Boardwalks

Plans progress on 17-mile Ice Age Trail reroute project

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Fall is prime time for hiking, especially in Wisconsin’s wildest places, like the Blue Hills in the heart of Northwest Wisconsin.

However, many of the Blue Hills natural wonders—unique rock formations, canyons, waterfalls, felsenmeers—are almost inaccessible to hikers.

But the Ice Age Trail Alliance is seeking to change that with a 17-mile reroute of the Northern Blue Hills Segment over the next several years.

Anyone wanting to visit Snow Falls, Gundy’s Canyon or the Blue Hills Felsenmeer—translates as “sea of rock” in German—either needs to be skilled at orienteering, a highly-ambitious bushwhacker or know someone who can navigate the way on old logging roads and unmarked paths.

But the new Ice Age Trail “Dream Route” would change that. Access to these features would be well-mapped and marked with yellow blazes on the increasingly popular Ice Age Trail.

“The Blue Hills are one of the most remote, rugged, and geologically unique areas in Wisconsin. It feels like a hike you’d find in a big wilderness area or national park,” said Sue Greenway, a Cumberland resident who is on the IAT board of directors.

Such features include the Spring Creek Felsenmeer State Natural Area, Harris Felsenmeer, Devil’s Elbow rock formation, the Devil’s Kettle waterfall and many more.



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Devil’s Elbow rock formation. 








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The Devil’s Kettle waterfall. 






When the Ice Age Trail was originally marked, these areas were bypassed.

“When these segments of the Trail were originally created—almost single-handedly by UW-Eau Claire professor Adam Cahow during the early 1980’s—the path of least resistance was taken,” said Greenway.

This enabled the trail to be completed quickly, but also meant following many old tracks—old farm roads, skid trails and game trails—through mostly county forests, and some private land.



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A scene on the current Blue Hills Segment. 



“It’s not the best path geologically speaking, or in terms of a hiking experience,” said Melissa Pierick, IAT director of marketing and community relations.

She said the Ice Age Trail was established to highlight the geological effects of glaciation, so incorporating these unique features fits that mission.

Pierick also said many of the bridges and boardwalks on the existing segment are deteriorating and becoming safety concerns. Rather than just replace them, a more ambitious project lies ahead.



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Creek crossing on the Northern Blue Hills Segment. 






Dreams of a reroute trace back at least a decade.

Several route options were made by a student at UW-Eau Claire for a class project 10 years ago, involving least-cost analysis and Geographic Information System (GIS). Over the following several years, volunteers and Ice Age Trail Alliance staff explored these routes, making refinements. Two Trail Layout and Design events were held in October 2020 and May 2021 with up to 20 volunteers, further refining possible routes.

A final route has not yet been set in stone, but it planned to be on public land exclusively. 

“There is still much work to be done to identify the best, most sustainable route that fits the natural setting and is within Rusk County Forest management practices,” said Greenway. “The reroute would be completely on county forest land, eliminating road walks and providing a more wilderness hiking experience. It would increase hiking usage, public visibility and interest.”

Currently, the Northern Blue Hills Segment includes little road hiking, except in one area where a private landowner cut off access to the trail due to concern about hunting and associated liabilities. 

“The Alliance left the relationship on good terms with the landowner,” said Pierick. “We are grateful to all private landowners who allow the Trail onto their property. The Alliance urges all hikers to be considerate of the privilege of hiking on private land. We ask that all hikers stay on trail, keep dogs leashed, and follow leave no trace principals.” 

Pierick said increasing use of the Ice Age Trail, including the Northern Blue Hills Segment, accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When people had not much else to do they discovered the trail,” she said.

Social media and traditional media have increased visibility, especially during Emily Ford’s end-to-end hike of the entire…

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