Ice Age Trail Cometh
In Wisconsin, follow the road and go back in geologic time.
By Josh Schonwald
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 19, 2004
Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail: Sounds like an all-season tire, or a new Dairy Queen dessert.
Not quite. It's the Midwest's equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, created by the National Park Service in 1971. The trail winds through Wisconsin, where glaciers have created rolling green hills and picturesque valleys and left behind bizarre sandstone buttes, eerie crater-like potholes, Badlands-like bluffs and some of the best mountain biking, cross-country skiing and leaf-gazing terrain in the country. (Peak time for foliage in these parts is late September in the northern regions to late October for the south.)
Glaciers covered much of northern North America, so why is the Ice Age Trail exclusively in Wisconsin? Because nowhere in the country is evidence of Ice Age landscaping better preserved than in Packerland.
The trail, which starts north of Green Bay and ends on the state's western border, contains textbook examples of glacial forms, such as kettles, eskers, drumlins and kames (hiking the trail requires you to learn a new language). At 1,000 miles long, the IAT is about a 3 1/2-month trek, but if you don't have time for the full hike-through, here's how you can crisscross glacier country in a few leisurely days by car.
1 Kettle Moraine. The IAT begins about 40 miles northeast of Green Bay, but the glacial goodies don't start until the Kettle Moraine (a kettle is a glacier-dug basin filled with water). Just west of Plymouth on Highway 67, you'll encounter the roller-coaster terrain of Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Lilliputian hills take on several forms -- some are cone shape and look like mini-volcanoes, others resemble hard-boiled eggs cut in half or feature narrow, serpentine ridges. The area is the product of a glacial collision that left a narrow 150-mile-long strip of debris that cuts through eastern Wisconsin. There are two units of Kettle Moraine along the trail: The slightly larger south division, closer to Chicago, is popular with mountain bikers and cross-country skiers, while the north's scenery is more spectacular (262-626-2116 for north, 262-594-6200 for south, www.wiparks.net; $3-$10 per car). For a good orientation, head to the National Park Service's Henry Reuss Ice Age Center (920-533-8322), near Dundee.
2 Horicon Marsh. At 32,000 square acres, this is the country's largest cattail marsh. More than 260 feathered species -- from egrets, herons and pelicans to wandering whoopers, double-breasted cormorants and yellow warblers -- arrive at this shallow basin by the thousands each summer through fall. Visit in October or mid-April when nearly half a million Canada geese park here. Base camp for the marsh, a national wildlife refuge (920-387-7860, www.marshmelodies.com; free), is the town of Horicon. Here you can tour the marsh on a pontoon boat ($15-$20) or tackle the swamp with a canoe or rowboat (various rental fees). Or grab a pair of binocs and a field guide and bike the 30-mile Wild Goose Trail.
3 Holy Hill. The Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians (262-628-1838, www.holyhill.com; free) is perched on the highest hill in southeastern Wisconsin. Just east of Hubertus and right off the IAT, the massive red-brick church -- with spires climbing to 1,350 feet -- towers over the region. According to popular belief, a 19th-century French hermit was miraculously healed of polio after a night of prayer at the summit. More than a century later, the church's halls are filled with crutches, and its shrine is visited by multitudes of Catholic pilgrims. Plus, Holy Hill's observatory deck offers an extraordinary view of the Kettle, including the sinuous line of ridges, hills and lakes that marks the line between the Green Bay and Wisconsin lobes.
4 Devil's Lake. Sometimes called Wisconsin's "Grand Canyon," Devil's Lake, a few miles south of the Dells (see No. 5 below), is walled by three soaring quartzite cliffs and is surrounded by thick oak and hick- ory woods. A remnant of an ancient quartzite mountain range that was once as big as the Rockies, Devil's Lake State Park (608-356-8301, www.devilslakewisconsin.com; $3-$10 per car) doesn't have a peak higher than 800 feet. But make no mistake, the state's most popular park is mountain country. Part of a swatch called the Baraboo Hills is the most rugged leg of the IAT. To get a Rocky Mountain moment, hike one of the trails heading up to the lake's East Bluff -- and on the Balanced Rock trail or the Tumbled Rocks trail, be prepared to sweat.
5 Wisconsin Dells. With a deluge of water parks, the world's largest Go-Kart track and enough fudge shops to supply the Jersey Shore, it's easy to forget that the Dells -- site of a mammoth flood that devastated the landscape -- is among the IAT's most spectacular legs. The legacy of the flood is the canyon of the Dells, consisting of 100-foot sandstone bluffs hanging high above the Wisconsin River. Most people access Dells Country on Ducks, the World War II amphibious vehicles retooled in the service of tourism. If you're longing for a more solitary Ice Age experience, head to nearby Mirror Lake or Rocky Arbor state parks (608-254-2333 for Mirror Lake, 608-254-8001 for Rocky Arbor, www.mirrorlakewisconsin.com; $3-$10 per car). Info: Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau, 800-223-3557, www.wisdells.com.
6 Mill Bluff. In most western states, a butte -- even a sand-colored, nearly vertical, 200-foot butte -- isn't going to turn heads. But just 90 miles west of Madison along I-90/94 near the town of Camp Douglas, the sight of a lonely butte arising abruptly out of the land is downright startling. Mill Bluff State Park (608-427-6692, www.wiparks.net; $3-$10) is littered with dozens of Arizona-like rock formations -- buttes, mesas and pinnacles. The rocky outcroppings are essentially leftover islands from the days of Lake Wisconsin; today, the ancient sea is long gone, replaced by a dense woodland. You can hike the Camel's Bluff trail, which winds past several of the park's most imposing rock formations. And although most of the forms are inaccessible to hikers, Mill Bluff itself can be conquered. A hike up 175 stone steps on the mesa leads to awesome views of the lakebed and its islands, which resemble icebergs in a green sea.
7 Dalles of the St. Croix River. The IAT's westernmost leg is classic glacial terrain pocked with bogs and kettles and thick with oak and pine forests. The legacy of a cataclysmic flood of glacial meltwater, the Dalles is a waterfall that plunges 200 feet, passing layers of sandstone and ancient lava before meandering through a narrow walled gorge. In 1900, nature lovers helped create the country's first interstate park, creatively naming it Interstate State Park (715-483-3747, www.wiparks.net; $3-$10). You can also hike the park's Pothole Trail to see dozens of depressions that range from holes as round and wide as a Frisbee and only a few feet deep, to 20-foot-deep craters as wide as a car. On the Minnesota side, which is connected by a bridge, you can see the world's deepest pothole -- a 70-foot-deep crater that looks like the work of a mini-meteorite.
For more information on the Ice Age Trail, contact the National Park Service, 608-441-5610, www.nps.gov/iatr/expanded/home.htm, or the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, 800-227-0046, www.iceagetrail.org. For general info on travel to Wisconsin: Wisconsin Department of Tourism, 800-432-TRIP, www.travelwisconsin.com.
Josh Schonwald last wrote for Travel on Nicaragua.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company