Over Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the ribbon-cutting for the Conover-Phelps Trail in Vilas County.  Conover-Phelps is a 10.2 mile trail that connects Conover Town Park to Lakefront Pines Park in Phelps. The trail is completely off road and boasts shady forest segments, lush wetlands, and three bridges.

Conover-Phelps is the latest achievement of Great Headwaters Trails (GHT), a non-profit organization with the goal of connecting four town centers in eastern Vilas County – and three existing trail systems – by hard surface biking and walking trails. Having ridden the trail in 2020, when funding was still being sought for the last 1.8 miles, it was wonderful to celebrate this accomplishment with GHT and the Friends of the Conover-Phelps Trail.

While the rain came down steadily throughout the celebration, it was impossible to dampen the spirits of the many organizations and individuals who collaborated to make this trail a reality. The GHT board, local politicians, Wisconsin DNR, Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Foundation, the Vilas County Chamber of Commerce, and many local donors were on hand for the ceremony. All of the speakers reinforced the importance of having beautiful spaces to safely recreate, the economic benefit of trails on the local economy, and that these projects are only possible through collaboration.

Having seen the great work Great Headwaters Trails is capable of, one of Bike Fed’s 2022 Priority Projects is advancing the next GHT project – the River Trail. The River Trail will extend the Heart of Vilas County Trail System by 10 miles and connect in the county seat, Eagle River. Like the existing 50 miles of the Heart of Vilas System, River Trail will be a paved, non-motorized trail for bike riders and pedestrians. The increased interconnectivity between Vilas County communities will positively impact both local and traveling trail users, boosting local economies and small businesses along the way.

The Great Headwaters Trails Foundation has been leading the charge on this project, with Bike Fed acting as a resource to them as we can. Because the project is large enough to travel through multiple municipalities, GHT has worked steadily to gain both municipal and county buy-in to ensure the project can move forward smoothly. At the municipal level, three out of the four municipalities have joined the River Trail Commission to better plan and monitor progress – the Town of St. Germain, the Town of Cloverland, and the City of Eagle River. In Vilas County, GHT has secured the support of the new Vilas County Board Chair, Jerry Burkett, who has committed to appointing a county supervisor to the Commission this month. An ongoing cooperative effort among all the Commission members will be essential to develop the trail and to care for it in years to come. Securing funding – especially for a needed bridge across the Wisconsin River – will also be easier with all hands on deck.

With municipalities, the county, GHT, and Bike Fed all working together, the complex River Trail project looks doable. Bike Fed is working closely with GHT to assist in getting this project across the finish line. As the local units of government begin work to secure funding and the needed right of way for the River Trail, we will aid in finding the best avenues for them to pursue within the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding options and providing examples of easement agreements from other trails around the state.