The Ice Age Trail (IAT) is one of our 11 National Scenic Trails. I thru-hiked it twice, in 2013and 2015, plus have day-hiked many sections of it. Here are some tips and tricks to make your experience on the IAT a memorable one.
Quick Trail History
The IAT is roughly 1,150 miles and lies entirely within Wisconsin, my home state. It’s about two-thirds completed today, so a thru-hike will involve walking on about 450 miles of connecting roads. Luckily, the vast majority of these connectors are quiet country roads that make for pleasant walking.
The Ice Age Trail is unique among National Scenic Trails in that it was created to showcase geological features. Namely, the terminal moraine of the last glaciation, which ended some 10,000 to 14,000 years ago. Wisconsin, by the way, has some of the finest glacial remains in the entire world. We have a lot of glacial remains, and the ones we have are in really good condition.
It’s pretty easy to get on the trail. The eastern terminus is in Potawatomie State Park in Sturgeon Bay. The city has a small airport, but it’s easier to fly into Green Bay and then rent a car. The western terminus is in Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls. Many people fly into Minneapolis-St. Paul and drive over. Some Trail Angels are willing to shuttle hikers from the airport.
Blazes and Markings
The IAT is blazed in yellow. Side trails are blazed in white, while connector routes to parking areas or trailheads are blazed blue. Each segment of the Ice Age Trail is also named; for example, Bear Lake, Northern Blue Hills, Cross Plains. These names are displayed on large, wooden signs on each end of the trail segment.
While the IAT is generally well marked, there is a fair amount of logging activity in the state, so sometimes blazes and other markers can get chopped down. Storms, harsh winter weather and the like can also cause the demise of some markings, so it’s wisest to buy a copy of Mammoth Tracks. The Guthooks app has maps and all sorts of good info.
The Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA), the group that is basically in charge of the trail, is trying to standardize all trail markings. But it’s a work in progress. So you may see other trail markings, too, such as 2″ x 2″ brown signs with a small yellow arrow, yellow signs with black arrows, metal posts with yellow-painted tips, etc.
In Wisconsin, you can’t necessarily camp in any national, state or county parklands. This makes things a little more challenging than when hiking other trails. The IATA operates about 20 dispersed camping areas, or DCAs, along the trail.(It is working hard to build many more.) The trail also runs through many parks where camping is allowed; some require advance reservations and fees, while others do not.In other spots, private campgrounds may be within a few miles’ hike.
It’s very important to camp only where it’s legal. The IAT passes across a lot of privately-owned land. If we abuse the trail, we could lose it.
Because the IAT follows the glacier’s terminal moraine, it rolls through a fair number of cities and towns. This makes resupplying pretty easy. You may wish to mail supply boxes to yourself, but it isn’t really a necessity.
Thanks to the long-ago glacier, Wisconsin is dimpled with many glacial lakes, streams and rivers. Water is generally plentiful. It’s always safest to filter all water.
There are only two main water crossings on the trail, and both are typically shallow (knee-high or less). However, depending on the weather, they can be deep. There is also a lot of beaver activity in certain areas. If a beaver dam breaks, the trail can flood and you might face waist-high water or even deeper (this happened to me!).
You can hike the IAT year-round. That being said, the best season is the fall (September to mid-November). The temperatures are moderate then and the fall foliage can be stunning. Be aware that early September can still be hot (temps were in the 90s both times I thru-hiked during September) and November can be unpredictable (it was snowing and 2 degrees during one day-hike I did).
Spring (April and May) is another good time to hike. Temperatures are generally moderate and the spring wildflowers are beautiful. The two concerns at this time of year are water and ticks. The trail can be quite soggy between spring rains and winter snowmelt. Tick season is the worst from about April to July. Some portions of the trail have been closed in the past when major tick hatches occurred.
Some people hike in summer. And if you’re not from Wisconsin, you might think this is an ideal time. You can do it, sure, but Wisconsin can hit the 90s during the summer. And even if temps are only in the 80s, we often have very high humidity here (70-90 percent). It can be miserable. And then there are the bugs. If you hike in the summer, you’ll need bug nets, as the mosquitoes in particular are often horrific.
One person thru-hiked the IAT during the winter. I wouldn’t recommend that unless you love snow, ice and frigid weather. However, you can ski and snowshoe on portions of the IAT, and that makes a lovely day-hike.
The IAT has many trail angels. Unlike the AT, the trail angels here don’t typically leave water and treats along the trail. If you need assistance in the form of shuttles, lodging, showers, etc., you simply need to contact the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA). The IATA will give you contact information for the trail angels and you can tap them for assistance. These people are wonderful! Be sure to thank them and offer money for gas and other expenses they may occur while helping you.
There are 21 volunteer chapters that help maintain the trail, publicize it and more. You can find their contact information online. While the chapter chairs update their website pages regularly regarding any trail alerts, it never hurts to contact them before entering their area to make sure you have the latest intel. Many chapter also operate Facebook pages that are very useful.
Seems like it’s always hunting season in Wisconsin. Fall hikers in particular should pay close attention to areas open to hunting and wear blaze orange.
The trail passes the IATA’s headquarters in Cross Plains. Make sure to stop in for a cool drink and to sign the hiking register. You are also welcome to use the building’s laundry facilities and restroom. If you complete the entire Ice Age Trail, make sure to apply for “Thousand-Miler” recognition.
There are a few places along the trail that have become hiker favorites.
- Café Wren. If you start from the western terminus in St. Croix Falls, you’ll pass Café Wren the first or second day. It’s along the Gandy Dancer rail-trail. The café serves up great food, plus its owners are huge IAT-backers. Grab something to eat and sign the trail register!
- Village Grocery, Haugen. The trail passes this tiny shop, owned by trail-lovers. Resupply and sign the trail register.
- Dot’s Tavern. This 1940s-era basement pub is right off the trail in Basco.
- Jim’s Place. The trail passes right by this pizzeria and ice cream shop in Slinger. I haven’t had the ‘za, but the ice cream is incredible. It’s soft-serve, tasty and the cone sizes are enormous.
- Washington House Museum/Berners’ Ice Cream Parlor. This spot in Two Rivers, also right on the trail, is said to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. You gotta try one, natch!