An overlook from the trail at Table Bluff peers 200 feet down across a gravelly outwash valley formed during the melting of the glaciers. For we are near the divide where parallel bluffs mark, on one side, the end moraine of rubble pushed along by the last glacier and, on the other, the defiant limestone outcrops of the Driftless Area that never submitted to the great ice.
Table Bluff, located just northwest of Cross Plains, Wisconsin, is a small but noteworthy segment of the 1,100-mile Ice Age Trail (IAT) that winds from northwest to southwest Wisconsin, then pivots toward a northeast bent, roughly following the final edge of the glacier.
IAT is a national scenic trail, one of eleven across the U.S. that includes such well-known giants as the Appalachian Trail. Established in 1958, the trail is managed by the nonprofit Ice Age Trail Alliance and is maintained by volunteers along its corridor. Parts of the trail are owned variously by nature organizations, private landowners, state and county parks and forests, and the IAT Alliance. Almost 800 miles of an anticipated 1,200 miles are signed and open to the public, with the remaining miles on connecting road walks.
On an early winter day, I spoke with Mike Wollmer, Executive Director of the IAT Alliance, at the organization’s headquarters in Cross Plains. One difference Wollmer sees between the IAT and other national scenic trails is that Wisconsin’s never strays far from local communities. “We value the communities the trail passes through,” Wollmer says, adding that “meeting landowners and people in trail communities is part of the experience of hiking the trail.”
Indeed, twelve “trail communities’’—towns and cities along the path, including Cross Plains—act as unofficial hosts. The trail has been “woven into the fabric of these towns,” says Wollmer, a factor that contributes to the vast volunteer network that assists the handful of full time Alliance staff.
Over 2,600 volunteers in local chapters contribute 82,000 hours per year maintaining the trails by mowing, clearing fallen trees, restoring habitat and more. “Volunteers are our eyes and ears, telling us about weather damage and potential properties for sale,” adds Wollmer. They advocate for the trail in their communities, increasing its presence on maps and promotional plans.
Although 180 hikers are known to have completed the entire route, including two who ran the trail in twenty days, most walkers are not interested in records. “You’ve got to ‘hike your own hike,” says Wollmer. Most people walk short segments of the Trail rather than straight-through. It can even be good for a quick mental release: “You can yell at a tree and just keep walking!”
Or you can, like Wollmer, meet your spouse on the trail and marry her there, too.
My hike at the Table Bluff segment resulted from Wollmer’s advice on how to fill the remainder of an afternoon. The trail here runs 2½ miles through the 73-acre Holmes Preserve, owned by the Alliance, and on through a 460-acre site owned by a local group called the Swamp Lovers.
Table Bluff offers a mix of open prairies, oak savannas, stream valleys, and steep forest ravines. Big bluestem grasses top out above eye level on the highland prairies. A hardwood forest snuffs out the sunlight where it swallows the trail. The trail lulls a while through the woods before switch-backing in swift descent to the wide glacial outwash valley and ascending again into another thick forest with impressive overlooks.
Ten thousand years ago the valley rushed wide and deep with runoff from the nearby melting glacier. When the meltwater receded, it left behind a thick layer of pebbly sand. Today’s remnant creek gallops along through a thin slice of the valley.
This valley wetland and surrounding forest inspired four local friends to purchase and preserve the land over thirty years ago, says Lee Swanson, one of the four. The property’s former farms were quite small and the land not that productive. Gently mocking themselves for buying agriculturally “unproductive” land, they called themselves the “Swamp Lovers” to celebrate the preservation of the property’s rich wetlands. The group put the land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and began to plant native prairie and encourage regrowth of dormant native plants.
When one of the four owners was tragically killed in a plane crash, the remaining three began to consider what to do with the land on a permanent basis. The Wisconsin DNR suggested they talk with a land trust that could preserve the property they had fallen in love with. “The IAT stepped up with a solution and we put a conservation easement on the property and set up a foundation to support it,” says Swanson. The Swamp Lovers site will be deeded to the Alliance within the next few years.
The Table Bluff segment of the IAT links to the town of Cross Plains via low-travelled Scheele Road, one of many such on-road segments. Maybe one day the trail will be entirely off-road, but in the meantime, says Wollmer, hikers say the backroads segments are part of the overall experience where they often meet adjacent landowners.
The trail enters Cross Plains along Main Street and passes alongside several local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses before pausing at the IAT Alliance headquarters. It loops briefly north of town and then exits along Black Earth Creek, flowing through another glacial outwash valley.
The town of Cross Plains takes its name from the intersection of early roads headed to Green Bay and Madison. But here on the Ice Age Trail along Black Earth Creek, in full view of the parallel ridges of the glacial moraines and the Driftless bluffs, Cross Plains might as well have been a command, or a siren song, calling hikers to the Ice Age Trail.
-- March 2019