Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Top 10 U.S. Long Distance Hiking Trails

By Drew Hanson

On Monday The Guardian ran a story under the heading, “Top 10 long-distance hiking trails in the US.” Having hiked parts of most of these and many other trails, this hiker likes The Guardian’s list.

above the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails,
Cathedral Range, CA, 1999
Some of the trails on the list are well known, like two outside of Wisconsin I’ve explored the most: the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail. While the Appalachian Trail is of course also listed it is a few of the lesser known ones that I'd like to give a little more attention.

I was glad to see the Ozark Highlands Trail on the list. Two of my four Ozarks trips included hikes on portions of this fairly unknown trail. It is especially awesome to explore in spring while the redbud and dogwood are in bloom.

Seeing the Long Trail on the list brought to mind some of its fall line routes up the side of one Vermont-version-of-a-mountain and down the fall line of the other side. A friend and I spent a memorable night at The Inn At Long Trail, which offers the sort of hiker services a few more trails need.

There is one small correction I would make to The Guardian’s write-up on the Ice Age Trail. It states, “Only a handful of people hike the entire trail each year.” Actually 50 people completed the entire Ice Age Trail in the past 4 years. That’s more than who hike some of the other trails on the list. If you look at the 5, 10 or 20 year trend line, the rate at which people are completing the entire Ice Age Trail is going up. Someday more people will hike the entire Ice Age Trail than perhaps even the Appalachian Trail.

The Guardian article is major news for the lesser known trails. The international newspaper based in England has a daily print and online readership of over 9 million. In 2012 its online edition was reportedly the third most widely read in the world. If you live near one of the lesser known trails but are not involved in any way with them, this news should be a hint that you might be missing something. The lesser known trails are not crowded to hike and could likely use your support to make them even better.

If ten or twenty years ago you had a mediocre experience on one of the lesser known trails, it is time you come back for a second hike. I strongly recommend hiking any Ice Age Trail segment constructed by the Mobile Skills Crew in the past dozen years for it is these segments built using advanced design and construction techniques that are an absolute pleasure to hike and undoubtedly part of the reason the IAT landed itself in such worldly news.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Best Hiking in Dane County (Someday)

By Drew Hanson

There are some nice places to take day hikes in Dane County. The Montrose, Lodi Marsh and Table Bluff segments of the Ice Age Trail are some of the best. But I think these will all be eclipsed someday at an area between Madison and Cross Plains known as the Cross Plains Reserve.


One of the questions a person might ask about the Cross Plains Reserve is, “What’s so special about it?”

The person who knew the area of the Cross Plains Reserve best was Frederick Thwaites. His 1908 master’s thesis was on the geology of the Cross Plains, Verona and Middleton areas. He worked for a period doing fieldwork in southern Wisconsin for eminent glacial geologist William Alden of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Most of his distinguished career—38 years—was spent teaching geology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he authored the standard textbook on glacial geology that was used by college students around the United States for decades.

Not surprisingly, Thwaites and Ice Age Trail founder Ray Zillmer corresponded with one another. Click here for the text of a letter Zillmer sent to Thwaites in 1958.

When the National Park Service was studying Ray Zillmer’s proposal for an Ice Age National Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the body of work by Frederick Thwaites factored heavily in their research. Specifically, with his master’s thesis focused on the area and years of leading geology classes on field trips through the area, Thwaites was the undisputable expert on the area of the Cross Plains Reserve.

In 1961 National Park Service geologist Robert Rose completed a report on areas under study for an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin. The following excerpts from his report, “Preliminary Geological Report on 1961 Field Study of Proposed Ice Age Area in Wisconsin”, clearly outline the uniqueness of the area he called the moraine-driftless area, between Madison, Verona and Cross Plains.

“This report is based on a field study conducted during the last half of April, 1961. Its purpose is to identify and describe more specifically the more important segments considered in a proposed area of the National Park System which would feature the story of continental glaciation in America.

Among the localities or segments evaluated there are four which are regarded as basically essential in the adequate presentation and interpretation of the story. These so-called key areas are: Kettle Moraine [Northern Unit], the moraine-driftless area near Cross Plains, the Devils Lake-Baraboo Range segment, and Interstate Park.

The driftless area of Wisconsin is world famous because it is an unglaciated area of considerable size … lying far within extensively glaciated territory.

Several eminent geologists who have been consulted are unanimous in the view that a segment embracing a good example of the moraine-driftless area relationships is highly essential [emphasis added] in illustrating the story of continental glaciation. With the completion of each field study, beginning with the initial reconnaissance of 1958, the desirability of including such a segment becomes more firmly recognized.

The relationships between moraine and bedrock of sedimentary origin are most strikingly exhibited in an area of about 9,000 acres immediately south and east of Cross Plains. Within this area rugged morainal ridges belonging to the Wisconsin [Glaciation] occur while the strikingly eroded margins of the driftless area lie immediately to the west and south. In brief, this key area is a self-contained unit scenically and scientifically.”

A few years later the Cross Plains Reserve was chosen as a unit of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, and is most special, because of its two broad landscapes that sit side by side. It is a landscape crossroads with a several hundred million year old landscape on one side and a roughly 15,000 year old landscape on the other.

Since features associated with moraines are common and well-represented along other segments of the Ice Age Trail, the critical role that the Cross Plains Reserve must fill in completing the Ice Age story, i.e. its purpose, is to showcase “the strikingly eroded margins of the driftless area”. To succeed the Cross Plains Reserve must contain a representative portion of the Driftless Area which means the boundary of the Cross Plains Reserve must be expanded.


The 9,000-acre conservation area proposed by Robert Rose, as no doubt envisioned by Ray Zillmer and Frederick Thwaites, cannot be seriously contemplated today. People’s homes are not going to be included. But the current acreage under public ownership does not encompass the nationally significant story of the place. Therefore it should be enlarged as current owners are ready to sell. First, lands to the northeast, north and northwest that cover key parts of the Black Earth Trench should be added. This east-west valley was a glacial river that once drained the area where the city of Middleton and western Lake Mendota now sit. Second, much of the Driftless Area bounded by county highway P and Mineral Point Road should be added. Most important is the Great Dividing Ridge. Finally, a corridor of land along the west side of Timber Lane is needed to protect pro-glacial Coyle Pond and provide an off-road connection for the Ice Age Trail.

In addition to Robert Rose’s 1961 report, support for an increase in public ownership of this area is provided by at least two recent conservation planning documents. One is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Wisconsin Land Legacy Report which highlights the importance of Shoveler Lakes–Black Earth Trench. Described on page 195, it is one of 229 places identified as important “to meet Wisconsin’s future conservation and recreation needs.” Another is Dane County’s Parks and Open Space Plan which identifies a large area as the Black Earth Creek Natural Resource Area. See pages 26-29. The area "consists of land that is specifically set aside for the protection of a valuable natural environment and/or greenbelt corridor that were identified through a public process."

A dark cloud of new homes at the Cross Plains Reserve
Unfortunately a couple large new homes were recently built on former farm land within the current Cross Plains Reserve boundary. The land for the homes had been purchased from a previous farmer by a developer who made a handsome profit. Such short-sighted dealings need to be preempted by future public agency land acquisition if the integrity and national significance of the Cross Plains Reserve is to be preserved.


The name "Cross Plains Reserve" (i.e. "Cross Plains Unit of the National Scientific Reserve") does not represent the place very well. Although it is a landscape crossroads (hinted at in the "Cross" part of the current name), "Plains" is completely contrary to its landscape. Forty years ago, before there was any public land at the place and when the idea for the place was only a concept, it was convenient to name it after the nearby town. The current name has served the place well enough but now inhibits its growth and development.

The name should be changed to something meaningful and inspiring. The name should give the place standing and context within the National Park System and State Park System of Wisconsin. A couple years ago I recommended re-designating it Driftless Border National Monument. If the President fails to act on this proposal, the name could be administratively changed to "Driftless Border Reserve" (i.e. "Driftless Border Unit of the National Scientific Reserve").


There are currently no official trails at the Cross Plains Reserve, err, Driftless Border National Monument. But the Ice Age Trail will someday pass through the area which is part of the largest roadless area along the Trail in Dane County. Click here for background on Ice Age Trail roadless areas.

In time, other loop and spur trails and primitive campsites will be added. All told, it could become the best hiking in Dane County and perhaps in all of southern Wisconsin.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Move Reveals Walk Score Flaws

by Drew Hanson

We moved recently. The new house provides us a higher quantity and quality of nearby walks. But rates it 32 points less walkable than our former home. That’s not right.

A couple years ago an article appeared here which bemoaned a decrease in daily walks. Posted at, it ended with the goal of a life with walking recast in a central role. We now have that. But in the process of finding our new home, flaws in the “walk score” used by many real estate web sites were uncovered.

According to Walk Score’s website, “Walk Score measures walkability on a scale from 0 - 100 based on walking routes to destinations such as grocery stores, schools, parks, restaurants, and retail.” The web tool “measures the walkability of any address using a patented system. For each address, Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5 minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points. A decay function is used to give points to more distant amenities, with no points given after a 30 minute walk. Walk Score also measures pedestrian friendliness by analyzing population density and road metrics such as block length and intersection density. Data sources include Google,, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community.”

Sounds good. So how could my old address receive a walk score of 77, or “very walkable”, while my new address scores only 45?

My old address was on a busy, commuter street through a traditional neighborhood with houses close to each other and the street. Weekday traffic counts averaged over 10,000 cars per day. Its two lanes of traffic were narrow and book-ended by on-street parking on both sides. Traffic tended to include a fair number of aggressive drivers who sometimes unsafely passed slower or turning traffic on the right or left. Getting in and out of a car’s driver’s side while it was parked on-street was scary thanks to unruly drivers—especially when trying to get a child in or out of a car seat.

Because of the preponderance of disrespectful, unsafe and unlawful driving habits on our former street, about half of bicyclists rode on the sidewalk instead of in the street which further diminished its walkability. There were four automobile-related deaths on the street within three blocks of the former house in the past ten years. For these and other safety reasons, we rarely let our children play in the front yard or walk unchaperoned to neighbors’.

From the former house, walking our kids the half-mile to elementary school involved crossing our own busy street plus a street that carried 14,000 cars per weekday. There were no signalized crossings of our street and drivers rarely stopped for pedestrians entering a crosswalk.

Our new home is in a less densely populated neighborhood even though houses on our block are as close or closer together as they were at our previous address. Fewer than 1500 cars pass our new home on an average weekday. Our children are now free to play in the front yard and walk alone to neighbors’ as far as five houses away.

Whereas a walk to the library from the former house took 3 minutes, it now takes 20. Whereas a walk to the pharmacy from the former house took 4 minutes, it now takes 24. Within 5 minutes of the former house were two restaurants we liked and within 20 minutes were several more. We have to walk 12 minutes from the current home to arrive at a restaurant we like, 24 minutes to a second one we like and more than 30 minutes for any others.

For a hardware store, however, it is a 13 minute walk from the new house. A walk to a hardware store from the former house was more than 30 minutes. The former house was closer to most commercial amenities but the walk to many of them meant the unpleasant hassle of crossing and/or walking along our street.

Walking our children to school is where things get more interesting. Like the walk to their former school, the new one is about a half-mile away. But instead of crossing a street with 10,000 cars/day with aggressive drivers who rarely yield to pedestrians and a second busy street with 14,000 cars/day, we now have to cross a boulevard with 22,000 cars/day. This would be six in one, a half-dozen in the other were it not for the fact that drivers on the boulevard very often yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in a non-signalized crosswalk. Accounting for such driving habits is missed by Walk Score.

The most significant difference in walks between old and new is the presence of more nature near our new address. There are more and larger parks, trails and native trees. Our former street terrace was dominated by less interesting young-to-mid-aged locust and ash trees while our new street and neighborhood have many inspiring mature oak and maple. Our former address had parks nearby but they were mostly small or with more developed areas like baseball fields. Our new address is near a large nature park and a walking/biking commuter greenway that are both great for walking. As discussed at sites like and, walks in nature are good for our physical and mental health. An accurate walk score would account for these factors.

In general, Walk Score apparently omits several positive and negative attributes of good walking. The score seems to be based overwhelmingly on simple distance measurements.
Walking/Biking Path and Greenway Behind Our New Home
As an aside, also provides bike scores. But this rating can be inaccurate too. Riding a bike on our former street was unpleasant at best. Amazingly our former address received a bike score of 99 for “biker’s paradise”. That’s just wrong. By comparison, our new street is nice for biking and our backyard is along a walking/biking path that extends for tens of miles in each direction including to the downtown of our city of a quarter-million residents. Our new address garners a probably accurate bike score of 89.

Walk Score may know something about New Urbanism. But people who know walking know there is more to walkability than proximity. For families with young children shopping for a different home or anyone attuned to walk quality, beware of potentially misleading Walk Score (and Bike Score) numbers.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In Search Of…Chamberlin Springs

by Drew Hanson

When the opportunity to spend a summer in Beloit, Wisconsin came along a few years ago I jumped at the chance. Beloit is, after all, home to the keystone figure in Ice Age Trail pre-history, Thomas Chamberlin. Learn the back story in An Unwitting Ice Age Trail Pioneer.

The loss of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs and Balkanization by neighboring Town of Beloit and Beloit Turner School District put the City of Beloit on a path of decline. If you are looking for fixer-upper real estate, the City of Beloit is your market. But this is not classic rustbelt. Wisconsin’s oldest college continues to breathe life into this proud city.

Beloit College is where Chamberlin earned his undergraduate degree and later worked as a professor. My summer included cherished walks around the charming college and stately nearby homes, truly outstanding city parks like Leeson, Horace White and Big Hill and an old cemetery called Oakwood.

Chamberlin family plot at Oakwood Cemetery
Around mid-summer I chanced across a booklet describing walks in and around Beloit. It included a plug for a place called Chamberlin Springs. I was intrigued. But we failed to find it on our one attempt. On my mental list of mysteries to unravel and outdoor nooks to explore it remained.

So I was thrilled when I only recently found John Morgan's article on none other than Chamberlin Springs. He had unraveled the mystery!

Enjoy the fascinating story, Chamberlin Springs Stages a Comeback.

Has restoration made a pilgrimage to Chamberlin Springs a real possibility? My feet are itching to find out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

America’s Most Popular Winter Hike is an Economic Beacon

With Lake Superior beginning to melt, the most popular winter hike in the United States is closing. The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that during the two months of safe ice conditions over 135,000 people walked the frozen 5 miles required to view the ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

On the busiest Saturdays, over 10,000 people made the trek. Some had to park their cars 2 miles from the trailhead, which extended their hike to 9 miles plus whatever hiking they did at the caves.

National Park Service photo
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, famous for its natural beauty and lighthouses, is located at the northern end of Wisconsin. It is comprised of a 12-mile section of mainland and 21 islands in the largest expanse of freshwater in the world.

Lake Superior is the coldest, deepest, and highest in elevation of any of the Great Lakes. Part of a billion year old mid-continent rift, the bottom of Lake Superior is actually the lowest point in North America (yes, lower than California’s Death Valley). To walk on its frozen surface is a sublime pedestrian experience protected by the prohibition on snowmobiles, ATVs and fat-tire bicycles within a quarter-mile of the ice caves.

National Park Service photo

It just goes to show that lots of people will walk miles for a high quality experience, even in winter.

Bayfield Regional Conservancy photo
Hotels and restaurants within 40 miles of the ice caves are enjoying an economic boost thanks to throngs of tourists. According to NPS estimates, in just two months visitors to the ice caves pumped $10 million to $12 million into the local economy.

Whoever said hikers don't spend money?!

For more information, check out what the smart people at the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau have put together at