Trails Through History: The National Ice Age Trail

By Carla Charter

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WISCONSIN – At the time of the ice age, parts of Wisconsin were covered with ice, several miles thick. “It flattened and sculpted a good amount of the state, according to Lysianne Unruh, Communications Coordinator for the Ice Age Trail Alliance.  Visitors can hike through this unique landscape which follows the last glaciation, thanks to the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

The trail was the brainchild of Ray Zimmer, an active outdoorsman and lawyer from Milwaukee, who had explored the wildlands of northern Minnesota, mountaineered in remote areas of the Canadian Rockies, with Mt. Zillmer in the Cariboo Range being named in his honor, and followed the development of the Appalachian Trail. He envisioned a similar long-distance trail highlighting the land forms left by the ice age glaciations in Wisconsin. In 1958, Zillmer founded the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation (now the Ice Age Trail Alliance) to begin efforts to establish to establish this trail.

In the early 1970s, the Ice Age Trail Council was formed to carry out Zillmer’s vision for a long-distance hiking trail. Older trails on public lands, such as the Glacial Hiking Trail in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest, became building blocks for the Ice Age Trail.

Volunteers constructed new trail segments along much of the remaining route. Many of these new segments were built on private land after volunteers received handshake agreements with the landowners. In 1990, the Ice Age Trail Council merged with the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation and changed its name to Ice Age Trail Alliance.  On October 3, 1980, President Carter signed the law which established the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Among the Ice Age landforms that hikers can encounter on the trail include Eskers which are long rock and sand deposits creating sizeable hills. as well as Erratics, pieces of rock differing in size and shape of from the rocks around it. These Erratics were pushed there by glacial ice.  The trail does follows path of the last glaciation.

The Eskers were mined for their sand and gravel until very few Eskers remained. “Here you can walk on top of the Eskers which creates a deeper connection to the earth around us.   It creates opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors while walking through a piece of history,” Unruh continued.

Following the de-glaciation, as the temperatures warmed and ice melted, people and animals, including Mammoths and Mastodons, moved into the state, Unruh said.

“The trail helps us understand the history of the state and encapsulates it in our land forms. Anytime you can have a grasp of the forces and the landscape around you, you are more likely to care for that landscape,” she added.

More information on The Ice Age Trail Alliance can be found at