Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Occasional Trails: Dancing with Mammoths

  • Name: Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
  • Location: Wisconsin.
  • Length: 1200 miles (600 are complete).
  • Best season: Probably not deer season, when some sections are closed.
  • Features: Kames, eskers, kettles, drumlins, moraines, widely scattered mammoths, and the occasional cave lion (mostly dead).
  • Permits: Varies by jurisdiction.
  • Info at: National Park Service, Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation.

The United States has eight National Scenic Trails. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin is the only one not ashamed of its eskers. The trail, 1200 miles long when finished, will skirt the southern edge of the last ice age in a winding route.

The trail starts at Interstate State Park in the west, only 45 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul, and on the east, 45 miles from Green Bay, it stops at Potawatomi State Park on Lake Michigan, in Door County (where a large exit sign shows the way out).

Right now only about 600 miles of trail are complete, in sections from 2 to 40 miles long, but connecting routes exist, so hiking the entire 1,200 miles is possible today. In fact the first thru-hike was done in 1980. You can do day hikes, section hikes, a thru-hike, or slack it in style at the many inns and bed-and-breakfast outfits along the trail.

First some bad news then some good news.

OK, this is a multiple use area. Depending on where you are, and when, there might be bicyclists, cross country skiers, snowshoers, or snowmobilers on the trail. And some sections (not all) close during Wisconsin's nine day deer hunting season in November. A thru-hike will require 530 road or sidewalk miles, for now. But on the other hand the trail is for hiking, is open year-round, and the finished sections do not allow any motorized, wheeled vehicles at all.

Permits and fees vary all over the map because the Ice Age Trail is all over the map. It crosses a patchwork of ownerships and has to accommodate all of them. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (IAPTF), county parks, state parks, local municipalities, and hundreds of private landowners all own a piece of it. Some places charge entrance fees. Some don't. Camping registration and various permits may or may not be required.

But the winding route and mixed ownerships are also an advantage. People have a stake. The trail was designed to connect communities statewide and not to bypass them, so almost two thirds of Wisconsin's citizens live close by, within 20 miles of the trail.

Raymond Zillmer, a force behind the Ice Age Trail, imagined a long park used "by millions more people than use the more remote national parks." To this end he founded the IAPTF in 1958. The National Park Service was intrigued. But Zillmer died too soon, and the Park Service dithered over a thin ribbon of park land more than a thousand miles long. Not until 1980 did the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and private land owners pay off when the Ice Age National Scenic Trail was formally established by law.

The landscape is varied, as you would expect in glacier country. From the IAPTF: "The Ice Age Trail courses like a river for a thousand miles through a varied landscape. Walk the Ice Age Trail to witness hundreds of crystal lakes and thriving prairies, productive farmlands, towering white pines and diverse wetlands, ancient Native American effigy mounds, remnant oak savannas, charming cities and many of the world's finest examples of the effects of continental glaciation. Geologic features along the route include: kames, lakes, drumlins, ice-walled-lake plains, outwash plains, eskers, tunnel channels, and other older landforms."

The IAPTF sells its "Ice Age Trail Companion Guide" which lists towns, post offices, connecting roads, trail head access details, resupply, dining, and lodging information. Shuttle services are available, mostly informally, through volunteers. The IAPTF's "Ice Age Trail Atlas" has 105 color maps in shaded relief showing parking areas, toilets, campgrounds, shelters and dispersed camping areas.

Downloadable county by county maps are available for free, as is GIS data. Hey, what's not to like?

Oh, yeah, about those eskers: harmless. Kinda cute, really. They're the snaky rounded ridges of sand and gravel dumped by streams in secret meltwater tunnels under glaciers. Cool. Maybe more trails should flaunt theirs.


National Park Service - Ice Age National Scenic Trail
Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation
Ice Age Trail Companion Guide 2008
Ice Age Trail Atlas