The Ice Age Trail: 1,200 Meandering Miles of Wisconsin’s Glacial Landscape
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) traces the geological features and landscapes left behind by melting glaciers during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Its gentle terrain and convenience to towns appeal to local day hikers, weekend backpackers, and thru-hikers alike. Thru-hikers will face unique challenges like long road walks, seasonal bugs, and often limited camping options. The Ice Age Trail’s geological history, devoted community of volunteers, and ongoing access to cheese curds make it the charming, lesser-known treasure of National Scenic Trails.
- Length: 1,200 miles (about half trail, half connecting road routes)
- Expected completion time: 7-12 weeks (10-25 miles per day)
- Location: Wisconsin
- Best season to hike: Late summer through late fall
- Trail type: End-to-end
- Scenery: Forests, prairies, lakes, rivers, valleys, and farmland. The Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin is an area left untouched by glaciers and showcases unique bluffs and rock outcroppings.
- Terrain: Easy to moderate with some short, strenuous climbs and about 500 miles of road-walking.
- Highest point: Lookout Mountain (1,920 feet)
- Lowest point: Lake Michigan (580 feet)
The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) Guidebook and Atlas are available for purchase on their website (paper and electronic versions). The Guidebook is great for pre-hike planning, while the paper Atlas is helpful to carry while hiking. The trail is also in FarOut (formerly Guthook), which is reliable and the comments sections are especially helpful. The trail is well-marked with yellow blazes, but connecting Routes (CRs) on roads are unblazed so hikers should rely on the Atlas, FarOut, and Google Maps.
Currently, the IAT is unfinished. The CRs are unofficial, suggested road routes between trail sections. The safest routes are mapped out in the Atlas, but it’s technically up to hikers to decide the route they want to take. Hikers will spend about 500 miles walking on CRs, mostly on rural roads with low traffic. Google Maps may show you a faster route, but be aware that it could take you on busier roads. Consider a hybrid of both shorter and scenic routes that will get you there safely with minimal traffic noise. The IATA is constantly working to acquire more land so that one day the entire trail will be continuous.
Western Terminus: Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
An hour by car from the Twin Cities (closest major airport), four hours from Madison, and five hours from Milwaukee. The physical terminus is about a tenth of a mile clockwise from the Pothole Trail parking area. No long-term parking is allowed here.
Eastern Terminus: Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Two hours by car from Milwaukee (closest major airport) and three hours from Madison. The physical terminus is next to a former observation tower with a parking lot. Long-term parking is not allowed here but is allowed at the Ice Age Trail long-term parking area at the old ski hill a quarter-mile southwest. A spur trail leads from this parking area to the terminus.
Direction depends on personal preference. Hiking eastbound begins with an isolated, Northwoods feel, wooded scenery, and less immediate access to towns. The middle section consists of many flat road walks through central Wisconsin’s farmlands. The easternmost 300 miles are a mix of state forest, road walks, and gravel bike paths. Some hikers choose eastbound to complete the remote trail sections first. Others prefer westbound to start out with flat CRs and gradually warm up to the trails.
Why Hike This Trail
The Ice Age Trail is unique. The network of volunteers, landowners, and community members is extremely dedicated to the success and ongoing expansion of the trail. Volunteers are brimming with knowledge, thrilled to share the location of their favorite bench or where to find a rare bed of wildflowers. Only 314 people have hiked the entire trail (as officially listed on the IATA website)—87 thru-hikers and 227 section hikers. The long sections of CRs might deter some hikers, but they add the mental challenge of boredom, an opportunity to reflect, and a chance to catch up on podcasts.
Away from the crowded trails of the east and west, the IAT is a great option for thru-hikers looking for a more solitary experience. (You might not run into a single other thru-hiker). It is also a shorter and less strenuous alternative to the AT, PCT, or CDT, which makes it a great introductory backpacking experience. If you’re a geology or history buff, this trail is for you. Ocean-sized sheets of glacial ice used to cover the land and some of the bedrock you’ll encounter is over a billion years old.
Climate and Weather
This trail can be hiked in all seasons, though some are less appealing than others. Wisconsin winters can be brutal: negative wind chills, snow, freezing rain, and frostbite. Only two people have thru-hiked the IAT in the winter. Thorough planning, cold weather survival skills, and proper gear are essential for anyone attempting to do so. Spring is wet and some sections of the trail flood or streams become too high to ford. May is peak tick season and the threat of Lyme disease is no joke. Summer is hot and humid, in the eighties and nineties with mosquitos out in full force. Late summer through late fall is the ideal time to thru-hike, with cooler temperatures, fewer bugs, and awesome foliage. Be aware that there are temporary trail closures during fall hunting seasons.
Hikers will have different experiences depending on when and where they start, but there will always be some presence of bugs. Ticks are most prominent in the spring and in areas with high grass like unmowed ski trails or unmaintained private-owned land. Wear long sleeves and tuck pants into high socks, and treat clothes, socks, and shoes with permethrin. Check yourself often for ticks, bring tweezers, and learn how to properly remove a tick. Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease, can be as tiny as a pinhead. Light-colored clothing makes ticks easier to find. Bring a head net to keep away mosquitos, but once out of the Northwoods, you’ll experience significantly fewer bugs.
Black bears roam throughout northern Wisconsin and have been spotted as far south as Cross Plains. While most black bears want nothing to do with you, you should carry bear spray, a bear bell, and hang your food in a bear bag each night. Weather can be unpredictable especially during shoulder seasons so pack extra layers and bring a raincoat.
Camping options vary widely throughout the trail. The best advice for overcoming this obstacle is to utilize IATA resources. Many regional IATA volunteers are available to provide camping suggestions and/or shuttle hikers to and from a nearby campground or hotel. Their contact info is listed by region on the IATA’s website. There is also an active Facebook rideshare group for section and day hikers, most of whom cherish the opportunity to shuttle a thru-hiker.
From the Western Terminus to the end of the Kettlebowl segment (mile 418):
Primitive camping is allowed on national and county forest land. Camp at least 200 feet from roads, trails, and water sources and practice Leave No Trace. Areas where primitive camping is allowed are shaded with a green speckled pattern in the Atlas and Guidebook. There are also several backcountry campsites, shelters, and Dispersed Camping Areas (DCAs) available first come, first served for no fee. All are listed in the Guidebook, Atlas, and FarOut. You will also pass several state parks and campgrounds where you can reserve a site (usually about $20) and even some private-owned RV resorts/campgrounds. The staff at DNR-managed campgrounds will find a place for you to camp even if the campground is full when you arrive.
From the eastern end of the Kettlebowl segment to the Whitewater Lake segment (mile 843):
Camping options become more scarce. There is a scattering of state parks and DCAs, but you may have to get creative. A few friendly local restaurants let me camp in their backyard. Near the halfway point, the trail diverges into a bifurcation and hikers can choose which route to take. Both routes are about 80 miles, mainly on roads with just a few miles of trail. The Western Branch skirts two state parks, several resort campgrounds, and the town of Baraboo. The Eastern Branch takes you through small towns (Westfield, Montello, Portage) and John Muir Park (mile 613), where the famous conservationist grew up.
Whitewater Lake segment to the Eastern Terminus:
The Kettle Moraine State Forest begins at the Whitewater Lake segment and runs (non-continuously) through the Greenbush segment (mile 978). The state forest has several campgrounds and backpacking shelters that require a reservation online. Then camping options become limited again until the terminus. Be smart and utilize your resources. The Thousand Miler WannaBes Facebook group is a great place to get camping suggestions from former thru and section hikers.
Chequamegon National Forest: This 850,000-acre forest offers some of the most remote sections of the IAT. While most of the original old growth forest was lost to logging in the 1900s, the current expanse of trees and lush greenery is home to a breathtaking variety of flora and fauna.
Devil’s Lake State Park: These beautiful, rocky bluffs present the most strenuous climbs of the IAT. With beautiful views overlooking the lake, the park is a popular destination for families all over the Midwest. Hit it on a weekday to avoid the crowds and you’ll hopefully be able to find a campsite too. Just east of the state park is Parfrey’s Glen, a sandstone gorge with a delightful waterfall. (It’s well worth the one-mile detour).
Kettle Moraine State Forest: The KMSF is divided into three units: Southern, Pike Lake, and Northern. They are full of long sections of continuous trail and wooded forest. In the Southern section, make sure to climb the tower at Lapham Peak to take in a panoramic view of Wisconsin. In the northern unit, the trail traverses ridges with beautiful views of the kettles below.
Point Beach State Forest: This diverse forest consists of trees, swamps, boardwalks, and sand. The trail follows several miles of beach along Lake Michigan, the second-largest Great Lake.
FarOut indicates most water sources including rivers, lakes, wells, and taps at parks and campgrounds. While it is generally reliable, hikers should read the comments as some sources may no longer be available or a park bathroom may be closed seasonally. Hikers will need a water filter for all wild water sources. You’ll use it often in the remote northwest sections, but minimally in the south/northeast where parks and towns are more common.
On the IAT, you won’t find traditional trail towns that cater directly to hikers, but you will pass through plenty of towns. They vary in size and most have plenty of great options for eating, restocking, and/or taking a zero day at a hotel.
From mile 28 to Haugen (95), there are no towns conveniently off the trail. Birchwood (109), Weyerhaeuser (139), Cornell (184), Merril (332, plus five-mile detour) and Antigo (434) have post offices, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels or Airbnb options. Many IATA volunteers will happily drive you into and around town to run errands and resupply.
In the central section, Hatley (467), Coloma (567), Merrimac (670), and Lodi (682), are small towns with at least one option for resupplying. Cross Plains (714) is home to IATA headquarters where you’ll find friendly faces, snacks, a shower, and laundry facilities. Verona (733), just outside of Madison, is about a 20-minute drive from an REI. Janesville (810) and Delafield (889) are larger towns with grocery stores and hotels. (And mile 891 is literally one block from a Sierra).
Heading northeast, small towns are convenient every 2-3 days until the Eastern Terminus.
The Ice Age Trail is a work in progress and may not be finished for several more decades. Through donations and federal grants, the IATA is continuously acquiring land to create more trail and more camping options. The CRs aren’t glamorous on a 90-degree day, but the full reservoir of ice provided by a bar in the middle of nowhere will get you through it.
On some sections, the woods are so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat. Besides the deer, beavers, turtles, birds, and toads, you’ll feel like the only being on the trail for hundreds of miles. Other times, you’ll find yourself at a noisy campground, but you’ll probably meet some friendly Wisconsinites, get to take a shower, and have access to an outlet.
Some IAT hikers complete the trail over the course of 10 years throughout the seasons. Others thru-hike it in two months. In whatever capacity you hike the Ice Age Trail, you’ll get to be a part of something special.
Featured image: Photo by Claire Kopetsky. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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