These rocks, trees and boot-pounded paths tell the story of a natural phenomenon. This is where North America’s last ice sheet creaked and groaned over Wisconsin, burying the landscape in a mile-thick frozen blanket before retreating back to the north. Across the rugged Baraboo Range (encompassing the town of the same name), you don’t need a geologist to point out the glacier’s work. The 500-foot cliff walls at Devil’s Lake State Park speak of the force that once gnawed these rocks. During its journey, the ice sheet dropped debris at either end of a gorge, letting Devil’s Lake well up to create what is now Wisconsin’s most popular state park.
Devil's Lake State Park
From these cliffs in Sauk County, the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail unspools in three directions across the state, tracing the ghost rim of a glacier that receded some 10,000 years ago. Today, hikers find wetlands, prairies, forests and sedge meadows in its wake. One moment the trail might slip coyly into a thick stand of trees, then suddenly roll downhill, etching a curlicue into prairie grasses.
As one of only 11 National Scenic Trails, the Ice Age Trail shares company with the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (America’s premier long-distance footpath), the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. But the secret along this epic path is that it doesn’t require a month of free time and guru backpacker status. Many sections amble near (or even through) cities and towns, providing pleasant day hikes and brief tastes of nature. Fair warning, though: Once you feel the dirt beneath your feet, the winking yellow blazes might just coax you to go the distance with this little-heralded treasure.
Devil's Lake State Park
For the surprise-seeker
The Ice Age Trail seems to delight in the unexpected, especially the segments in Portage and Waushara counties just north of Devil’s Lake. North of Amherst, two wooden figures can startle hikers in the New Hope-Iola Ski Hill segment: a child playing on a tree, and a giant man standing in an open field, hand outstretched to greet hikers. The woodsy Greenwood segment near the village of Hancock hides a handcrafted log couch and ottoman, inviting you to pause beside a slice of prairie and oak savanna. In the Chaffee Creek segment, farther south, you may wonder how the trail will lead you safely across Interstate-39. Then the path suddenly tumbles below the thrumming concrete. Pass through an enormous culvert via a tiny sidewalk to keep your feet dry.
For the time-pressed
Snugged against the shore of Lake Michigan, Manitowoc County claims seven fun trail segments, mostly broken into short, digestible bites. You can snag a frosty treat to go at an old-time ice cream parlor (claiming to be the birthplace of the sundae in 1881) in Two Rivers. It’s in The Historic Washington House, an 1850 hotel, saloon and museum. A 2.7-mile Dunes segment explores Woodland Dunes Nature Preserve, an iconic birding site holding rare habitat for migrating Neotropical birds. At less than a mile, the short Tisch Mills stretch extends over boardwalks through the woods and even includes an easy creek crossing.
Point Beach State Forest, along Lake Michigan
For the wild-hearted
The trail’s northernmost reaches are home to a soothing, velvety silence—along with the possibility of snuffling black bears and swollen streams. The trails here get a little gnarly, in the way avid adventurers love best. In Taylor County, overgrown vegetation, exposed roots, wetlands and steep climbs test the mettle of even experienced hikers. You get some reprieve in the Mondeaux Dam Recreation Area. The Depression-era lodge is currently closed for renovations, but the new Snack Shack offers basic supplies and some bites to satisfy modern cravings.
For the nature novice
If you like to take your nature with easy access to beds, hot food and real toilets, the southernmost end of the Ice Age Trail is for you. Most of Rock County’s 22 miles of paths are flat, easy and in spots, even urban. In Milton, there’s a walking tour of the now-defunct Milton College and an inn that was once part of the Underground Railroad. A hard-surface segment scoops through Janesville. Climb Devil’s Staircase for a short-but-rugged wooded path from Riverside Park to a golf course. The Arbor Ridge segment connects to the Janesville arboretum and trails that wind through it.
Before you go Contact the Ice Age Trail Alliance to purchase two key resources: the Ice Age Trail Atlas (with detailed maps) and the Ice Age Trail Guidebook (offering intel on each segment and connecting road routes). Visit iceagetrail.org.
More epic Midwest trails
North Country National Scenic Trail Runs 4,600 miles from North Dakota to New York via Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania (nps.gov/noco).
Ozark Trail Winds 401 miles through southeast Missouri’s hills and forests. The vision is to link it with Arkansas’ Ozark Highlands Trail (ozarktrail.com).
Michigan Shore-to-Shore Trail A 237-mile path for hikers and equestrians crossing the Lower Peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (michigan.org).
Superior Hiking Trail A 310-mile footpath follows a rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior from the Canada border to the Minnesota/Wisconsin state line (shta.org).
Melanie Radzicki McManus has thru-hiked the Ice Age Trail twice since 2013. Her new book, Thousand-Miler (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, $20), shares insights and memories from the trail.