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The Southern Unit of Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine State Forest is home to an extensive mountain bike trail system known alternatively as the "John Muir Trails" or "Emma Carlin." The two names come from the respective trailheads and trail loops at either end of the trail network.
Despite having distinct names, singletrack runs between the two networks, effectively creating a lengthy mountain bike ride that is quite rare in this region of the Midwest. In fact, many riders agree that the John Muir and Emma Carlin trails collectively comprise one of the premier mountain bike trail systems in the Southern Wisconsin / Northern Illinois region.
Easily accessible from three major metropolitan areas (Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison), the high-quality singletrack attracts thousands of riders every year.
To help keep up with the demand on the facilities and trail maintenance, out of state riders will have to pay $11 for a day parking sticker and $5 for a day riding pass.
However, if you're an in-state local and plan to ride here often, an annual parking pass is just $28, and an annual trail pass is $25.
So, are the trails worth the cost to ride? Compared to most other mountain bike trails in the region, the short answer is "yes!" The trails at John Muir are bike-optimized to the max, despite having been built in relatively flat Southern Wisconsin terrain.
The singletrack swoops and flows through the tight trees, and almost every downhill features small-but-entertaining berms to provide a playful ride experience.
Deeper into the network, the trails get a little steeper and offer a bit more climbing to keep you honest.
At the trailhead, you'll find an entertaining skills course with well-built wooden berms, skinnies, and jumps. Emma Carlin, on the other hand, features a distinctly different ride quality.
Gone are the bike-optimized corners and trail flow.
In its place, you'll find singletrack that is tight and demanding.
The climbs are steeper and more strenuous.
In many places, it feels like the builders purposely routed the trail in what would, by current standards, be considered a less-than-ideal fashion… but that the builders designed the trail in just such a way to make it as difficult as possible.
But since this is Southern Wisconsin, the result is just a slightly awkward and overly-strenuous up-and-down ride quality.
Despite a less-than-ideal trail design, the forest at Emma Carlin is still beautiful, and the riding is still fun if you maintain the right mindset. Taken collectively as one massive 30-mile ride, the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit is a worthy mountain bike ride for any local or traveler passing through the area.