Wisconsin's under-construction Ice Age trail focuses on geology
The Ice Age Trail is a grassy swath cut through a restored prairie in Verona, Wisconsin. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / September 22, 2012)
The 339-acre ridge-top park lies east of Verona and southwest of Madison in southern Dane County.
The federally designated trail is marked by yellow blazes on brown posts as it winds through a restored prairie with shrubby plants and grasses, oak savannahs and oak-hickory-maple forests.
It runs north next to soccer fields and through what's known as Ice Age Junction, a permanent open space that connects to nearby Madison.
From Badger Prairie Park, the trail that is envisioned to be 1,200 miles in length runs south to the Verona Trailhead where it connects with the Military Ridge State Trail.
The Ice Age footpath continues south along Badger Mill Creek to 160-acre Prairie Moraine Park, past farm fields and wooded tracts.
The Military Ridge Trail is popular with bicyclists and is one of 41 state-designated trails in Wisconsin. It runs 41 miles from Dodgeville in Iowa County east to Fitchburg in Dane County along an old rail line.
The Ice Age Trail is bigger and more prestigious. It is different: Its focus is hiking and geology. It is one 11 federally designated trails, like the Appalachian National Scenic Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is not well known. It offers solitude and glacial geology. Its southern border generally follows the southernmost extent of the glaciers that covered Wisconsin 10,000 years ago.
It is a land of eskers (glacier-created ridges), moraines (glacially deposited hills), drumlins (hills formed into teardrop shapes by drifting glacial ice), kettles (depressions or basins formed by melted ice), erratica (house-sized boulders moved by glaciers) and kames (steep-sided or conical hills formed from sediments).
If it's scenic in Wisconsin, it's probably glacial. You can use ColdCache or a GPS unit to identify geological features along the trail.
The trail is a work in progress - with about 675 miles built, linked by back roads.
More than 50 years ago, volunteers of the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation began creating an S-shaped footpath through Wisconsin forests and prairies.
Its western terminus is in Interstate State Park near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border just outside of St. Croix Falls. The eastern terminus is near Green Bay on the Door County Peninsula in Potawatomi State Park that extends into Lake Michigan, with forests and limestone cliffs that rise above the waves.
The trail runs south and then west across southern Wisconsin before turning to the north and west. It goes through the Wisconsin Dells.
The National Park Service partners with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the grass-roots Ice Age Trail Alliance, based in Cross Plains, Wis., with its 5,000 members on planning, upkeep and administrative responsibilities. It is expected to be complete in 30 to 50 years, said Mike Wollmer, executive director of the alliance.
The trail travels through 30 Wisconsin counties on federal, state, county and private lands. There are hundreds of trailheads and access points. It was designed to be a premier hiking trail and features some of Wisconsin's most scenic landscapes.
It is primarily a hiking and backpacking trail. Snowmobiling and bicycling are allowed in a few areas that share the route with state rail trails. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are also allowed on some sections. It is generally snow-free from mid-April to late October. Bugs can be bad in early summer.
Most long-distance hiking on the trail is done from late August to late October. To date, about 70 people have hiked the entire length of the trail in one hike or in segments.
Although the mile-thick glacier covered two-thirds of North America, it's called the Wisconsin Glacier because that's where it left the most evidence of its passage.
In the Verona area, the trail generally follows the Johnstown Moraine, a terminal moraine of the glacier's Green Bay Lobe.
The Ice Age Trail includes some of the best trails in Wisconsin: the Pothole Trail in Interstate State Park, the Blue Hills Trail near Rice Lake and the East Bluff Trail in Devil's Lake State Park.
A key figure in developing the trail was the late Ray Zillmer, a Milwaukee attorney and outdoorsman.
As far back as the 1920s, Milwaukee residents began to explore the Kettle Moraine's glacial ridges in southeast Wisconsin. The Milwaukee chapter of the Izaak Walton League purchased 850 acres around Moon Lake near Campellsport in 1926, and volunteers began building trails. In 1937, the state established Kettle Moraine State Forest.
In the 1950s, Zillmer envisioned the Kettle Moraine trails becoming part of a bigger linear park. In 1958, he founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation to push the establishment of a national park. Bills were introduced in Congress, but Zillmer died in 1960.
In 1961, the National Park Service said in a report that Wisconsin's glacial features were significant, but such a linear park was too difficult for the federal government to administer.
In 1964, the federal and state governments devised a new plan: nine separate units called the Ice Age Trail National Scientific Reserve. It was created in 1971 to protect glacially important sites.
The federally designated reserve includes Kettle Moraine, Interstate State Park at Saint Croix Falls, Chippewa Moraine near Bloomer, Mill Bluff State Park near Camp Douglas, Devils Lake State Park near Baraboo, Cross Plains (the only federally owned site) near Cross Plains, Horicon State Wildlife Area and National Wildlife Refuge near Horicon, Campbellsport Drumlins near Campbellsport, and Two Creeks Buried Forest near Two Rivers. Those units are generally connected by the trail.
In the early 1970s, volunteers began extending the Ice Age Trail beyond the Kettle Moraine, and the grass-roots Ice Age Trail Council was formed. In 1980, the trail was added by Congress to the National Trails System.
Supporters note than 60 percent of Wisconsin's population lives within 20 miles of the trail. It is also within 100 miles of 18 million Americans.
To date, the state of Wisconsin has permanently protected 7,000 acres. The alliance has added more than 3,000 acres, mostly in narrow conservation easements.
Camping and lodging are available in many areas. Backcountry shelters are available.
A warning: Hunting is permitted along the trail, so hikers are encouraged to wear orange in hunting seasons. Some sections may be closed in late November during deer-gun season.
The alliance has published a detailed trail guidebook for $20. An atlas of trail maps will cost $28.
For more information, contact the Ice Age Trail Alliance at 800-227-0046, http://www.iceagetrail.org. You can also contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at 1-888-936-7463, http://dnr.wi.gov. Contact the National Park Service 608-441-5610, http://www.nps.gov/iatr.
Bob Downing: firstname.lastname@example.org