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Explore Up North: The Ice Age Trail

The autumn leaves are falling fast, and winter is knocking at the door. But with temperatures expected in the upper 60s this weekend, October is extending its invitation to celebrate fall. Join WXPR’s Erin Gottsacker on the Ice Age Trail for this week’s Explore Up North.

Yellow leaves flutter to the ground like snowflakes, but instead of blanketing the woods in a soft white, the Ice Age Trail is covered in crunchy color – burnt orange, blazing red, fading gold.

The sound of the wind whipping through trees mingles with the rush of the river.

I’m hiking the Grandfather Falls segment of the Ice Age Trail, about 12 miles north of Merrill.

It’s the highest waterfall on the Wisconsin River, but online reviewers are quick to point out that the falls don’t feature an epic drop. Rather, the river drops gradually, tumbling over rocks, foaming and fizzing, swirling and swishing, before calming, returning to a steady saunter on its journey south.

The well-worn trail along the river here is just a blip of Wisconsin’s thousand-mile Ice Age Trail.

“Every segment is a little different, so that’s what’s really cool,” says Amy Lord, the outreach and education manager with the Ice Age Trail Alliance. “It’s a great way to see Wisconsin any season, but now that we’re in October and those fall colors are here, it’s a lovely time of year to be out.”

Starting in St. Croix Falls to the west, the Ice Age Trail snakes east through Lincoln and Langlade counties before plunging south, around Madison, then back up to Sturgeon Bay.

It’s a roundabout path, but it’s not random. It follows the outline of a long-ago glacier.

A map showing the route of the Ice Age Trail.
National Park Service
A map showing the route of the Ice Age Trail.

People have been hiking the Ice Age Trail since it was established in the 50s. The first thru hiker completed it in July of 1979. Ever since then, hundreds of people have followed suit, flocking to the trail and the communities nearby.

“We actually have millions of users. Over 2.3 million people use the Ice Age Trail on an annual basis,” Lord says. “We want our trail communities to be a destination for hikers.”

The Ice Age Trail Alliance formalized this symbiotic relationship between the trail association and surrounding towns through its Ice Age Trail Community program. Through that program, the trail alliance promotes the communities along its route and, in turn, the communities promote and care for the Ice Age Trail.

The newest community to join the Ice Age Trail Community program just a few weeks ago is Merrill.

“We know a lot of our hikers use Merrill as a hub,” Lord says. “So, they come to Merrill, they stay for a few days and then they’ll go explore the trail and hike segments close by during the day.”

And there is no shortage of Ice Age Trail hikes around Merrill, Lord says.

From the 1.2-mile Alta Junction segment to the 14-mile Harrison Hills trip or the Grandfather Falls stretch I’m hiking, each segment of the Ice Age Trail offers a glimpse into the natural world of Wisconsin.

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Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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