Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail is unique for several reasons, including its lack of directness compared to most of the other 10 National Scenic Trails.
Its S-shaped path terminates in the east near Sturgeon Bay and in the west on the St. Croix River. Driving directly between each terminus would require a trip of about 320 miles. Yet the trail winds about for some 1,120 miles, plus an extra 80 or so for a bifurcation that occurs at Devil’s Lake State Park.
Only the North Country Trail, which runs 4,600 miles through eight states (including northern Wisconsin), comes close to the meandering nature of the Ice Age. But it is a relatively flattened S in comparison.
Most national trails look more or less like fairly direct lines from one end to another when viewed as a whole. For me, the wandering Ice Age is more charming. The trail beckons as a way of seeing our fine state rather than plowing through it from beginning to end.
We Portage County residents are blessed with supreme hiking opportunities all around us, but we’re not too proud to take advantage of the greatness of other nearby counties in a pinch.
My friend Andy Felt and I had been looking for a time when we could get out on a trail somewhere. After too many false starts, we recently found a Saturday afternoon when we could do so.
Such a limited time frame is when Marathon County’s Big Eau Pleine County Park comes in handy.
If you think your problems are piling up, try to imagine 80 million feet of timber stacked 20 feet high and backed up for miles along the Wisconsin River.
Such was the case in the mid-1880s north of Merrill, where I recently hiked another stretch of the Ice Age Trail. The IAT’s beloved Grandfather Falls segment in Lincoln County – traversed in a previous form by native Americans and French voyageurs portaging around the falls – inspired me to review the history of the area, including William F. Stark’s “Wisconsin, River of History.”
This section of the trail, which stretches 2.3 miles along the river and then juts east for 1.7 miles into the Merrill School Forest, is a favorite of IAT hikers because of its scenic views.
Stark noted a logjam at Grandfather Falls that may or may not have been the biggest in state history. I ran across references to at least two others that were reputedly the largest; regardless, we can all agree that the one at Grandfather Falls was a huge darn dam.
Washington and Wall Street may have brought new life to the cliché “an embarrassment of riches,” but it’s still nice to see places that came about their riches honestly.
Sauk County is one of those places. The long, slow processes of glaciation and melting, along with shifting waterways, erosion and other natural forces, have blessed the county with more than its share of physical wonders, including Devil’s Lake, one of our most popular state parks.
I’ve been to that park several times in a decade of Wisconsin residency, and after a fine day trip to the Baraboo Riverwalk in late November, I decided I hadn’t come close to my fill of the area. So I convinced frequent hiking buddy Chris Sadler to check out Parfrey’s Glen and a little more of the Ice Age Trail about a week later.
The first of Wisconsin’s state natural areas, Parfrey’s is a deep, rocky ravine that’s worthy of “Lord of the Rings”-scale fantasies. The rugged, boulder-filled end of the ravine, where a small waterfall pours into the gorge’s mouth, makes Parfrey’s an imagination-inspiring destination.
Being nestled between the Dells and Devil’s Lake may sound like a recipe for being an outdoor-recreation also-ran, but the city of Baraboo has its own fresh-air gem in its Baraboo Riverwalk.
Part of the Ice Age Trail, the Riverwalk is only four miles of mostly-paved walkways meandering through the heart of Baraboo. It shows off a charming small city in its best light and it’s worth a trip for its own sake, although there’s plenty of bonus entertainment that comes along with it.
Hiking buddy Chris Sadler and I recently took two vehicles, parking one at the northern trail endpoint at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County campus in Baraboo. We extended our hiking distance by heading to a parking area just off State Highway 113 in the eastern portion of Devil’s Lake State Park, where the Devil’s Lake segment of the IAT starts.
The park wasn’t in our itinerary for the day, although it and other area local spots are on the agenda for future columns.