While most of us use roads to reach a trailhead, one of the reasons we go hiking is to leave roads behind. The quality of our hiking experience is in part judged by the degree to which our hike brings us into contact with roads and other signs of civilization. When roads are a prominent part of the experience, I suggest that what we are doing is more like walking than hiking. But this isn’t an essay on semantics. It is about experience.
The current Ice Age Trail route includes over 1,300 road crossings. For an American hiking trail, that is a big number but most of the crossings are clustered in communities that the Trail passes through. As you walk the Ice Age Trail through Manitowoc, Slinger, St. Croix Falls and the other cities crossed by the Trail, you cross many streets.
On the other hand, most off-road segments pass through areas with significantly lower road densities. Some of the off-road segments even pass through places that might be considered roadless areas. This is an introduction to the larger roadless areas along the Trail.
Inspired by The Big Outside, by Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke (Harmony Books, 1992), in August, 2008, I completed an analysis of roadless areas along the Ice Age Trail. I used the best Geographic Information System (GIS) data available at the time. The effort evaluated all areas bounded by public roads along the Trail. The result was a poster map titled, “Largest Roadless Areas on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail”. It shows roadless areas that are greater than five square miles (3,200 acres). The map shows that there are few roadless areas over this five-square-mile threshold in southern Wisconsin. But in northern Wisconsin there are quite a lot. I’ve posted the map here in four parts.
The largest roadless area along the IAT is between Tower Road and County Highway E in western Lincoln County at a whopping 92 square miles. For Wisconsin, that’s big! Adding to its remoteness, it is part of a cluster of roadless areas that I call Spirit Wood. It is located northwest of Wausau, between Highway 102 in Taylor County and the Wisconsin River in Lincoln County. Hiking the Ice Age Trail across Spirit Wood takes you 40 miles without crossing a single paved road. The September, 2008 edition of Backpacker magazine ran a story titled Destination Nowhere which highlights the most remote, solitude-promising places in the United States. They missed Spirit Wood so I wrote an essay about it that appeared in the January, 2011 edition of The Muir View and the Summer, 2011 edition of Mammoth Tales.
The Ice Age Trail through the Chequamegon National Forest has several roadless areas over five square miles including one that is 14 square miles which contains the Ice Age Semi-Primitive Non-Motorized Area.
A sampling of other roadless areas (from east to west) includes:
-The area containing Besadny State Wildlife Area in Kewaunee County at over 11 square miles;
-The area bounded by Mineral Point Road, Timber Lane, Old Sauk Pass, Stagecoach Road and Highway P that contains part of the Cross Plains National Scientific Reserve in Dane County at 5.5 square miles;
-Old Indian Agency House to Clark Road in Columbia County at 5 square miles;
-The area containing Quincy Bluff in Adams County at 20 square miles;
-Highway N to Poplar Lane in Marathon County at 9 square miles;
-Highway S to Highway 52 in Langlade County at 45 square miles;
-Bear Avenue (west) to Highway 102 in Taylor County at 14.5 square miles;
-Moonridge Trail to Highway CC in Chippewa County at 12 square miles;
-The area containing Straight Lake State Park in Polk County at 8 square miles.
In designing or discussing individual places along the Ice Age Trail, we always like to highlight traits that make each one special. The very lack of roads in these roadless areas makes these places special. As urban or park development is proposed along the Trail, we should endeavor to minimize the number of new road crossings, especially in these larger roadless areas.
In the hundreds of years to come, if we are to maintain the Ice Age Trail as a place to go for a hiking experience (especially a long-distance hiking experience that is rare in the north central United States), there must be larger roadless areas along the route. These places are special. If we want our great-grandchildren to have outstanding hiking opportunities in Wisconsin, we need to keep these roadless areas special by not building roads into them.