A "National Park" of Hiking Trails in Your Backyard

Photo by Dave Caliebe

What runs 41.9 miles through Dane County offering scenic views, a traipse through a golf course, a trail through stunning prairies, and a good look at some glacial kettles?

Its the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, of course. Traversing the state 1,200 miles, the Ice Age Trail goes from Interstate State Park in the west, down as far as Janesville in the south, and then up to Potawatami State Park in the east. Its route generally follows the path of the last glaciation, with the trail marking (more or less) where the glacial lobes stopped. As a result, the Ice Age Trail is one of the best places in the world to see examples of glacial landforms, like kettles, kames, eskers, moraines, drumlins, and erratics.

You dont have to be a glacial enthusiast to appreciate the trail The Ice Age Trail is designed for everyone to enjoyall ages, backgrounds, and ability levels. Its free to hike on; no permits or fees are required (unless you park/camp in a state park, then fees may apply). Its easy to get to; approximately 60 percent of Wisconsin residents live within 20 miles of the trail. And it boasts varying trail types, from remote and rugged to paved and urban. So whether youre looking for a multiday backpacking adventure or simply want to take an hour-long stroll, theres a segment for you.

Photograph by Cameron Gille

The trail takes hikers to some of the most picturesque parts of the state, including Gibraltar Rock, Point Beach State Forest, Dells of the Eau Claire, and Devils Lake. It also goes through many state wildlife areas with sweeping vistas; county and national forests; as well as restored prairies and preserves, like the Swamplovers preserve in the Table Bluff Segment just outside the Village of Cross Plains.

In addition to being one of the only national scenic trails to be located entirely within a single state, the Ice Age Trail has another unique characteristic: it specifically winds through Wisconsin communities, 15 of which are officially designated Trail Communities, including Cross Plains and Verona. Considered hiker destinations, these communities are a vibrant aspect of the Ice Age Trail hiking experience.

Gaining in Popularity
Although the Ice Age Trail has been a designated national scenic trail since 1980, it has experienced a recent surge in popularity. The COVID pandemic had a lot to do with that. People discovered the trail, which stayed open, and turned to it as a source of safe activity.

What tends to happen when someone discovers the trail is they quickly get hooked. They hike a segment or two, then three or four, then an entire countys worth of trail. Before they know it, theyre on their way to becoming a Thousand-Miler. Thats the term for a person who successfully completes the entire 1,200-mile trail. Theres no time limit for completing the quest. Some people do it over a number of years by segment hiking. Others complete it over a few months doing a thru-hike. This goal is something more and more hikers are achieving. Between 1979 and 1999, an average of one hiker per year completed the trail. In 2020, 31 completed the trail, and in 2021, a record 81 hikers became Thousand-Milers. This included hiker Emily Ford, who made national headlines by becoming the first woman to thru-hike the Ice Age National Scenic Trail during the winter. She achieved even more notoriety when her hike became the subject of a documentary film, Breaking Trail, which debuted at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November 2021. The 2021 Thousand-Milers also includes a woman who completed her quest after 21 years. On the Ice Age Trail, everyone hikes their own hike, and all are celebrated.

Photograph by Cameron Gille

Something else which helped people discover the trail in recent years is the Mammoth Hike Challenge. Held annually in October, the challenge encourages participants to hike a set number of miles on the Ice Age Trail and visit three Trail Communities. In 2021, nearly 7,000 people participated.

Volunteer Support is Critical
The Ice Age Trail is jointly managed by the National Park System, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the Ice Age Trail Alliance. However, the majority of the care and keeping of the trail falls to the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Headquartered in Cross Plains, the Ice Age Trail Alliance is made up of 19 chapters throughout the state. Chapter members and volunteers support the trail through property protection efforts, trail maintenance and creation work, and habitat management activities.

Trail maintenance and habitat management activities (like mowing, sawing, invasive weed pulling, and brush-pile burning) take place year-round. New trail is created mainly during the summer and fall. Without volunteers, there wouldnt be an Ice Age Trail. New volunteers are always welcome; training and equipment is provided. To see a calendar with volunteer opportunities on the trail, visit iceagetrail.org/events .

Photograph by Heather McEllistrem

A Work in Progress
Every day, the Ice Age Trail Alliance works toward its ultimate goal: a completed Ice Age Trail. At the end of 2021, 680 miles of the trail were blazed and ready for hiking. The remaining mileage is on connector routes: rural roads and highways the trail follows until property can be protected or agreements made with property owners to bring the trail off-road. In 2021, the Ice Age Trail Alliance had its most prolific year of land protection in 30 years. Thanks to generous donations, nine new properties were protected across the state. Once property is protected, the work begins to get actual trail tread on it. This includes planning, permitting, and securing funds for the trailbuilding effort. It can take two to three years before actual trail building begins.

As a renowned trail-building organization, the Ice Age Trail Alliance is committed to creating a good hiker experience on the trail. It takes pride designing and constructing sustainable trail and training volunteers in trail-building best practices.

Melissa Pierick is the director of marketing and community relations at Ice Age Trail Alliance. To learn more or get involved with the Ice Age Trail, visit iceagetrail.org .