Touring Tiffany Bottoms

all aboard for a mini-train tour of a spectacular Wisconsin wetland

Bill Hogseth, photos by Nick Meyer

Ridin’ the rails. Exploring Tiffany Bottoms – 13,000 acres of scenic Wisconsin wetlands – is a breeze with regular mini-train tours and helpful guides.
 
Ridin’ the rails. Exploring Tiffany Bottoms – 13,000 acres of scenic Wisconsin wetlands – is a breeze with regular mini-train tours and helpful guides.

As the Chippewa River flows downstream from Eau Claire, it threads through a landscape of steep bluffs, expansive floodplains, and other habitats that call home to 125 rare species, more than any other area in Wisconsin; including massasauga rattlesnakes, prickly pear cactus, and prothonotary warblers. Our own backyard contains incredible ecological diversity that many Chippewa Valley residents are hardly aware of.

Typically, the only way to experience a wilderness area it is to strike off on your own with a map and compass. That is not the case, however, in the Chippewa Valley. In the heart of our most remote region – the Tiffany Wildlife Area in Buffalo County – an unlikely partnership has formed between train lovers and bird lovers that offers local folks the chance to experience a wild place and to see abundant wildlife.

For the last decade, a group of railroad enthusiasts, known as the Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association, have worked diligently to reclaim and maintain an eight-mile stretch of railroad track that extends through the middle of the Tiffany. Operating open-air mini-train cars, the group began offering rides to the public. Almost immediately, the rides became a sensation with birders who had long craved the opportunity to explore this area. Conservation non-profit groups began using the rides to raise awareness (and money) for environmental causes. Rides are now offered to the public every spring and autumn, before and after the summer mosquito season. 

The train offers riders access into an area that is notoriously difficult to penetrate. The Tiffany’s landscape is a complex braid of backwater channels, bottomland forests, and floodplain savannas. Walk in any direction and you are likely to encounter a river slough, wetland, pond, or lake that complicates your travels. Also, the area is simply gigantic; at 13,000 acres the Tiffany is the largest intact floodplain forest in the Midwest. 


The area is renowned for mind-boggling displays of birdlife, especially during the migration season. In the spring, for example, it is estimated that over 100,000 songbirds descend into the area in a single day, using its habitats as a stop-over before resuming their travels northward. During the summer, more than 30 species of warblers nest and breed in the Tiffany.

Passengers climb aboard at a location just south of Durand. Many folks bring blankets and seat cushions for added comfort. Instead of a caboose, the train hauls a port-a-potty behind the cars. As the train departs, passengers roll under the high forest canopies, through open prairies, and across bridges spanning the Tiffany’s many waterways. 

Periodically, the train stops and passengers venture out on foot. Some passengers stroll in the company of a naturalist who shares insights about different species found along the way. Other passengers find a spot on the grass, roll out a blanket, and unpack picnic supplies. Families with young children poke around in the brush or at a pond’s edge. Then, the engine rumbles and the train rolls on again. By the end of the ride, passengers have been whisked through a mix of different habitats and seen countless wildlife species.

Riding the train is just plain good fun and it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss. Even if you’re not a nature lover, it’s a chance to get outside with friends or family. If you are a nature lover, it’s a chance to see the Chipppewa Valley in its rawest and most untamed form.

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To view the 2012 train schedule, visit ChippewaValleyMotorCarAssociation.ellawisc.com
Each train ride is a fundraising event hosted by a different organization. Contact specific organizations to register for a ride.

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