Crispy cheese curds, flowing craft beer, and Green Bay Packers football may be among Wisconsin’s signature prizes, but for the outdoor lover, a lesser-known novelty should be on the radar: the Ice Age Trail. Snaking the entire width of the state, this 1,200-mile scenic trail stakes its claim as one of the longest continuous hikes in the Midwest.
Instead of towering mountain peaks or granite rock faces, rolling hills and symetrcial valleys with exposed ridgeline characterize this quintessential Midwest hike—the result of a dramatic geological phenomenon some 20,000 years ago, when the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin resembled a giant ice sheet, hence the trail’s name. As the glacier began to melt, flowing streams tunneled beneath the surface of the ice, depositing large amounts of rock, gravel, and sand across the landscape. Hikers today will find the results of this geological shift take form in sloping valleys, expansive ridges, and cone-shaped hills called kames.
In early spring, thru hikers hit the Ice Age Trail to beat the seasonal rush. Car campers book sites at popular campgrounds like Devil’s Lake and Pinewoods throughout the summer. Foliage hunters head out ahead of the snow to catch maple leaves in full color during autumn. And during winter, hikers trek in snowshoes and cross country skis across snow-blanketed trails.
No matter what season it is, eight backcountry Adirondack-style shelters, a unique feature of the trail, keep hikers coming back. Reservable, remote, and modest huts are hard to come by, even in outdoor meccas like Colorado and Washington. But with the right planning, backpackers in this region of the Midwest can enjoy a hut-hopping adventure full of solitude in the backcountry of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine.
A three-day, two night weekender is highly recommended, as the distance between trials (an average of five to six miles) makes for a nice day hike with a relaxed pace. Hikers will relish the chance to sleep in and enjoy hut life, complete with morning coffee on the front bench and massive natural fire rings to cook breakfast.
The best out-and-back backpacking trip suited for weekend warrior types connects the Dundee (#3) and New Fane (#2) Shelters located in the Kettle Moraine—Northern Unit. Along the way, the occasional run-in with local species including hawks, white tailed deer, and sandhill cranes is to be expected. But that’s the beauty of backcountry hut-hopping along the Ice Age Trail: exploring miles and miles of secluded trail, punctuated with wildlife encounters and wide open spaces.
Hut-Hopping Dundee (#3) and New Fane (#2) Shelters
Hikers craving a remote weekend, especially locals looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, Madison, or Milwaukee, will enjoy a three-day, two-night stint of hut-hopping between the Dundee and New Fane Shelters. Here’s how to do it.
Day One: Starting the trip on Friday afternoon, park at Butler Lake Recreation Area and climb the wooden steps at the edge of the Butler Lake parking lot that lead up to the ridgeline of the Parnell Esker, which is one of the region’s most prominent glacial ridges. The sweeping view along the backbone of the ridge offers a bird’s-eye glimpse of Butler Lake, which is surrounded by Kettle Moraine evergreens and maples on all sides.
Continuing along the ridgeline, the trail will start to drop down into the forest around mile 1, where hikers will find themselves surrounded by hardwoods and low-lying shrubs. During winter, fiery orange and yellow leaves, remnants of the fall season, peek through the empty patches on the forest floor—a result of the thick tree canopy that keeps snow in certain areas from piling up. In the summer, seasonal ferns and saplings poke through the ground and near the trail. Vibrant moss also guides the way, carpeting the outskirts of the pathway.
Once hikers reach the 2 mile mark, they’ll be greeted by a fork in the trail. At the intersection, veer right to head towards the Dundee hut. The path in this section of the trail weaves through a forest areas with tall grass. A clear view of the hut will be blocked, but as hikers make their down the 0.7 mile trail branch, they’ll eventually run into Dundee Shelter (#3).
The shelter has thick log walls, with a set of windows hinged windows on either side of the hut. Double-wide benches line the width of the interior, while hooks along the ceiling are perfect for hanging a lantern or damp clothing to dry overnight. Tipped-over tree trunks surround a large stone ring out front of the hut, beckoning hikers to relax around the campfire.
Day Two: In the morning, hikers can enjoy a morning coffee on the front stoop of the cabin while gazing at the dense hardwood forest, with evergreens peeking through in the background. After cooking breakfast over the open fire and packing up, hikers should retrace their steps 0.7 miles back out to the Ice Age Trail intersection and turn right to head south for approximately 6.1 miles to the New Fane Shelter (#2), just south of Mauthe Lake.
This section of trail includes rolling hills, with exposed roots spilling across much of the path. The path is worn and very easy to follow. The Ice Age Trail is also very narrow, but void of brush, shrubs, or branches that tend to snag hikers on more vegetated hiking trails. This section is the Ice Age Trail’s most remote stretch, and hikers will likely all reach the New Fane Shelter (#2) without running into any others along the way.
Although it’s secluded like the Dundee Shelter, the New Fane Shelter sits on an outcropping of an elevated ridge. Hikers will enjoy views over a steep valley that drops down about 50 feet from the shelter’s front door. On clear mornings, the eastward rising sun peeks through the hut’s front door, offering a slice of warmth for campers in the morning light, even in the heart of winter. Not bad for an early wake-up call.
Day Three: After a morning enjoying a remote view over the Mauthe Lake-area valley, retrace your steps for a longer last day to return over approximately eight miles of hills and ridges to the Butler Lake Recreation Area parking lot.
If You Go
The Ice Age Trail huts are sparse log cabins located in Wisconsin’s eastern half. Five shelters are scattered within Kettle Moraine—Northern Unit and three within Kettle Moraine—Southern Unit, and the four-sided, open-door huts provide protection from the elements and sleep up to 10 campers. Wooden sleeping benches line the interior of each shelter, a fire ring sits out front, and a pit toilet is on site at every location—all welcomed luxuries for the traditional backcountry camper. Huts must be reserved ahead of time by calling the reservation hotline (bookings cannot be made online). Ice Age Trail backcountry huts tend to book up quickly, especially in spring and summer, so plan in advance to secure a cabin ahead of a weekend or extended backpacking trip.
Winter hikers should remember to pack crampons, as the rolling hills along the Ice Age Trail make for slippery, up-and-down stretches. In addition, the worn-down trail tends to pool water, which freezes in the cold weather and leaves an icy pathway. Summer hikers should remember to fill up water bottles at each trailhead, which are the only locations along the trail with pump-access water provided.
Written by Erica Zazo for RootsRated.