Hiking the Ice Age National Scenic Trail

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Northern segment of the Ice Age Trail. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

The day is winding down as I hike through the Ice Age Trail’s Grassy Lake segment in northwestern Wisconsin. The trail dips and weaves between tiny blue lakes and damp wetland pockets, carefully guarded by thick stands of hardwood and feathery pine. Mosquitoes begin to whine around my face, trying to get in their last licks before autumn’s chill silences their buzzing. Annoying as they are, a few mosquitoes can’t dampen my enthusiasm for this beautiful trail.

Suddenly I spot my husband, Ed, striding purposefully towards me. As he nears, he reaches down and picks up a thick stick lying on the side of the trail, then wields it like a baseball bat. “Don’t panic,” he says. “But I just passed a bear.”

Black bears are common in northern Wisconsin, and particularly on this trail segment. We’re told they prefer to avoid humans, but we’d also just read about an unprovoked black bear attack in Michigan. So as we continue along the trail we start yammering loudly to one another, our voices fake and strained, hoping the bear will hear us and amble away. Thankfully, the bear is nowhere to be seen.

“I’ll tell you something else, then,” Ed says, dropping the stick. “It was so close to me, I saw it blink.”

In Your Bucket Because …

  • You’re interested in glaciers and geology.
  • You want to explore America’s National Scenic Trails.
  • Good for hikers, bird-watchers and those who enjoy the outdoors.

Origins of the Ice Age Trail

Welcome to the Ice Age Trail (IAT), one of our nation’s 11 National Scenic Trails. The roughly 1,200-mile path gently traces the edge of Wisconsin’s glacial terminal moraine, or the edge of the last glacier, which slid out of the state some 10,000 years ago. As the trail winds its way across, down and up the state, it showcases how the immense ice sheet sculpted the earth, leaving behind impressive glacial landforms such as moraines, eskers, kettles and drumlins. Geologists say Wisconsin’s glacial remains are some of the best-preserved in the world.

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The Ice Age Trail winds through pines. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

About 650 of the 1,200 miles are currently developed trails, pieced together by connecting road routes. You can hike any of the trail segments year-round. But to complete a “thru-hike,” which I’m attempting, you must hike every trail segment plus the connecting road routes. While you can camp along the IAT, as many hikers do, there aren’t enough official campsites – yet – to allow a thru-hiker to easily find a place to hunker down every night. So I’ve got someone shuttling me to my lodging each night.

In some sections of the trail, mainly in the less-populated northern reaches, you might have to drive as much as an hour from the trail to find a place to stay. But you can generally find a spot within a 30-minute drive, and sometimes just a few paces down the road. That’s because unlike some of the other National Scenic Trails, such as the Appalachian and Pacific Crest, the IAT was planned to move hikers through both natural areas and Wisconsin communities. Because of this, 60 percent of residents live within 20 miles of some segment of the trail.

I love to go a wandering …

For five weeks I walk and run along the trail, growing more enchanted with every step I take. I pass through vast, rolling prairies, majestic hardwood stands and innumerable azure lakes. I walk atop weed-choked beaver dams, pick my way through boulder-strewn single-track and amble along the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. I blister the bottoms of both feet, sunburn the tops of my ears and develop some interesting tan lines. I meet a few other thru-hikers, lots of curious residents and one very unfriendly dog. I have an utter blast.

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A unique bridge along the Ice Age Trail. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

All too soon I pop out of the woods of Potawatomie State Park in Sturgeon Bay and find the rock marking the eastern terminus. I give it a reverent pat, then climb the adjacent observation tower and gawk at the gorgeous view of Green Bay, stretching out before me in an endless sapphire expanse. It’s hard to believe I was standing over the St. Croix River at the western terminus in St. Croix Falls a mere 36 days ago.

Descending from the tower, Ed congratulates me on my accomplishment. But I barely hear him. I’m too busy planning another thru-hike, this time trekking east to west. And this time, I’ll carry some bear bells.

Practicalities

  • Contact the helpful Ice Age Trail Alliance for everything trail-related: guidebooks, maps, trail condition reports, etc.
  • The Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association partners with the Ice Age Trail and offers great accommodations, many within easy access of the trail.
  • Early spring and mid- to late fall are ideal times to hike. Beware of April and May, when it’s tick season (Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of Lyme Disease in the nation). Summer can be beautiful, but it may also be hot and buggy. Late summer and early fall, portions of the trail, mainly in northern Wisconsin, can be quite overgrown, making it difficult to hike and see the trail blazes. During the fall hunting season, some portions of the trail are closed.
  • Planning to hike more than one day? Contact the Ice Age Trail Alliance for its list of “Trail Angels,” or people willing to help hikers with shuttles and resupplies.

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