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As Manny the woolly mammoth and his pals Diego, Sid, and Sprat trudge through the harsh chill (of criticism) descending upon Ice Age 2, don't forget you have the option to experience a similar drama outside the movie theatre, minus the popcorn and Junior Mints.
Wisconsin's fabulous Ice Age Trail will take you back more than 10,000 years, to a time when the immense glaciers that periodically covered parts of North America began once again to melt and recede. The trail generally follows the last stopping point, or terminal edge, of the most recent glacial advance.
Previous glaciers had extended further south into the Midwest, and of course many other glaciers made their marks elsewhere in the world – but few glaciers left behind as much conspicuous evidence of their presence as the last one did in Wisconsin. Here the great shifting ice sheets reshaped the landscape into specific, recognizable forms like moraines – ridges of sand, silt, rocks and boulders released when ice melted at the edges of the glaciers – and kettles, or lakes formed when blocks of ice detached from the glacier were buried in debris, and later melted. The flowing ice gouged and scraped the bedrock, leaving striations in the stone, and depositing elongated hills of glacial debris called drumlins. (FYI: Wisconsin's State Capitol is perched on one of these.) Bedrock striations and the drumlins' long axis indicate the direction the ice flowed.
Here's an abbreviated glimpse of the route. The trail's eastern head lies within Potawatomi State Park on Green Bay. It follows the crests of eskers (long, narrow ridges of coarse gravel deposited by streams flowing in melting glaciers), heads south through the lovely hills and valleys of Kettle Moraine State Forest, and tracks the terminal moraine in Dane County.
The trail divides just north of Devil's Lake State Park in Baraboo. The western branch passes the Dells of the Wisconsin River, formed by glacial meltwater, and crosses the flat bed of glacial Lake Wisconsin. The eastern branch follows the moraines through Columbia and Marquette counties, and rejoins the western branch in the Chaffee Creek Fishery Area.
The trail continues north to Langlade County, an area rich in glacial lakes and bogs. In Lincoln County, you'll hit the high point of the trail – 1,875 feet – on Lookout Mountain, followed by a rugged segment in the Chequamegon National Forest in Taylor County.
The trail crosses the high quartzite shoulder of the Blue Hills in Rusk County, winds through the dairy country of Barron and Polk counties, and reaches its western end in the Interstate State Park Ice Age Reserve Unit and the spectacular gorges at the Dalles of the St. Croix River.
When it is complete, the Ice Age Trail will meander across more than a thousand miles of Wisconsin's glacial landscape. Today about 640 miles of the trail are open for use. Hikers can find food and accommodations in the small communities and towns near the trail.
Whether you have a spare afternoon for a stroll or a full week to wander, take time for a late-summer trek on the Ice Age Trail. Experiencing the glaciers' handiwork at close range is bound to keep you cool. And nowhere else in the world do rushing streams and quiet lakes, the bogs and marshes, the broad oak openings, the hills forested in maple and birch speak so eloquently of their icy origins.