Trail is Ozaukee’s beaten path

Blazed 20 years ago, Ozaukee Interurban Trail has become a popular recreational destination not just for residents but for visitors who help fuel local economy

THE OZAUKEE INTERURBAN TRAIL, which spans the length of Ozaukee County, has been in existence for 20 years, providing county residents and visitors with a place to bike, walk, skate and enjoy nature. Celebrating the anniversary at Trail Bridge Park adjacent to the bridge over I-43 in the Town of Grafton Tuesday were (front row, from left) Pam King, president of the Ozaukee County Tourism Council; Elizabeth Mueller, administrator of the Tourism Council; (back row) Tina Kroening, a conservation biologist with the Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Department; and Andrew Struck, director of the department and chairman of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail Advisory Committee. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

It’s hard to imagine Ozaukee County without the Ozaukee Interurban Trail — a premier, 30-mile walking, biking and hiking trail that leads from one end of the county to the other.

The trail, which is 20 years old, has become part of everyday life for Pam King and many other county residents and visitors.

“I walk on a part of the trail every day,” King said. “My husband and I and our family will put our bikes on the car and drive up to Port Washington and head north to the Sheboygan County line. Other times we’ll drive to Mequon, and from there the trail connects so wonderfully to Milwaukee County’s trail we can get to downtown Milwaukee.”

King said the trail is unique not only because it’s easily accessible, it’s a paved path that goes through both rural and urban areas, verdant countryside and shopping districts, and along farm fields and the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“It gives you a unique set of experiences,” she said.

“It’s an easy family riding trail,” King added, with lots of stops with restrooms and water fountains but it also has challenging parts ideal for serious biking enthusiasts.

The trail isn’t just for summertime use. During the winter, people can hike and cross country ski and snowshoe on the trail.

“As a resident of Ozaukee County, I love the idea of having that kind of trail,” King said. “Knowing it’s literally for all of us right in our own backyards is an amazing thing.”

She should know. As executive director of  the Grafton Area Chamber of Commerce and president of the Ozaukee County Tourism Council, King has been involved in marketing the trail for years and she’s seen the impact it has had not only on her community but throughout the county.

“On any given Saturday and Sunday, I can see people enjoying the trail. They’re stopping in our communities, visiting our restaurants and shops,” she said.

Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, noted that bicycling is a “huge recreational activity in Wisconsin. People plan their trips around it. Bike trails are destinations.”

And if people are bicyclists, she said, “They know about the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.”

While the trail has been well used since it opened, that use has increased significantly during the pandemic, Tank said.

“Lots of new people discovered the Interurban Trail during the pandemic,” she said.

According to a 2021 report by the county Parks and Planning Department, use of the trail increased from 161,000 in 2018 to 354,700 in 2019 and 514,000 in 2020.

And those users spend money in the communities along the trail, Tank said, stopping for refreshments, visiting shops and staying at area hotels.

Port Washington’s two hotels are along the Interurban and use it in their marketing, she noted, and one of the city’s bed-and-breakfast inns, the Bailey House, was purchased by its owner, Tammy Thompson-Oreskovic for its location on the trail.

Thompson-Oreskovic also located her shop, ZuZu Pedals, in Port because of the Interurban, Tank added.

It’s ironic to think the Interurban Trail, which doesn’t allow motorized vehicles on it, got its start as a rail line, said Andrew Struck, Ozaukee County’s director of planning and development who Tank called “the guru, the godfather of the Interurban Trail.”

It was the route of the Interurban Electric Railway, which opened in 1907 and ran from Milwaukee to Sheboygan. When the rail line ceased operations in 1951, its parent company — today known as We Energies — retained the land. By 1975, the utility began converting some parts into bike paths.

In Ozaukee County, those new bike trails included the City of Port Washington’s bike path and stretches of bike paths in the City of Mequon and Village of Grafton.

By the late 1990s, Ozaukee County and many of its municipalities began a collaborative effort working with We Energies to create the Interurban Trail, Struck said.

It wasn’t always an easy task, Tank said, noting the project had to be sold not only to the municipalities but also to the County Board.

The county and municipalities received $1 million in grants from the Department of Transportation to construct the trail, connecting the disparate pieces and then paving the path. Work began in 2001 and the trail opened in 2002.

“We made it a seamless experience for users,” Struck said.

Since then, the county has worked to enhance the trail, such as building a bike and pedestrian bridge over I-43 in the Town of Grafton.

In time, Struck said, the county worked with Sheboygan County to extend the Interurban six miles into Sheboygan County and with Milwaukee County to connect with the Brown Deer Recreational Trail and then the Oak Leaf Trail.

And now, he said, the county is working to have the Interurban included in the Route of the Badger, which seeks to link all the bike trails in southeastern Wisconsin.

The county is also working to get a DOT grant to repave the northern portion of the trail, probably in 2024, Struck said.

“The trail has held up pretty well after 20 years of use,” he said, “but it’s starting to get cracking and some minor pitting.”

Through the years, the county and the Interurban Trail Advisory Council have added amenities, such as repair stations, and they’ve created a birding guide to the trail, noting the many species that can be seen along the way and where they can generally be found.

The Interurban is a premier attraction in Ozaukee County, Struck said, drawing bicyclists and tourists from throughout the region to the area, but it’s much more than just that.

“It really has brought all the county together,” he said. “It’s been good for the county to rally around.”

Struck said he believes the trail has contributed to the county’s ranking as one of the healthiest in the state, noting that it’s used for everything from people getting to work and the grocery store to nonprofit groups holding fundraising rides, from pleasure rides to exercise.

“I get a lot of emails from people who tell me the main reason we came to your county was to ride the trail,” he said. “I get families telling me how nice it was to ride with their whole family.”

Last year, a group of cyclists who were biking around Lake Michigan  made it a point to take the Interurban Trail and “they reached out to say it was a nice piece of their journey,” Struck said.

The Interurban’s 20th anniversary celebration began with a selfie contest in April and plans are in the works to hold another photo contest highlighting the trail throughout the seasons and a fall trail ride.

“We’re working to have little events throughout the year just to get people out on the trail,” Struck said.

That’s the key, just getting people out to enjoy the trail, Tank said.

“People have built it into their everyday lives. They walk it everyday, and run it everyday, and of course they bike it every day,” she said. “Little kids have grown up never knowing a time without this.

“And now it’s considered one of the best county amenities.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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