The Ice Age National Scenic Trail runs 1,000 miles through Wisconsin and offers the opportunity to marvel at natural history with every step. The trail’s unique landscape was sculpted by an icy glacier in retreat more than 12,000 years ago. More than a million people of all ages and abilities use the trail every year; it is a powerful way to connect with our planet and ourselves.
Here are some things we think everyone should know before tackling Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
1. Different Seasons Bring Different Experiences
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is located entirely in Wisconsin, which is a four-season environment. That means that you can have completely different experiences depending upon the time of year you go. The trail offers a lot of variety, and some paths can be navigated even during the snowiest seasons. Walking, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing are all possibilities.
The most important tip here is to dress appropriately and to remember that even when it’s cold, you’re likely to warm up, so dress in layers. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, a mask or face covering, rain gear when appropriate, and a hat and gloves.
2. The Trail Segments Offer Variety
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail travels through 31 counties and features more than 600 miles of yellow-blazed segments and more than 500 miles that are unmarked but connect to the blazed segments. These segments boast diverse scenery, elevation, terrain, and surroundings. Parts of the trail are long and flat, and others are steep and rocky. Areas can be grassy, paved, or dirt. You might find yourself passing through cornfields and forests, over wooden bridges, and even past golf courses. You’ll want to decide what kind of experience you want -- or, if you’re like us, try different areas to get a taste of everything.
3. Prepare For Your Trek By Visiting The Website
One way you can prepare to tackle the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is by visiting the extensive Ice Age Trail Alliance website for information about the trail and the alliance, a trail map, itineraries, and more. You can sign up for monthly email updates to get the latest news. If you’d like to dive deeper, you can become a member or pitch in to help maintain the trail along with hundreds of other devoted volunteers. The Ice Age Trail offers a chance to become part of a vibrant community as well as opportunities to enjoy some glorious time in nature.
4. Download The StriveOn App
StriveOn is an app that you can use to get other people’s insights on your mobile phone when you’re on the trail. It’s not solely for the Ice Age Trail, but a lot of people use it to share trail experiences and tips. For example, we checked to see what people were saying about the Verona segment of the trail before we tried to tackle it. You can learn about current conditions, unexpected changes, and what a trail may be like in terms of difficulty or elevation.
We discovered that another section we hiked rose the equivalent of 40 stories within a very short distance. We probably would still have hiked it, but we would have been less surprised and better prepared if we had known about this in advance. The app is also a handy source of information about hotels, restaurants, shops, and parking near the trail.
5. Wear Good Hiking Shoes
While not every segment of the Ice Age Trail requires super sturdy hiking shoes, you can’t go wrong with them. Strong support and solid soles will make you feel more comfortable on any terrain. Also, if you want to alter your course and explore additional trails that are more remote or challenging, you’ll be better able to do so if you have good hiking shoes. Check out TravelAwaits’ review of the best hiking shoes for some ideas.
6. Plan Your Hike, But Be Flexible
It’s a good idea to plan the basics of your trip in advance. Determine how challenging you want your visit to be, how far you want to go, how long you want to spend on the trail, and what time of day you’d like to be there. You should also consider things like whether you will need to take a bathroom break and whether there are any facilities available. We’re always in favor of bringing snacks and water, even if we plan on just a short trip. You never know when you’ll feel inspired and end up spending much more time on the trail than you anticipated.
If the weather is warm, be sure to take insect repellent, sunscreen, sunglasses, and other personal items for your comfort. Gloves, reflective sunglasses, neck and ear coverings, hats, thick socks, and other appropriate items will also help make your trek worry-free. Be sure to bring water in any weather and give family or friends your itinerary and your basic plans. Bring a cell phone, but remember that it may not work in very remote areas.Take a buddy or stay in contact with friends if you plan a longer hike.
At the same time, allow yourself the freedom to follow the fun. If you find something different or interesting, be flexible and enjoy it.
When visiting a new town, it’s nice to check out its unique local businesses and places to eat. Be sure to look up what and where the local attractions are before you set out on your adventure.
7. Take The Time To Read The Signs
One of our favorite discoveries along the Ice Age Trail was the use of various signs along the way. Some signs offered interesting information about the trail, such as how certain boulders came to be where they are, what prehistoric animals previously occupied the area, information about flowers and foliage, and other fascinating facts. Not all the trail segments have signs, but when they do, be sure to stop and read them. You will learn all sorts of tidbits to help you appreciate the experience even more.
8. Enjoy The Views
While it may be more challenging to head up a steep trail, the reward is often a gorgeous view that helps energize you for even more exploring. Some of the views have signs explaining what you are looking at and how things have changed over time. Be sure to have your camera or phone with you to record some of these sights. There are also lots of beautiful settings along the trail inside forests, by streams or lakes, and near other scenic parts of the trail. Take your time, and take it all in.
9. Expect The Unexpected
Exploring the Ice Age Trail is great fun in part because it is such a vast and diverse area with so many surprises just waiting to be discovered. When walking through one section that was mostly a grassy plain, we discovered a wild apple tree on the side of the trail. What a refreshing treat it was to pluck a delicious, ripe apple and enjoy it as we worked our way down the trail! Water features such as streams can spring up randomly, and ancient rock formations appear out of nowhere. One part of the trail we wandered through included a wooden bridge made from a huge split log. Of course, we’re always happy when we encounter wildlife and birds, so when a deer suddenly popped her head up as we wandered through a forested section, that was another unexpected treat.
10. Don’t Be Afraid To Challenge Yourself
There are so many different types of experiences you can have on the Ice Age Trail that you’ll want to challenge yourself. For the 40th anniversary of the trail, we participated in the Mammoth Hike Challenge, which required us to hike 40 miles of the trail on at least three different segments within the month of October. We completed the challenge and realized that it would be great fun to create a personal challenge of our own. Anyone can do the same, taking inspiration from the event or using whatever criteria make sense.
One thing that is gratifying as well as motivating is keeping track of your progress on whatever challenge you choose. A certain timeframe, a certain number of segments, or a certain number of miles are all great ways to challenge yourself and mark your achievements.
11. Celebrate Your Achievement
While we plan to explore even more of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in the future, it’s a great feeling to look at our 40 miles and five segments in 30 days and celebrate that we did it. One way to make your trail experience even more fun would be to share photos of yourself and the trail as you explore it. Be gentle with yourself if you don’t want to set an ambitious goal, and just celebrate each amble as you complete it. The most wonderful part of tackling Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail is knowing that we have this beautiful natural resource to celebrate, preserve, and protect for generations to come.