Trip Report: Ice Age Trail

When I have to attend an out of town business meeting, I sometimes try to piggyback a backpacking trip onto it. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to find day hiking spots than backpacking trails, but I didn’t have that problem in Wisconsin. My meeting was held in Kohler, Wisconsin, and it didn’t take me very long to discover that the Ice Age Trail was about thirty minutes west of town. And with that knowledge in hand, we began trip planning last summer.

The Ice Age Trail is a National Scenic Trail that extends 1,200 miles across Wisconsin. The general idea behind the trail is that it travels along the extent of the southernmost glaciers of the most recent ice age. Much of the Ice Age Trail involves road walking. The trail must avoid huge swaths of private land. However, just west of Kohler, the trail traverses the North Kettle Moraine State Forest. This was our section.

I took too much gear for this trip. A lot of this stuff should have stayed home in hindsight.

This section of trail runs roughly 32 miles north-south, through an interesting topography. The forest is crossed by a number of state highways and county roads, but the entire 32 miles here is single track trail (minus a half-mile stretch on a hike/bike paved path). I believe it is one of the longer single track stretches of the Ice Age Trail. My friend Kovas, the genius behind Midwest Basecamp, agreed to drive up from Chicago and backpack the trail with me over the course of two days.


Ice Age Trail – North Kettle Moraine State Forest Trailheads
Southern Trailhead: Highway H = 43.497750, -88.195334
Northern Trailhead: Glenbeulah, WI = 43.796564, -88035165

We met at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at the Perkins in West Bend. I had spent the night in a cheap motel there. From the restaurant, Kovas followed me to the southern trailhead, just off state route H. While I loaded my pack into his car, he looked for a parking pass at the trailhead kiosk. The state forest is an area that requires a parking pass, but we couldn’t find the passes, nor a place to deposit them once completed and paid. We finally just decided to leave, taking the risk of a parking citation – or worse – upon our return.

The northern trailhead near Glanbulah, Wisconsin

The drive to the northern trailhead took us over a patchwork of two-lane roads. It took us about thirty minutes to get there.  The trailhead is on the south side of highway P, just east of the small town of Glenbeulah.  Kovas parked, we gathered our gear, took a few pre-hike selfies, and off we went – headed south. The trail is easy to spot from the trailhead, and there is a large kiosk nearby with maps and other information about the forest. We got underway a little after 8:00 a.m.


DAY ONE

The first three miles of trail gives the hiker a great idea of what the Ice Age Trail is all about. Those initial miles are in a thick deciduous forest. Because it was late October, the maples were still showing off some wonderful shades of yellow and red. The trail was carpeted with yellow leaves. The trail finds the ridges between kettles, so on either side of the trail, the drop is a steep one even if fall itself wouldn’t be far.  Some of these sinkholes are expansive, and we were glad the trail didn’t drop us down into them simply to force us to climb back out the other side.

Oftentimes, the trail followed the ridge between two kettles (sinkholes). The Ice Age Trail wasn’t always as nice and wide as it is shown here.

The trail eventually spat us out at U.S. 23.  Be alert at this crossing as vehicles are zipping by here rather quickly. On the other side of the road, the IAT takes a sharp right and joins up and follows the Old Plank Road Trail for a half mile. The Old Plank Road Trail is a paved bicycle trail along the highway. After awhile, the trail darts back into the forest and continues heading southwest. Keep an eye out for trail signage on your left.

Expect a short walk on the paved Old Plank Trail. This photo is looking back to the east.

After a few more forested miles (at mile 6.5), the trail nears the Greenbush camping area. We didn’t take the short side trail to the campsites, but the area looked flat and exposed; a typical midwest campground. A mile further on the IAT passes a green hand pump for water. This was the first water source we reached that was indicated on our maps. We pumped the handle a few times without much success. Kovas had started off with no water. He wasn’t desperate yet, and I had plenty for the two of us, but filling up here would’ve have saved us a mile or so in detours down the trail (of course, we didn’t know that at the time). Looking back on it, a little more persistence on our part working that pump handle probably would’ve resulted in some water.

Shortly after our encounter with the hand pump, we passed our first backpacking shelter. There are five shelters along this section of the IAT. Dispersed camping is not allowed (unfortunately), and these shelters must be reserved in advance. They are numbered one through five from south to north, so the first one we encountered was number 5. They also each have a name; this one was called the Greenbush Kettle Shelter.  Each of them have a water source somewhat nearby, and a pit outhouse.

Numerous signs make it difficult to get lost in the North Kettle Moraine State Forest

Based on the number of people we saw, we probably could’ve stayed at any of the five shelters. But our reservation was at the Dundee shelter (#3), another 10 miles ahead. Due to the anticipated rain for the next day, we briefly discussed hiking even further – another six miles – in order to make the next day’s wet hike even shorter.

Just after shelter 5, the IAT begins to head due south. In doing so, it becomes a little less scenic. For a couple of miles, we were not in the forest, but found ourselves traversing open fields.  From time to time we would pass a thicket of tall pines, but it wasn’t until we were past state highway 67 that the trail returned to the colorful forest.

We may have missed peak fall color by a week, but it was still pretty good.

Around mile 9, the Ice Age Trail begins to intersect with a number of social trails. The IAT is signed very well, but pay close attention here. The Parnell Tower Loop Trail uses a section of the IAT, plus there are other snowmobile trails in the area. Just before mile 11, we passed shelter #4, set off in the woods to our left. We took a short break there.

Taking a short rest at the Parnell Shelter. This one looked to be used more often than the others. Probably because it was easy to get to from the Parnell Tower parking lot.

Parnell Tower is an excellent access point for the IAT. There is a 0.7 mile spur trail from the IAT to the tower, which is worth a visit.  We were compelled to visit because we needed water, which was available at the Tower’s parking area. The Parnell area had it’s share of visitors and we saw quite a few people on the trails and in the general vicinity. At the parking lot (which had a very noticeable parking pass kiosk, by the way) we drank a bunch of water and filled our bottles. Then we road walked down county road U to where the IAT crosses the road. All in all, it was a little over a mile detour to get water.

The following few miles of trail were excellent forested stretches. It was on the part of the trail that we began to run into hunters. We greeted each other cordially. When the Ice Age Trail crossed county road V, it turned west briefly and we followed the Ice Age Trail through a low, swampy area of thigh-high prairie grasses. For a mile or so the trail was muddy from numerous seeps, but it finally gained enough elevation to dump us out at the Butler Lake parking area.

Elevation changes along this section of the Ice Age Trail are pretty insignificant, so don’t expect switchbacks. When there is a climb, you’ll go straight up it.

By now it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and we had backpacked about 16 miles. Stopping here made us realize just how tired we were. The Butler Lake picnic area also had a green hand pump. This time we were successful. So we filled our water bottles for the final push to shelter #3. The first 15 miles the IAT was void of natural water sources. Water is much more plentiful after this point, mostly in the form of lakes (of course, we had no water issues on day two with all the rain).

WARNING: The longest 0.7 trail miles of all time

It was a mile of forested trail to county road F, and another mile or so after that and we reached the spur trail to the Dundee shelter. The spur trail is only a seventh of a mile long, but it seemed to be the longest seventh of a mile in the world. We crossed a gravel road just before the shelter came into view.

Our home for the night, the Dundee shelter. Only had one mouse visitor while we were there

Shelter #3 was pretty nice. It had openings (“windows”) on both ends to allow for a breeze. We kept them closed since it was a little cold. There was a nice fire ring outside. The outhouse was behind the shelter, but it was closer than the other toilets we had seen. As with the other shelters, an elevated bench ran along the inside of it. On one side, the bench was extra wide. Rather than sleep on the gravel floor, we both set up our sleep systems on the bench.

We ate dinner as the daylight disappeared. Kovas fell asleep quickly. I stayed up and listened to first few innings of the World Series. I should mention that we had a good phone signal and access to data nearly the entire trip. It was much warmer that night than the previous one; so much so that I slept part of the night outside of my sleeping bag. I noticed the rain begin about 2:00 in the morning.

18.77 miles the first day


DAY TWO

The clouds kept the sun at bay so long that we got a later-than-we-wanted start. We did manage to eat a little breakfast and get things packed up in good time. I got kind of cold if I stood around too long. It took us a little extra time to prepare ourselves for the rain. We got decked out in hard shells, ponchos, rain kilts, gloves, stocking caps, etc. Electronics were tucked away in our packs and water and food were easily accessible. We were ready to put our heads down a march through the rain.

Day two started blustery with wind and rain. At least it wasn’t freezing.

We got started about 9:00 a.m. and were quickly soaked. Instead of hiking all the way back to the trail junction, we took a right at the closer gravel road knowing the trail crossed it a bit further on. That saved us about 0.75 miles of walking in the rain. When we finally came across the trail, we headed to the right into the woods.

With the rain and wind and cold, the views of the second day weren’t nearly as important as finishing the trail. Unfortunately, it was a day of keeping my head down and making miles. My feet were beginning to hurt and I could tell I had a blister or two forming on my toes. But, I wasn’t willing to stop and fix them up in that weather. Besides, there was no way for me to keep my feet dry and as long as I kept going, they stayed pretty numb to the pain.

You have to find a way to stay positive while hiking 14 miles through sideways rain

The trail made three stream crossings between Division Road and Mauthe Lake. They were out of their banks when we passed them on bridges. These were the only creeks we passed in the 32 miles of trail. With 14 miles to get to the car, we didn’t stop for the first five. We got out of the rain for a few minutes by huddling in the restroom at the Mauthe Lake recreation area. We also filled our water bottles there.

A mile further we took a quick snack break at shelter #2. This shelter sits on a high hill overlooking the East Branch of the Milwaukee River valley. It was the most scenic of the shelters on this section of the Ice Age Trail, and the canopy of yellow maples made for a wonderful fall scene. The longer we sat around, the colder we got and the less numb my toes got, so we got back on the trail rather quickly.

The Ice Age Trail winding through the forest near New Fane.

For the next three miles we made good time. These were nondescript sections of trail that either traversed a forested area or subjected us to high winds and rain. At the New Fane trail intersection, there was a sign indicating we had 5 miles to go (we were at mile 26.5). There are a number of social trail in the New Fane area of the Ice Age Trail, so watch for signs and consult your map.

The rain helped strip the trees of their leaves on day two.

I began pacing us at this point. We ended up hiking the rest of the day at just under three miles per hour. The final five miles were very nice. I tried to make more of an effort to soak in the surroundings. It reminded me of the first few miles of trail the previous day. About one mile from the car we passed the spur trail to shelter #1. I couldn’t see it from the IAT and with so little trail left in those conditions, I had no intentions of a spur hike. With the last mile came the hardest rain of the day.

The Ice Age Trail has mileposts, which are easier to find when you’re not looking for one.

We passed a final green hand pump not far from where the Ice Age Trail kicked us out onto highway H. Getting back to the car required a short road walk on the highway. Finally the car came into view. We dumped our packs in it and celebrated finishing the backpacking trip.  It was a great trail. The weather detracted a little, and impacted our ability to explore on the second day. Of course, weather difficulties only add to the accomplishment and type-II fun.

14.54 miles on day two

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