Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The Ice Age Trail at Devil's Lake © DAVE CALIEBE

Stone steps leading up the bluffs were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.
© Dave Caliebe

December 2013

A devil of a hike

From bluff top to lake edge, through forest and prairie, the Ice Age Trail at Devil's Lake has it all.

Brooke McGee

Spanning over 1,000 miles, Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail takes you along a tour of our state's fascinating geological history. Bordering along ridges and craters, the trail is a tour through ancient formations carved into the landscape millenniums ago. One of the most marvelous stretches of the trail encompasses Devil's Lake State Park.

A mere blink in earth's history, the last North American Ice Age period, also known as the Wisconsin Glaciation, reached our state roughly 26,000 years ago, according to the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey. The majority of the northern and middle parts of Wisconsin were left to nature's mercy as powerful, creeping ice sheets flattened and pushed the land, dramatically modifying much of what we see today. The end moraine, the boundary where ice finally submitted to earth, is the magnificent, proud route that the Ice Age National Scenic Trail beckons you along.

One particular segment highlights these compelling forces in a condensed, intriguing display of variety. The Devil's Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail meanders through shaded forest trails, skirts around meadows of wildflowers and wild grasses, and includes the impressive Eastern and Western bluffs with their steep stone staircases, guiding you twice up and down staggering 500-foot quartzite cliffs.

This segment of the Ice Age Trail caresses the edge of ancient Devil's Lake, formed by prehistoric retreating seas and rerouted river channels created by nature's forces and melting glacial ice. Before the last Ice Age, a river ran through the Devil's Lake valley. As the glacier melted, it deposited dams of rocks and earth at the two open ends of the valley, leaving Devil's Lake between the two glacial “plugs.” The Eastern and Western bluffs offer magnificent views of the powerful effect the glacier had on the area.

Devil's Lake State Park is the largest state park in Wisconsin and is adjacent to Parfrey's Glen, the state's first designated natural area. At over 10,000 acres, one can easily see the reason for the magnetic draw to the park. Open year-round, hiking and camping facilities are available to the adventurous public at any time.

Hike any time of year

Depending on the season, the Devil's Lake segment of the Ice Age Trail can be completed between sunrise and sunset. A half day would be adequate for the avid hiker, though much can come into play. Being amidst the amazing backdrop of Devil's Lake State Park, a full day of leisurely exploration and an early start is recommended.

Early-summer hikers are treated to an abundance of raspberries lining the paths, while late summer rewards you with a bountiful offering of blackberries. Chipmunks and finches, scattering from your presence, will undoubtedly be a part of your memory. Along the way you'll usher past maple, hickory and majestic oak trees as you take in views that must be seen to truly appreciate.

Touring the trail in the fall, you'll get to experience the seasonal display that Wisconsin is so well known for. Falling submissively into the arms of the earth, nature's colors surround you as the wind gently urges them from their branches.

Months featuring snow and more inclement weather may present a challenge to those who choose to hike the trail. Winter's fury, left to its own design, can quickly create a hazard and much is left as nature lays it. Hikers need to take heed on areas that could be treacherous when adorned with snow or ice.

Along the trail

Two hikers on the Ice Age Trail in winter. ©J.R. SCHMIDT
The trail is fun to hike in any season.
© J.R. Schmidt

Despite the seemingly long distance of the Devil's Lake segment, many benefits accompany the hike. During the summer and fall, camp stores are open and offer groceries, camping items and other concessions — opportunities that do not typically accompany such a substantial Ice Age Trail segment. Intrusion into the park's more popular areas is brief, protecting you from the visiting majority. Public restrooms and fresh water are available while you skirt around the lake and main park area.

Though leisurely and gentle at times, the trail does not mock the experienced hiker. Steep inclines, daring plunges and meandering hills await those who wish to experience it. Well-packed earthen paths, exposed tree roots and quartzite steps, as well as bumbling, hilly dips and drops are a part of the treat.

Daily efforts to maintain the trail are handled by park staff at Devil's Lake, along with the help of the Friends of Devil's Lake State Park and the Baraboo Hills Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

For larger projects, additional trail maintenance is provided by the Ice Age Trail Alliance and their Mobile Skills Crew. Mobile Skills Crew (MSC) members assist statewide through coordinated volunteer efforts that aid in the construction of new trail segments and preserve pristine trail conditions. In October 2012 the MSC rerouted a section of Ice Age Trail in Roznos Meadow that was prone to wet conditions, and in April 2012, an MSC project was held on land adjacent to Devil's Lake State Park in the Merrimac Preserve to reroute a trail section, and to add a couple clear span bridges, a retaining wall and a boardwalk.

Camping at the park

A great way to experience the trail is to also camp at the park. Devil's Lake is one of the most popular state parks in Wisconsin and camping reservations are strongly recommended. There are some campsites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but they typically fill up quickly, especially in the summer. Due to the park's popularity, all sites fill up regularly on weekends and hikers are encouraged to plan well ahead if needing a campsite — reservations may be made up to 11 months in advance of your trip.

The park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The visitor center and nature center hours vary by season. If the main office is closed, pay stations are available which allow for self-registration. Daily or annual vehicle admission stickers may be purchased and are accepted statewide at all other state parks, state natural areas and state forests. All areas and parking lots at Devil's Lake require a vehicle admission sticker. National Park passes are also valid for admission to Devil's Lake because the park is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve.

Follow the yellow blazes

Ice Age National Scenic Trail

The Department of Natural Resources works with the National Park Service and the Ice Age Trail Alliance to develop and maintain the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. For more information about the Ice Age Trail, please see:

The route of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin is marked by yellow blazes. The Ice Age Trail at Devil's Lake utilizes several of the park's trails, and because other trails connect to or crisscross the Ice Age Trail, these blazes help let hikers know they are still on the Ice Age Trail. The Roznos Meadow, East Bluff, Balanced Rock, West Bluff, Johnson Moraine, Upland and Sauk Point trails are all part of the Ice Age Trail.

The entire distance of the Ice Age Trail in Devil's Lake State Park is about 14 miles. There are several parking lots and places to access the trail in the park. Hikers can choose to hike the entire length or try a smaller section. If you would like to make a loop hike around the lake using the Ice Age Trail, you can use the connecting Upland Trail which makes for about nine miles of hiking.

Though it's only a small portion of Wisconsin's grandiose Ice Age National Scenic Trail, the Devil's Lake segment is one which can be marked off your map with pride, a segment truly worthy of the reputation that defines the trail.

Brooke McGee writes from her home in Portage. She is a freelance journalist who loves to spend summers outdoors with her husband and children exploring some of Wisconsin's best kept natural secrets.