Ice Age Trail: A Trail on the Rise

Photo by Lauren Rapinchuk

In the grand scheme of the 11 National Scenic Trails, the Ice Age Trail is not the most well-known in the country, a distinction that goes to the Appalachian Trail; nor is it the longest, the North Country Trail; nor the most majestic, which, according to one thru-hiker, is the Continental Divide Trail. But the Ice Age Trail is like no other, and its star is on the rise.

More Popular than Ever
Millions of people spend time on the Ice Age Trail each year. A 2019 study, before COVID, estimated the number to be 2.3 million. Anecdotal evidence indicates many more people now visit the Ice Age Trail each year.

An indicator of the Ice Age Trail’s growing popularity is thru-hikers, who attempt to hike from one terminus of the trail to the other in one effort, usually within six months. As of August, a record 21 people declared their attempts to thru-hike the Ice Age Trail in 2022, most with previous thru-hiking experience on another National Scenic Trail. Only 4 of the 21 thru-hikers were from Wisconsin, so not only do people want to try and conquer the Ice Age Trail, but most are coming from out of state to do it.

The number of Thousand-Milers, people who hike the entire Ice Age Trail segment by segment rather than in one effort, is also on the rise. There’s no time limit to achieve Thousand-Miler status; some take months, and others take decades. In 2021, more than 80 people achieved Thousand-Miler status—another record number!

Photograph by Kris Van Handel

A Great Alternative
Sixty percent of Wisconsin residents live within 20 miles of a segment of the Ice Age Trail, which winds throughout the state, making it easy to get to. Combine easy access with beautiful locations and you have a great day-, weekend-, or week-long excursion.

A hike on the Ice Age Trail is an excellent alternative to a National Park visit since it traces the edge of the last glaciation, offering a chance to see things you can’t see anywhere else: world-renowned glacial features, like a world-class set of kames in the northern Kettle Moraine and a two-mile-long esker on the Parnell Segment. For the only potholes formed during the Ice Age, hike the St. Croix Falls Segment. At Dells of the Eau Claire Segment, hike among rock that is the same age as what’s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Ice Age Trail also boasts more lakes than most National Parks and takes hikers through globally imperiled oak and pine barrens. So skip the hassle of getting a National Park permit and securing lodging years in advance by instead spending your next vacation hiking the Ice Age Trail.

Photograph provided by IATA staff

It’s a Challenge
You may think a National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin lacks when compared to trails that traverse Colorado, California, and New Hampshire, but that’s not the case. Although it doesn’t have mountains to summit or deserts to wind through, the Ice Age Trail can be a challenging, if not adventurous, hike. Consider the 33 percent thru-hiker completion rate on the Ice Age Trail. Even if a thru-hiker has previously conquered one of the Triple Crown of Hiking trails—Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest—there’s no guarantee they can do the same on the Ice Age Trail.

One reason multiple thru-hikers cited for ending their attempts this year was the solitude of the Ice Age Trail, especially in the western segments. Hikers used to the camaraderie associated with the Appalachian Trail, where thru-hikers often hike in groups, could go days without seeing another person; that’s a dream for some, but a hike-ender for others.

Another challenge is established camping areas. On the Appalachian Trail, camping sites are established on average every eight miles. On the Ice Age Trail, the distance between camping sites varies, so more planning is required. Some argue the lack of camping sites gears the Ice Age Trail more toward segment and day hikers, but many thru-hikers figure out a way.

Photograph by Karina Cardella

Blazed Miles Are Increasing
Currently, 682.1 miles of the Ice Age Trail are blazed hiking trail. The remaining miles of the 1,200-mile path are connecting routes—rural roads and highways—which link the blazed hiking segments. The number of blazed hiking miles increases every year thanks to Ice Age Trail Alliance land protection efforts. The Alliance is a member- and volunteer-based organization that works along with its partners to conserve, create, maintain, and promote the Ice Age Trail.

In 2021, the Alliance had its most prolific year of land protection in decades thanks to willing land owners, partners, gracious benefactors, and generous members. 2022 is shaping up to be another banner year. As more land is protected, more miles will be blazed. This means the Alliance’s volunteers, numbering in the thousands, will continue their hard work creating and maintaining the Ice Age Trail. Of all national parks and trails, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail ranked 16th for its volunteer numbers and 9th for its more than 63,000 volunteer hours! Volunteers spent more time on the Ice Age Trail than at Yellowstone National Park.

To learn how you can be part of the volunteer effort to create and maintain the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, visit iceagetrail.org/volunteer. To donate or support the work of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, visit iceagetrail.org/donate. To get hooked on hiking the Ice Age Trail, go to iceagetrail.org for a map to find a trail segment near you. To connect with other Ice Age Trail enthusiasts, a number of Ice Age Trail Facebook pages exist: search for Ice Age Trail, Ice Age Trail Alliance, Get Off the Couch, or Thousand Miler WannaBes.

Melissa Pierick is the director of marketing and community relations at Ice Age Trail Alliance.