No, it isn’t the latest plot line involving mammoths and a funny sloth named Sid. It is a hiking trail that follows the glacial formations from the last ice age through Wisconsin. More importantly, the Ice Age Trail, or the IAT, shows that our national parks are still growing and evolving into bigger and better things.
Remember back to when you were a kid and you played outside with your dog. You stomped the snow down with your boots so your dog would have room to play with you. You would stomp the same path multiple times in various different ways to ensure that it was the right width for your dog as well as evenly flat. You would work on it for about ten minutes, take off your hat and coat because you got hot, get yelled at to put them back on, and continue on stomping the snow. You were so proud. Spot would be able to walk outside with you! He would be able to run and play and enjoy the cold.
Then you realized that your path only went five feet. It wasn’t enough. The space needed to be bigger. Spot wouldn’t go in the high snow. You diligently continued to work on squashing every last snowflake in your backyard so that Spot could run, jump, and play with you outside. You did this all winter. You repeated this so much that come spring, every other person’s yard was free of snow while yours still had ice chunks in the form of foot and paw prints.
Age yourself to present day adulthood. Nothing has changed. You still want to play outside with your dog, but your backyard just isn’t going to cut it. You need space. You need to play in Mother Nature’s backyard. You need a trail that you and Spot can enjoy for miles. In winter, summer, spring or fall 60% of Wisconsinites is within a twenty mile drive to just such a place due to the impact the last ice age had on the landscape.
Not as well known as its more established 1000+ mile trail in the Appalachians, the Ice Age Trail is more accessible to novice hikers given its flatter terrain. Without a mountain range to contend with, the elevations are not as severe. Because the Ice Age Trail follows the glacial formations from the last ice age, it stretches along many an esker and drumlin. These two terms were unfamiliar to me before researching the trail. An esker is a very long ridge formed by glacial movement while a drumlin is a rounded hill formed by glacial ice.
Just like your determination to keep your backyard a perfect place for Spot, the history of the IAT proves how the one person’s dedication to a cause can create something meaningful and lasting. The dream of visionary Ray Zillmer was completed when congress recognized the IAT as a National Scenic Trail in 1980. Ray Zillmer was the first to dream of expanding Kettle Moraine State Forest into a large linear national park. In 1958, he began his campaign to bring the national parks closer to those near his Wisconsin home. While his linear park was not approved, he was able to spark the interest at a national level that lived on past his life. The first thru hiker completed the IAT in 1979 adding the trail’s acclaim.
Like your wintery backyard sanctuary for Spot, the IAT requires maintenance. Today the trail is managed by the National Park Service with help from the Ice Age Trail Alliance and its 21 local chapters. Volunteer events for trail creation, maintenance, as well as educational events for the young and old keep the alliance busy throughout the year. Of the 1200 miles of trail, only 600 of them are official and completed. The Ice Age Trail has a massive set of volunteers taking care of every esker. In fiscal 2016, the IATA documented 76,715 hours of volunteer work. Running through a mix of private and public lands, many hikers choose to hike the unofficial trails right along with the official ones but please be mindful about which one’s you may bring Spot on.
According to the alliance, over 1.25 million people use the trail year round, which brings a glimmer of light to Zillmer’s hope that the trail would be used “by millions more people than use the more remote national parks.” The IAT may not get the traffic that Yosemite gets, but its nature lovers contribute more than $113 million to the local economy each year. In 2016, 2,138 donated their time to care for the trail making it the forth year in a row that volunteer hours topped the 70,000 hour mark.
Hikers, snowshoers, and trail runners all have something to delight in with the IAT. Enclosed shelters, pit toilets, and fire pits are some of the amenities the IAT can boast to its visitors. For practical matters, the alliance has split the trail into 106 sections numbered from the west moving east.
I visited three of these sections during my recent trip and was blown away by the serenity and beauty the trail offered. I admired the decades of dedication that have gone into growing this national trail. From cedar forests, to Lake Michigan’s shores, the youthful determination of volunteer trail makers has preserved the trail and kept it accessible to all nature lovers. During a walk through one particularly beautiful wooded area called Greenbush, I caught myself smiling at a man walking with his dog. They were maneuvering on the trail in a manner that spoke of long time familiarity. Surely, this man’s yard has ice prints left on it in the spring. I hope that there are many generations of children to come that make trails in their backyards that grow up to be adults that enjoy and care for this great national treasure.
Every hiker should experience the beauty and serenity of the IAT. To learn more about the planning of my trip for the IAT visit here.