well in either direction, try heading around the mound counterclockwise, leaving the trailhead via Lower Glen, turning left onto Dead Turkey, continuing onto the swooping turns of Select Cut and Warmup, and finishing with the slightly-challenging roots and wide wooden bridges of Snodgrass.
Total route length: about 4 miles.
If you really want to pack the miles in and prefer to ride more rolling singletrack that really allows you to open the legs up, try this ride heading out to the Trow Mounds and back.
Head out of the parking lot on Lower Glen and continue straight onto Swamp Cut. Continue onto Yellow Jacket and find your rhythm, powering through the undulating climbs. At this point you can either climb to the top of Buck Hill and drop back down on the Buck Hill trail and head out toward Goat Dance, or you can wuss out and take the Secret Trail, bypassing the Buck Hill climb.
Then comes Goat Dance. Goat Dance is the longest section of trail with a single name at Levis, set up as a 3.6-mile lariat. It also contains the longest climb in the trail system, so get ready to gear down and grind! Recommended direction on the loop part of the lariat is counterclockwise.
After finishing Goat Dance, climb back up to the top of Buck Hill via the Buck Hill trail. Once there, be sure to hit up the crowning jewel of the Levis Mound experience: Sidewinder (see above).
After Sidewinder, start heading back toward the trailhead by means of Upper Hermosa, Hermosa, and Lower Hermosa. But don’t think the fun’s over yet: the Hermosas are one of the best parts! Traversing the sides and climbing up and down several of the Trow Mounds, be prepared for even more swoop combined with more tech and sand. Finally, at the bottom of Lower Hermosa, eventually pick up Lower Glen again and bring it back to the trailhead for some cool beer at the car. If you decide you want to throw in the front mounds, catch the Upper Glen trail over to Porky Point and start following the Levis Mound route described above.
Total route length: about 12 miles.
As stated above, the trail system is very complex, but very well signed. Be sure to check out the massive trail map kiosk in the parking lot for the most up-to-date information on the latest trail developments, and be sure to grab one of the free printed maps to help make sense of the many trail markers. Now go out and have fun: take one of my suggested routes above, or combine all of them and throw in the trails I didn’t mention for one heck of an epic day! When the sun comes up again the next morning, do it again—and go the other direction, if you so desire.
Here’s everything else you need to know about traveling to Levis:
Camping at Levis
“There’s not a lot of places in Wisconsin where there’s camping at a trailhead. There isn’t any place where I can think of that’s pretty much designed for bikers,” said Glaze. Choose from one of 10-12 rustic sites located right at the trailhead. A bathroom with a flush toilet is available, but don’t expect a shower anytime soon.
Located just four miles south on County Hwy J is the largest and most developed campground in Clark County: Russell Park. With 230 campsites, all the amenities you could dream of, and one of the biggest lakes and nicest beaches in the region, Russell has it going on.
Eat & Drink
Stone’s Throw Supper Club
Located in Hatfield just outside of the entrance to Russell Park, the Stone’s Throw is the place to go for delicious burgers, steaks, beer—just about everything you need to consume post-ride. Be sure to stop in and say hey—they love mountain bikers!