There's something captivating about the Ice Age. Perhaps our seemingly interminable winters make it easier to imagine ice (over a mile thick!) permanently covering the land. Woolly mammoths stomping across the terrain before a massive glacier have inspired a couple feature-length cartoons and the recent Hollywood dud 10,000 B.C.
The legacy of the real Ice Age, though, is a stunning work of geological art carved across the continent. And Wisconsin takes center stage. The terrain is nature's petroglyph, a symbol of ancient history that is as audacious as a Roman ruin. Thanks to the Kettle Moraine State Forest and the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, Wisconsinites are familiar with the somewhat esoteric geological terms associated with the physical remnants of the last ice age, and thanks to the Wisconsin Dells, carved in a geological heartbeat by the sudden draining of a massive glacial lake, familiar with its more dramatic representations.
The best way to really appreciate the grandeur and beauty of our post-glacial inheritance is to take a trek along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail (IAT). This 1,000-mile footpath roughly follows the line where the last advance of the most recent ice sheet ended. This creates a trail that runs from Door County to St. Croix Falls by way of Janesville; 28.8 miles of the off-road portions of the IAT are in Dane County, and many more are in surrounding counties.
Segments of the trail run through such familiar places as Indian Lake County Park. Others are in more obscure locations, like the Groves-Pertzborn segment, a lovely little path through a ravine just outside of Lodi. The best part about most of these off-road stretches is their seclusion. Last summer, when I did the hiking for my book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Madison, I hiked 10 portions of the IAT, and on most I saw nary a soul.
Eric Sherman is the communications specialist for the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF), a nonprofit working to build, maintain, protect and promote the trail in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service, as well as various local communities and landowners. He notes that the trail is within 20 miles of 50% of Wisconsin's residents.
"The trail has really followed through quite nicely on Zillmer's vision, because if you are in Madison you have your choice of driving 15 minutes to Verona and walking on a trail that you wouldn't exactly describe as wilderness, but which is a really nice recreational opportunity if you are looking for a way to stretch your legs after work," says Sherman. "If you go a little bit farther to the Lodi Marsh segment, it's quiet and has more of a wilderness feel. Then you go farther north and you can go backpacking three or four days. The trail really does provide what our founder was after - a way to get people out in a variety of ways."
Some segments, such as Devil's Lake, make for a demanding workout, while urban portions offer an easy stroll, such as Janesville's contribution along the Rock River. (The newly finished Devil's Staircase is a more challenging climb just north of Janesville.)
The Ice Age Trail does not make for a handy loop as one might find in most parks, so hikers must follow an out-and-back course unless they arrange a pick-up and drop-off or use two vehicles. There is something anticlimactic about that unceremonious turnaround, possibly in the middle of nowhere. It can feel like reaching the finish line in a footrace and then having to turn around and run back to the starting blocks. But this is not a race. Sherman spins it positive: "Once I see everything along the trail, I know where I want to stop and spend more time on the way back."
Many parts of the trail cross private land, and it is the generosity of the owners that makes the IAT successful. A case in point is one of my favorite segments, Table Bluff (see map in gallery). Most of the 2.5-mile trail passes through land owned by a group called Swamplovers. Lee and Jacqui Swanson, Jerry Goth and Tom Kuehn formed the venture 22 years ago and bought 640 acres west of Cross Plains. About 460 of those acres have been preserved, and in 17 years they'll revert to the Ice Age Trail.
The Table Bluff path was laid out just two summers ago and provides views of both glaciated lands and the driftless zone. The rise and fall of terrain through prairie and oak savanna and over bluffs will raise your pulse rate a bit more than the average stroll, but what really may leave you breathless is the stunning collection of wildflowers.
The prairie portions are vibrant like Van Gogh paintings; swaying in the breeze are wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, false sunflowers, Culver's root, and butterfly weed, to name but a few. Seventeen species of plants are on the endangered list. A lot of time and effort by volunteers went into restoration of the prairie, but in some cases reviving the original plant life merely meant removing the invasive species to make room for the native flowers.
Lee Swanson points out that this is the northernmost native stand of purple coneflowers. This is what Wisconsin would have looked like before the arrival of extensive agriculture.
Despite Table Bluff's proximity to Madison, the segment is little known. "We see some science groups now and then studying bugs, snakes, turtles and frogs, but we haven't seen a lot of hikers," Swanson says. By the end of the summer, educational signage will be placed along the trail and only one more portion of land needs to be secured before Table Bluff can be connected to the Ice Age Trail segment in Cross Plains.
Volunteers have made significant contributions to the development of the Ice Age Trail and have done the bulk of the muscle work of laying and maintaining the trails as well as controlling invasive species. The various chapters of the foundation frequently host events; for example, the Lodi chapter hosts occasional full-moon hikes. A calendar of events is posted on the IAPTF website. Group hikes are often guided by naturalists who offer a bit of narrative to go with a great trek.
Inn-to-inn travel, long a popular way to see parts of Europe, is also a fine vacation option when combined with Ice Age Trail hikes. A network of bed-and-breakfasts offers hikers assistance getting to and from trailheads, and it is possible to follow portions of the trail in this fashion, stopping with a different host each night. At present, however, it is more common for guests to pick a place for the night and hike by day, with the innkeepers providing the transfers for less than $10.
Kathleen Fleming of Hamilton House, an 1861 mansion-turned-bed-and-breakfast in Whitewater, has hosted hikers from as far away as Australia. Nearby segments at Whitewater Lake and through Kettle Moraine State Forest are just down the highway. Her advice to guests coming for the trail experience is "bring lots of bug spray."
But if overnight camping is more your style, you don't need to go up north for those longer backpacking segments. The 18-mile Devil's Lake segment begins in Merrimac and loops west, crossing over both bluffs at the lake. It then curls back east through rich forest to end at Parfrey's Glen, a geological wonder in its own right. I have done it as an ambitious day hike, but a more enjoyable experience is dividing it into two days, with an overnight stop at a tent site in Devil's Lake State Park.
This is a recreational option that makes sense. The trail's combination of seclusion and accessibility makes it feel like a distant travel destination right in our backyard. Plus, the variety of wildlife and seasonal wildflowers and berries guarantees you're never hiking the same segment twice. We're fortunate to be surrounded by so much protected natural beauty in Wisconsin; the Ice Age Trail is one of the best ways to explore it.
Read about walking
60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Madison by Kevin Revolinski (Menasha Ridge Press) is available in bookstores and at TheMadTravelerOnline.com.
Along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail (UW Press) is a wonderful collection of essays and photographs.
Ice Age Trail Companion Guide and the accompanying Ice Age Trail Atlas are available from the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, 608-663-8278, iceagetrail.org
Bed-and-breakfast trail network
A list of all the participating inns is available on the IAPTF website, iceagetrail.org