Long Distance Trails

Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail: Traversing Landscapes Shaped 12,000 Years Ago

POSTED ON October 18, 2023 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the Ice Age Trail, a remarkable 1,200-mile (1931 km) footpath that winds its way through the enchanting landscapes of Wisconsin. This extraordinary trail, unlike any other in the United States, offers a unique opportunity to step back in time and uncover the secrets of Earth’s icy past.

As you lace up your hiking boots and embark on this unforgettable trek, you’ll find yourself treading the same ground where massive glaciers once sculpted the lands and mountains, leaving behind a tapestry of rolling hills, pristine lakes, and awe-inspiring geological formations.

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail takes you on an epic voyage through a prehistoric world, where colossal ice sheets once reigned supreme, shaping the terrain we know today.

In this blog post, we’ll delve deep into the wonders of the Ice Age Trail, exploring its history, geology, and the captivating stories etched into the very earth beneath your feet.

So, join us as we embark on an adventure through time, unravelling the mysteries of the Ice Age Trail, and discovering the breathtaking beauty that lies hidden within its frozen footprints.

History of the Ice Age Trail

The story of the Ice Age Trail begins in the 1950s when a visionary named Ray Zillmer dreamed of preserving Wisconsin’s glacial landscapes for future generations. Before Zillmer died, he inspired hikes in the Swiss Alps and envisioned a long-distance footpath that would allow people to experience the region’s glacial heritage. His passion led to the formation of the Ice Age Trail Alliance (formerly the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation) and the birth of the Ice Age Trail.

In 1980, the Ice Age Trail received the prestigious designation as a National Scenic Trail, joining the ranks of other iconic trails under the stewardship of the National Park Service. This recognition solidified its status as a national treasure, attracting attention from outdoor enthusiasts, historians, and conservationists alike.

Over the years, dedicated volunteers, the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and countless partners have tirelessly worked to build and maintain the trail’s segments. Today, the Trail winds its way from Potawatomi State Park on the west to Interstate State Park on the east. Along the way, it meanders through parks, Chequamegon National Forest, and the Northern Unit, offering diverse and breathtaking scenery.

One of the primary objectives of the Ice Age Trail is to conserve the legacy of the last Ice Age. Hikers can witness firsthand the impact of massive glaciers that sculpted the landscape, creating features like eskers, kettles, and moraines.

Terminal moraine, drumlins and kettles, and glacial lakes await you on your outing. The trail also provides a window into the Earth’s past, allowing visitors to step back in time and connect with the forces that shaped the region.

The Ice Age Trail’s success is a testament to the collaborative efforts of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, the National Park Service, local communities, and dedicated volunteers. Their commitment to preserving and promoting this natural and historical treasure ensures that generations to come will have the opportunity to explore and appreciate the wonders of the Ice Age Trail.

Devil's Lake State Park

Key Facts about The Ice Age Trail

Location: Wisconsin, USA.

Total Length: Approximately 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometres), making it one of the longest National Scenic Trails in the United States.

Time it Takes to Hike: Several weeks to a few months, depending on your pace and how much of the trail you wish to cover.

Trailhead(s): Potawatomi State Park (location) on the west, Interstate State Park on the east near St. Croix Falls (location), Wisconsin, and Door County

Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate.

Establishment Date: Officially established as a National Scenic Trail in 1980.

Total Elevation Gain:25,000 feet (7620 meters).

Best Time or Season to Hike: Year-Round

Lowest Point: Lakeshore of Lake Michigan (official link), at 580 feet (180 m) above sea level.

Highest point: Lookout Mountain, Lincoln County, at 1,920 feet (590 m) above sea level

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

As you lace up your hiking boots and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime, let’s take a closer look at the trail’s overview, its varying difficulty levels in popular sections, available route options, and some enchanting highlights along the way.

Difficulty Levels in Popular Sections

The Ice Age Trail offers several hiking experiences, catering to novice and seasoned long-distance hikers. While some sections are relatively easy, others present more challenging terrain.

  • Devil’s Lake State Park: A popular starting point, this section is perfect for beginners. You’ll walk amidst stunning rock formations and enjoy relatively level terrain.
  • Chequamegon National Forest (location): This region offers moderate to challenging hiking in Wisconsin. The terrain is more rugged, with rolling hills and lush forests.
  • Eastern Terminus to St. Croix Falls: This section leads you through the picturesque Holy Hill and features a mix of flat and hilly terrain.

Route Options for Thru-Hikers

For those planning to thru-hike the entire Ice Age Trail, it’s essential to understand the route options available. While the path itself spans from Potawatomi State Park to Interstate State Park in the west, connecting routes and existing segments offer flexibility:

  • St. Croix Falls: Begin your journey at the eastern terminus near Sturgeon Bay (location) and make your way towards the Minnesota border, covering about 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometres).
  • Western Section: Alternatively, start at Interstate State Park and hike eastward, completing the trail in the opposite direction.
  • Connecting Routes: Throughout your trip, you’ll encounter connecting routes that link existing segments. These provide options for shorter hikes or access to nearby cities and points of interest.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Ice Age Trail

Lake Michigan in Winter

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail encompasses a wide range of climates and weather conditions throughout the year. Therefore, it’s essential to understand what each season brings as you prepare for a trip along this captivating trail.

Spring (March to May)

Springtime sees temperatures ranging from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F). This season brings a burst of life to the trail as the landscape awakens from the concluded cold season. Expect blooming wildflowers, budding trees, and flowing streams. However, be prepared for occasional rain showers and muddy sections on the trail.

Keep an eye out for wildlife, including ruffed grouse and other animals that may be active year-round or seasonally.

Summer (June to August)

Summertime in Wisconsin can be warm, with temperatures ranging from 20°C to 30°C (68°F to 86°F) or higher.

Summer is the peak season, with long daylight hours and comfortable temperatures. You’ll enjoy lush greenery, vibrant wildflowers, and the opportunity to cool off in the surrounding water points. It’s also the time for camping under the stars.

Fall (September to November)

Fall temperatures vary from 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F). This season brings a riot of colours as the leaves change, making it a picturesque time to hike. Capture the ever-changing beauty of the trail throughout the seasons, particularly at the Cameron Gillie Photo Point.

However, prepare for cooler nights and potentially unpredictable weather, including rain and frost.

Winter (December to February):

Wintertime can be harsh, with temperatures ranging from -10°C to 0°C (14°F to 32°F) or lower.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail during this season is for experienced backpackers. However, snow and ice cover the trail, and you’ll need specialized gear for safety along steep and icy sections. The landscapes transform into a snowy wonderland, but it’s essential to be well-prepared for extreme cold.

Stay informed about trail updates and advisories from the National Park Service and the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

Essential Gear and Equipment

Essential Backpacking Gear

As the climate and terrain vary throughout the Ice Age Trail, here are some essential backpacking gear recommendations to help you hike comfortably and safely through each season.

Spring

Summer

  • Lightweight, breathable hiking shoes or trail runners
  • A lightweight backpack to carry your sun protection accessories such as hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen
  • Quick-drying shorts and T-shirts. You can choose a pair from our recently launched silver-coated odor-free hiking shorts
  • Hydration system: water bottles or hydration bladder with filter (water sources may be scarce on some segments)
  • Bear spray for potential encounters in Wisconsin. Also, check our guide to wildlife safety in the wilderness.

Fall

  • Sturdy hiking boots with ankle support for potentially wet and muddy trails
  • Layers for changing temperatures (including a warm jacket or fleece)
  • Insulated water bottle to prevent freezing in colder temperatures.
  • Rechargeable headlamp or flashlight for shorter daylight hours

Winter

  • Insulated, waterproof boots with good traction for snow and ice
  • Gaiters to keep snow out of your boots
  • Insulated layers (including a warm parka)
  • Snowshoes or crampons for steep and icy sections
  • Avalanche safety gear if you’re planning on backcountry travel in the northern segments.

Navigating The Ice Age Trail: Maps and Permits

Trail Map

Navigating the Ice Age Trail effectively requires access to essential permits and reliable maps. Here’s some important information to make your visit successful.

  • Trail Passes: While most segments of the Ice Age Trail are on public land and do not require permits, some sections traverse private lands and national parks where passes are necessary to access the trail. These trail passes help support the trail’s maintenance and preservation. You can get more information on Land Managers Here.
  • Camping Permits: If you plan to camp along the trail, especially in state wildlife areas or state parks, it’s essential to check if camping permits are required. These permits can usually be obtained from the relevant state or county agencies. For example, you can find information about camping and backpacking in Wisconsin state parks, including some along the Ice Age Trail, on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website: Wisconsin State Park Camping.
  • Navigation and Trail Resources: Comprehensive maps like the Interactive Ice Age Trail Map are invaluable for navigating the Ice Age Trail. However, the Ice Age Trail Alliance offers a variety of maps and resources to help you plan your journey. You can find detailed navigation charts, guidebooks, and other trail-related information on their website: Ice Age Trail Alliance Interactive Maps and Resources and Ice Age Trail Alliance Map Gallery.
  • National Park Service: Some segments of the Ice Age Trail are under the jurisdiction of the Park Service, and they may have specific regulations and maps for those areas. You can visit the National Park Service’s website to access relevant information: National Park Service Ice Age Trail.
  • Recreation.gov: For certain camping areas along the trail that are managed by federal agencies, you may need to make reservations through Recreation.gov. This website offers information and booking options for campgrounds and recreation areas on federal lands: Recreation.gov.
  • Local Resources: In addition to official maps and permits, consider connecting with local hiking clubs, trail maintainers, and experienced hikers who can provide valuable insights, tips, and resources specific to the region you plan to hike. Local trail clubs often have their own websites or social media groups where you can find useful information.

Accommodation, Camping, and Overnight Stays Near The Ice Age Trail

Devil's Lake State Park

Camping along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail allows you to fully immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Wisconsin’s diverse landscapes. Whether you prefer established campgrounds or backcountry sites, there are numerous options to suit your camping style.

Here’s a list of campgrounds and places to stay along the Trail.

  1. State Parks and Forests: Several state parks and forests along the Ice Age Trail offer camping opportunities and facilities. These are excellent options for those who prefer established campgrounds with amenities.
  1. County Parks: Many state parks along the Ice Age Trail offer camping facilities. These parks are typically less crowded and offer a peaceful camping experience.
  • Potawatomi Park: Located near the western terminus of the trail, Potawatomi Park in Sturgeon Bay has a campground with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bur reservations are required and can be made Here.
  • New Auburn: This area has several county parks with campgrounds/camping opportunities. Contact the respective county park departments for more information. A few popular options include Sand Haven Campground, Loon Lake Campground, and Pj’s Campground.
  1. Backcountry Camping: For those seeking a more immersive experience, backcountry camping along the trail is an option. Most segments of the Trail pass through state wildlife areas and natural areas where you can camp with the appropriate permits. However, check with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for regulations and permits specific to the areas you plan to visit.
  2. National Forests: If you’re trekking in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, dispersed camping is often allowed. Check with the U.S. Forest Service for information and guidelines: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Camping.
  3. Private Campgrounds and Lodging: There are also private campgrounds and lodging options near the trail for those who prefer more amenities and comfort. These can be found in nearby cities and towns along the trail route.
  4. Hostels and Shelters: Some trail towns and communities along the Ice Age Trail offer hostels and shelters, which can provide affordable lodging options for thru-hikers and backpackers. Availability and facilities vary, so it’s advisable to research and plan accordingly.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Reaching and navigating the Ice Age Trail is a crucial part of planning your outdoor adventure. Here is valuable information on how to get to the trail and the various transportation options available.

Nearest Airports

Your choice of airport depends on the segment you plan to hike. Here are some of the nearest airports to various points along the trail:

Ground Transportation

Once you arrive at your chosen airport, you’ll need a way to get to the trailhead. Here are transportation options to consider:

  • Renting a car from the airport provides flexibility and convenience, allowing you to drive to the trailhead of your choice.
  • Some trail towns and communities along the Ice Age Trail offer shuttle services to transport hikers to and from the trail. However, these services may need to be booked in advance, especially during peak hiking season. So, check with local providers for availability. It’s also a good idea to communicate your specific trailhead and pickup/drop-off points with the shuttle service provider.
  • Depending on your location, public transportation options may be available to get you closer to the trail. This is more feasible for segments near urban areas.

Tips on Parking and Shuttle Services

  • Trailhead Parking: Many trailheads along the Ice Age Trail offer parking facilities. Check the trail’s official website or contact local authorities to inquire about parking regulations, fees (if any), and any seasonal restrictions.
  • Trail Communities: Some trail communities have established partnerships with local businesses and offer parking options and shuttle services. Supporting these communities can be a great way to start and end your hiking experience.
  • Trail Angels: Occasionally, trail angels, generous volunteers, offer shuttle services or assistance to hikers. While not guaranteed, this can be an unexpected resource to tap into.

Conclusion

The Ice Age Trail offers an unparalleled journey through Wisconsin’s natural wonders. The unique geological features and diverse flora and fauna make this trail a must-visit destination for any hiker, trail runner, thru-hiker, and backpacker. The trail takes you back in time, traversing through landforms that have developed over millions of years.

While hiking the trail, you’ll experience the sheer beauty of Wisconsin and witness the wonders of nature.

So, pack your bags, lace up your shoes, and prepare for a journey through time.

We have got more destinations to check out in our Hikes & Trails Guide.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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