Midwest Mega-Trail: Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail

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The Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) is one of very few endurance backpacking opportunities in our nation’s middle. Spanning 1,200 miles and situated entirely within Wisconsin, the IAT traces the border of the ice mass that defined the last ice age (the “Wisconsin Glaciation”). Until only about 12,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and its border zone is often considered the best place in the world to see certain glacial features—drumlins, eskers, erratics, kettles and moraines—as well as old-growth forests and active wolf packs.

Geologically and culturally, the IAT is like no other, but does it deserve a seat among the several elite marathon treks in the nation—think Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail?

Ice Age Trail

Stacey Matthews (pictured) and Bernie Krausse completed the IAT in the summer, beginning April 29th and finishing June 27th. Photo credit: Bernie Krausse.

Thinking Thru-Hike?

If you are looking at the IAT for your next thousand-mile trek to cross off the list, take one thing into consideration, which The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) site puts plainly: The Ice Age Trail is currently about half-complete. Covering the entire Trail means walking along many miles of quiet, country roads.

Therefore, trekking the entire IAT means traversing both forested wilderness and town roads. Due to this, the trail may be perceived as disjointed among those planning an efficient thru-hike. Other hikers, such as Bernie Krausse and Stacey Matthews, feel that the variety and complexity add to the specialness (and worthiness) of the trek. The two list the IAT among their favorites (alongside the PCT and the Colorado Trail). Upon completing the trail, Bernie stated, “Wisconsin will now walk through us wherever we may go.”

To go the entirety of the trail is to completely immerse oneself in Wisconsin, traversing the cranberry bogs and rolling hills of the Amish country, the metro areas around Madison and Green Bay, the enormous "V" from the iron mines near Lake Superior down toward the ice-mass–untouched “driftless” area closer to the Illinois border, and back up through the Door County peninsula. Krausse and Matthews join a small and growing community of those who have hiked the IAT’s entirety, from Potawatomi State Park to the St. Croix Dalles (a partial list can be found here).

Luke Kloberdanz, a fellow IAT thru-hiker, of the Ice Age Trail Alliance reminds us, “The vast majority of those you meet on the trail are not attempting a thru-hike. Most head out on the trail for an afternoon with their families.” In fact, this is how I personally know the trail, having spent some of my earliest hikes in the Lodi Valley and Baraboo Hills, within an hour’s drive from Madison.

Luke and the other employees and members of the Ice Age Trail Alliance form a small contingent dedicated for nearly 60 years to the quality, integrity and eventually completion of the IAT. Working also with the National Park Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the IATA coordinates hundreds of volunteers, docking almost 80,000 volunteer hours annually, and negotiates with private landowners whose property forms part of the trail.

As Luke sees it, perhaps what is most inspiring about the IAT is not so much the prospect of completing all 1,200 miles, but that a huge majority of the state’s population lives within a short drive of a world-class trail system.

So, does the IAT deserve to be up there with the big guns? Well, it is significantly shorter than both the PCT and AT, and even Ohio’s Buckeye Trail. And its captivating views do not include the mountainous scale of others. Even so, no trail provides a hiker with a paralleled experience. The Ice Age Trail is the vein of an ancient/modern byway, connecting one state’s human and animal populations along a rugged, wooded border. Something wild and wonderful has inspired—and continues to inspire—those who spend time here, where the ancient Laurentide ice has given way to a lusty love of prairie and a delight in the wild woods and profusion bogs.

Heck, this Wisconsinite proudly counts it among the nation’s great outdoor experiences.

More IAT Resources

Guidebooks and Maps
Backpacking Tips
Trail Conditions

Get maps, descriptions, and photos completely free and viewable offline by downloading the Hiking Project on iOS or Android

Featured photo credit: Stacey Matthews.

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