Section Hike of the Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine, WI

A 31 mile segment of Wisconsin’s 1,200 mile long distance trail, the Ice Age Trail, passes through Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Southern Unit. Here the trail makes its path through wooded moraines, hardwood forests, prairie restoration areas, oak savannas, and wetlands. To complete the entire segment requires 2 – 3 days, staying at designated shelters along the way.

For my first attempt at a backpacking trip, a plan was made to begin a 15 mile hike at The Blackhawk Segment, (which trimmed 5 miles off the complete segment), stay overnight at Backcountry Shelter #2, and finish 11 miles to end at Pinewoods Campground the following day. The state forest employee who registered our itinerary had never seen it done before. And yet, even with a late start (we stepped onto the trail at 1:00pm) I thought we would arrive at the shelter around suppertime, a bit tired, but feeling good. We only stopped three times. A 10 minute break to swallow some PB&J, 20 minutes at Bald Bluff Scenic Overlook to rest our feet and soak in the view, and another 20 at Horse Rider’s Camp to refill water containers and wonder why we weren’t done yet.

This 4th of July happened to be quite a hot day with rare breezes (I think I counted five all day). It was the first time my clothing has ever been wet from sweat. The mosquitoes in the forest sections kept us moving quickly. I looked like a bank robber, handkerchief wrapped strategically to keep the bugs off my neck and face. Red, black, and jack pine were welcome breaks from the denser foliage of the deciduous forest. Chipmunks darted and scattered throughout the day as we disturbed them. Despite their small size, they are really loud. One wild turkey (hunting is popular here in the autumn season) disappeared into the brush with surprising speed and agility. Black oaks, open meadows, and high ridges overlooking fern-filled kettles were neat features of the varying landscape. The hike itself was enjoyable, but didn’t seem to want to end.

With our estimate of 3 miles from the endpoint of day one, the sun faded and lightning bugs began to join us in the nighttime forest. Their soft yellow flashes were a rather different and subtle kind of fireworks display. Some other strange insects in the meadow farther along appeared to glitter silvery white when hit with the light from our head lamps. By this time my feet implored me to stop, but where was that shelter? Still another mile we thought, even though it sure felt like we must have hiked that mile. The Ice Age Trail is well-marked with yellow blazes so it was unlikely we had missed the turnoff for the spur trail. I told my feet to shut up and kept on moving. Moving felt better than standing. Now it was fully dark as the trail entered back into thick woods. I can actually see a lot in the dark, I thought. We all managed not to trip over our own feet, tired as they were, or any roots and boulders on the path.

Oh, we found it at last – one last uphill 0.2 miles (liars, it was at least 0.5). Shelter #2, a three-sided wooden structure with simple open windows, came into view at about 10:00 pm. The picnic table (somewhere to sit!) and fire pit (smoke may keep the mosquitoes away) were welcoming sights. We dined on hot Virginia peanuts, dry salami, pepper jack and Macaroni & Cheese. I recalled the elevation gained and lost during the day while elevating my feet. How nice it can feel to simply take off a boot. 11 miles to go. I could think about tomorrow’s hike now that I had a bit of rest. It was difficult to tell how everyone was feeling and we would wait until morning to decide on our plans for finishing those 11 miles. Coyotes howling woke me once or twice in the night, but I quickly fell back asleep in our cozy tent inside the shelter.

Day Two Status of Hikers:

Dennis – 1 fever/runny nose (not allergy related), 1 splinter, 1 bad night’s sleep.

Natalie – 1 blister, multiple sore muscles.

Mark – 1 super heavy pack, 1 tweaked foot from previous injury.

Mom – 1 plan to hang out in nearby Stoughton for music festival and fireworks.

All – generally worn out, the miles could be done, but enjoyment of the day would be minimal.

While striking camp, we decided to abandon the thru-hike plan. A one mile hike retraced our steps from last night across the field, wildflowers popping in the early morning sunlight. A parking lot at the Emma F. Carlin trailhead just off Highway Z seemed a good location to try to catch a ride to our car at Pinewoods Camp. After a few unsuccessful attempts (everyone was arriving to ride their mountain bikes on these particular trails), I opened the guidebook to see how far it might be to walk to another area. In the Ice Age Trail Guidebook, I found something better – the telephone number to a hostel, the Eagle Home Hostel, quite close to our current location. Bill answered, arrived within 30 minutes, loaded us and gear into his car, and drove us back. We passed by his brick farmhouse on the way, which looked like a lovely place to spend a night off the trail. Perhaps on a winter hike? After washing up at Pinewoods, we picked up our second car from the starting point and found ourselves a delicious country breakfast in the town of Palmyra. Only 1,185 miles left to complete the Ice Age Trail. . .

Things I Now Know:

15 miles on a winding, twisting, up and down trail, is a lot more than 15 miles. Especially the last one. The maps don’t count the squiggles!

3L of water can disappear faster than you think.

1L of water can last longer than you think.

An early start is smart.

Always wear long pants and a shirt with sleeves.

Wild turkeys make weird noises.

People with horses are friendly.

When carrying around a large pack, others are interested and tend to ask questions.

I love my Smartwool socks.

Even when you’ve done all the research, you can be surprised.

Backpacking is for badasses.

Kettle Moraine Southern Unit Map

Ice Age Trail Guidebook – Kettle Moraine Southern Unit


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