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Length: Approximately 1,200 miles, east to west across the state of Wisconsin
Time to Hike: 7 to 12 weeks
Best Time to Go: Late August through October
Highest point: Lookout Mountain, Lincoln County, 1,920 ft (590 m)
Lowest point: Lakeshore of Lake Michigan, 580 ft (180 m)
Start and End Points:
- The Trail’s western terminus is in Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, Polk County
- The eastern terminus is in Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, Door County
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) is a thousand-mile trail that traverses the length of Wisconsin from east to west. Not surprisingly, the Ice Age Trail is known for its glacial features, such as eskers, moraines, and kettles. These natural landscape features are left over from the ice age and are not found on other long-distance trails.
The IAT was the idea of Milwaukee native Raymond Zillmer, who was an avid hiker and mountaineer. Zillmer helped establish the Kettle Moraine State Forest and the Kettle Moraine Glacial Hiking Trail, but he dreamed of a longer trail that would allow people to hike across the state. Zillmer’s proposed trail followed the remnant of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that once engulfed the area during the Wisconsin Glaciation, the most recent ice age in natural history.
Photo by Kennether Capser (@kfcasper on Flickr)
Planning Your Thru-Hike
GETTING THERE: Transportation to and From the Trailheads
Hikers can get in touch with a shuttle service for traveling to and from the trailheads by contacting the local trail chapters that are responsible for these sections. Each trail chapter helps maintain the trail as well as provide services to hikers.
The Ice Age trail tends to be cold and wet in the spring and insect-laden in the humid summer months. When packing, there are two primary elements you need to factor in:
1. Rain: If you plan to hike the Ice Age Trail, you should invest in quality rain gear and a reliable shelter that protects against moisture.
2. Bugs: Insect repellent for ticks in the spring and mosquitos in the summer is essential. It also wouldn't hurt to have some lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants as an added barrier against bug bites. Make sure your shelter will also protect you against mosquitoes and the like.
DIRECTION TO HIKE: Westbound or Eastbound?
Most people do section hikes of the Ice Age Trail, hitting popular areas such as Devil’s Lake or the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Only 15 to 20 people thru-hike the entire trail each year.
There is no correct direction to hike. Hikers can decide if they want to start in the more rugged western section of the trail or the more gentle eastern side.
Photo by GretaG
NAVIGATION: Guides, Maps, and Apps
Approximately half of the Ice Age trail is marked, the remainder follows quiet country roads and multi-use trails that connect the marked trails. The Ice Age Trail Alliance has an online map as well as an interactive hiker resource map with Ice Age Trail segments, connecting trails, camping sites, trail towns and more. Since so much of the path is not marked, you may want to get either of the following:
- The Ice Age Trail Atlas
- The IAT Guidebook
- The Interactive Hiker Resource Map
- Guthooks for iOS (or Mammoth Tracks for Android)
SLEEPING: Camping and Accommodation
Camping: Because the Ice Age Trail is still under development, there is a lot of road walking and trail sections that cross private properties. As a result, camping is allowed only in designated areas. Some areas offer primitive or dispersed camping that does not require permits or reservations, while others have shelters or public campsites that require a reservation and sometimes a fee. The Ice Age Trail Hiker Resource Interactive Map and the companion guidebook provide details on where you can and cannot set up camp.
Lodging: If you don’t want to rough it, there also are a variety of inns and bed and breakfast lodgings that offer a soft bed and a warm shower. On its website, the Ice Age Trail Alliance maintains a list of popular lodging options for hikers with both location and contact info for each establishment. The inns can be an expensive way to thru-hike, but there are a few hostels you can visit if you are looking to save some cash. The Wellspring hostel in West Bend offers a bed, bath, kitchen access, and wifi for $30 per night.
Photo by Alec Hogoboom
HOW TO RESUPPLY: Food, Water, and Towns
There are plenty of resupply points on the Ice Age Trail, especially in the first half of the trail which is closer to populated areas. In the eastern and central portion of the trail, hikers will pass through a handful of official Ice Age Trail towns.
Getting to Trail Towns: In some cases, the path goes right through the urban section of the city providing hikers with plenty of opportunities to grab some good food and secure some cozy accommodations. Other supply points are a couple of miles off the trail and require a hitchhike or shuttle into town. Hikers can contact one of the volunteer chapters for information on supplies and available rides.
Distance between resupply points: Most resupply points are three to five days apart in the eastern and central sections, but there are a few longer stretches in the more remote western section. There are approximately 85 miles between Haugen and Weyerhaeuser through Rust County forest and 110 between Rib Lake and Summit Lake.
Using supply boxes: You can send supply boxes if desired, but most trail towns have a grocery store and restaurants. Water is available at most trailheads and campgrounds on the trail. There also are natural sources thanks to the many kettles, lakes, and streams that line the trail.
WILDLIFE: Geology and Species
People visit the Ice Age Trail for its unique geology that was formed when the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated thousands of years ago.
Moraines: The trail is marked by moraines, which are ridges of rock and sediment that are deposited at the edge of a glacier. The moraines are the defining feature of the trail and can be found at multiples places along the route. Another common natural element are glacial erratics, large smooth boulders that are deposited when a glacier moves.
Eskers: There also are eskers, a small rounded ridge of sand and gravel deposited by water that flowed at the base of the glacier and kettles, a large depression formed by blocks of ice that detached from the glacier and melted in place.
Mammals and Rodents: Wildlife is abundant on the Ice Age Trail with deer, porcupines, and red squirrels crossing the trail and calling it home. There also are black bear and grey wolves in the region, but these mammals are less frequently encountered on the trail. In the summer months, birds are abundant in the canopy and forest floor.
Birds: In the southern section of the trail, hikers can expect to see the distinctive red cap of the red-headed woodpecker as well as smaller birds like the hooded warbler, the Henslow's sparrow and the Acadian flycatcher. In the north, hikers will encounter majestic bald eagles, melodious white-throated sparrows, and the ruffed grouse, a ground-dwelling bird often found blocking hiking trails.
Photo by MDuchek
Kettle Moraine has some of the most significant glacial remnants on all the Ice Age Trail. The area was formed when two ice sheets collided creating the rolling ridges and deep kettles that characterize this area. The Kettle moraine is a 150-mile-long glacial ridge that sits hundreds of feet above the surrounding countryside and is the most prominent feature in this part of the trail .
Cross Plains and Table Bluff
The Cross Plains and Table Bluff section of the Ice Age Trail maintains a bucolic feeling despite being near Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. Sandstone outcroppings, rolling hillsides, prairies, and forested ravines mark the trail in this area. Because it is so close to the populated area of Wisconsin, these sections provide a rare opportunity for urbanites to experience a truly immersive experience in the serene Wisconsin landscape.
Cross Plains also is a vital resupply point on the trail and is the home to the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which oversees the maintenance and development of the Ice Age Trail.
Photo by Rachel Desertspring
Devils Lake State Park
Devils Lake State Park is one of the most popular parks in the state of Wisconsin and for a good reason. This section takes hikers through the rounded glacial ridges in the eastern part of the state park and transitions to the mountainous western part of the trail in the Driftless Area that was untouched by glaciers. Not surprisingly, this section is marked by long stretches of flat trail that eventually leads to steep, arduous climbs.
The heart of the park is Devil's Lake, a 360-acre lake that was formed by glacial moraines and is known for its steep pinkish quartzite bluffs. The park also is home to Devil’s Doorway, a collection of large rock slabs that resemble a doorway and Gibraltar Rock whose 200 foot cliffs offer a stunning view of the surrounding countryside.
This rugged and remote section in the western portion of the trail is known for its mixed hardwood forests, stream crossings and wetlands. The valleys are beautiful and the ridges are stunning though steep to climb. Hikers also will encounter wildflowers, birds and moss covered logs in this lush portion of the trail.
The Chippewa Moraine is one of the nine Ice Age National Scientific Reserve units in Wisconsin and one of six that the Ice Age Trail crosses. This segment is known for its classic glacial features including eskers, kettle lakes and ice-walled plains, which are flat-topped hills that are higher than the surrounding area. The terrain is hilly, but there are no strenuous climbs. Hikers also can camp at one of the primitive campsites in this section.
Dalles of St Croix Trailhead
Eastern and Western Bifurcations
Near Devil's Lake, the trail splits into two paths known as the Eastern and Western bifurcations. The two routes both are considered to be parts of the IAT, and hikers can choose which way they prefer. This donut hole was the result of landowner issues that prevented the development of the original eastern path which followed the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glaciation.
As a result, IAT trail builders constructed the western route which brings hikers through the non-glaciated parts of Wisconsin. When the Ice Age Trail became a national scenic trail, the National Parks Service approved both routes.
The eastern route is more popular than the western route. It not only passes through glacier territory, but it also passes by the countryside shack built by Wisconsin ecologist Aldo Leopold and John Muir’s boyhood home at Fountain Lake Farm.
Ice Age Trail 50
The Ice Age Trail is used for more than just hiking. Each year, hundreds of participants lace up their running sneakers and hit the trail to run the Ice Age 50 race. The ultramarathon series includes a 50-mile, a 50-kilometer and a half-marathon race that follows the Ice Age Trail through the Kettle Moraine forest in the southern part of the trail. People also bike sections of the path that coincides with existing state bike trails. Dogs are welcome, too, as long as they are on a leash (8-foot maximum) and under control at all times.
For added entertainment, the Ice Age Trail Alliance has created geocaches along the Ice Age Trail. Dubbed "ColdCaches", these hidden items allow hikers to pursue a high-tech treasure hunt as they walk along the path. Each ColdCache provides a short history of the region in which it was found. Hikers also can earn patches when they collect caches.
Another consideration for hikers is hunting. Hunting is popular in Wisconsin and as such hikers need to aware of Wisconsin state and local hunting season dates. Hunting is allowed in state parks and State Ice Age Trail Areas (SIATAs) from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15 and then again from April 1 to the Tuesday nearest May 3. Hunting is not allowed within 100 yards of the Ice Age Trail, but this rule does not apply on private lands, state forests and state lands. Hikers should wear blaze orange in the early spring, fall and winter for safety.