Hiking the Ice Age Trail

The death throes of the last Ice Age are clearly visible along a path not far from a busy stretch of highway near Madison, Wisconsin. Standing in the parking lot of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, stands of oaks covering rock-strewn moraines and areas of crater-like kettle ponds are clearly visible. The trail preserves and celebrates the state’s geologic past as it courses like a u-shaped river through Wisconsin.
Around ten thousand years ago, the mile-high wall of ice known as the late Wisconsin Glacier, responsible for shaping much of the physical landscape of Canada, the Upper Midwest, New England and parts of Montana and Washington, began to melt. In its wake, the retreating ice deposited a line of sediment along its southern edge, a serpentine strip of gravelly hills called a terminal moraine that defined the glacier’s final reach. And fittingly–considering the glacier’s name–one of the best places to see the effects of the continent’s Wisconsin glaciation is in Wisconsin, along the Ice Age Trail.
Ice Age Trail segment in the Lodi Marsh
Extending like a ribbon from St. Croix Falls in Polk County to Potawatomi State Park in Door County, this scenic belt provides a walking tour of geologic beauty both close to home and in some of Wisconsin’s remotest places. Carved from land both privately and publicly owned in 30 counties, the trail is currently more than half-finished, about 600 of the proposed 1,200 miles, and is one of only two national trails in the U.S. contained within one state.
Preservation of this geologic fingerprint was the idea of Milwaukee attorney and avid outdoorsman Raymond Zillmer, who believed the trail would tell the story of Wisconsin’s past while serving as a wide-scale conservation effort in a state he believed destined for more and more development. And since 1958, thousands of Wisconsin residents have volunteered countless hours to protect, preserve and share this past through the creation of a continuous park along the glacier’s edge.
Last fall, we started section hiking the trail, beginning with the part closest to Madison and working our way north and south. Our progress is slow. It’s hard to get very far when you have to park at one end and hike back to the car, and when you only have a day or two every two weeks to go out. But we’re getting there. 
The Devil’s Staircase in Janesville
Last weekend we completed about half of the Janesville section, about six miles, but 12 for us since we had to walk back the way we came. The trail is a fantastic mix of city, park, suburbia, prairie, and woods. We’ve hiked–if I can even use that word–around the Farm and Fleet in Verona, past several libraries, and through the downtown streets of Lodi, Cross Plains, and Janesville. We walked through a dark tunnel under a roadway, hoping to find a safer way to cross, only to find ourselves at what appeared to be the underground entrance to a mental hospital. And a few weeks ago, a golf ball from a wildly off course golfer nearly knocked me out as we hiked the strip of woods between a neighborhood and golf course. But we’ve also hiked through gorgeous restored prairies and along limestone bluffs. 
The Ice Age Trail is truly a wonderful adventure. And one I think I’ll be on for the rest of my life at the rate we are going. 

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