The Path Ahead: Wisconsin's Long-Distance Trails

By Judith Berger
Special to

They’re called “ultras,” trail runners who tackle the Ice Age 50, the Kettle Moraine 100 and the Glacial 50 – long-distance races that wind through the state. But for them, it’s much more than the challenge of conquering distances or taking part in races. It’s about connections, spirituality, and the unending beauty of Wisconsin’s trails.

Kathleen Rytman of Cudahy has been running trails for several years. At 39, she completed the Chippewa Moraine 50, a 50-kilometer run of the Ice Age Trail in Chippewa County.

But it’s the section of 1,100-mile trail that creases the Northern Kettle Moraine that she loves. The four-loop trail totaling nine miles can be challenging.

“The Ice Age is gorgeous throughout, but the area around Greenbush near Plymouth has gorgeous lookouts, different terrain and great wildlife,” she says, recalling a bobcat sighting. “When you’re out on the trails in the morning, the mist hangs in the air and you watch the sun come up. It just catches your breath.”

Rytman, who has run trails throughout the country, says, “There is no more beautiful place on Earth than the Ice Age Trail in any weather in any season.”

Throughout the state the Ice Age Trail is clearly designated with yellow-post markings.

The Nordic Trail in the Southern Kettle Moraine is a nine-mile trail with interior loops that is practically in John Zinzow’s backyard. The trail in LaGrange is ideal, he says.

“It has wetlands and waterfowl, meadows, hills and oak savannahs. Wisconsin’s glacial topography is just breathtaking.”

It’s clear that it’s the encounters with nature that drives Zinzow, 61, to the trails. Zinzow has spotted coyotes, and he says he and his Siberian husky, Aspen, have had a wolf encounter.

The Kettle Moraine is steeped in American Indian history, says Zinzow. “There are trails in the state that we use today that were carved by Native Americans ... For thousands of years, Bald Bluff on the Ice Age Trail was a sacred place. This high ground drops into a deep kettle below where the winds gather. It’s a very spiritual place.”

The trailhead for the Nordic Trail in the Southern Kettle Moraine is clearly marked and located about two miles north of U.S. Highway 12 and county Highway H. There is a large paved parking lot. On the right is the Nordic Trail; on the left is the John Muir Trail. The Ice Age Trail runs adjacent to both.

For JoDeen Hettenbach of Madison, being out on trails is about relationships. Growing up in Blue River, her dad and grandpa taught her the names of wildflowers and trees as they wandered the trails around Eagle Cave. And she and her husband ran trails in La Crosse together when they were college sweehearts.

Hettenbach has been trail running for 19 years and says her favorite annual event is buying her state park pass.

“It's the nicest gift I can give myself.”

Depending on the time of day, deer, sandhill cranes, opossums, owls, fox, hawks and eagles can be seen on her outings. When she’s out with her children, she is sure to see something, she says. “They seem to find bugs and crawly things, and don’t hesitate to look under rocks and logs.”

She runs the trails in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum surrounded by prairie, woodlands, marshes, ponds and girlfriends. “It's a time for us to re-connect and really talk about things,” says the 44-year-old mother of two.

Hettenbach saves the six-mile loop of Indian Lake trail for her Sunday runs. “There’s a tiny old chapel that sits atop an overlook where you can see the lake and the valley. There’s a journal inside where people who stop along the trail can jot down their thoughts. It’s a very special place.”

About five miles north of Madison, the main entrance to Indian Lake County Park is located on state Highway 19, about two miles west of U.S. Highway 12.

Hettenbach is dedicated to the relationships she has nurtured out on the trails. And when she is alone, she reconnects with herself.

“It’s just me, the trail, nature ... I lose track of time out there, but find myself.”

If you go

Keep a comfortable pace. Be aware of uneven or obstructed trail terrain. In the fall, leaves obscure trails. In winter, trails can be icy.

What to take: Wear appropriate shoes or hiking boots; take water, a cell phone (for emergencies), energy food (banana, energy bar), sunscreen, a hat and trail map, if you’re unfamiliar with the area.

Don’t forget a camera. You’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before.

Judith Berger is a freelance writer based in West Allis. Content produced in cooperation with Wisconsin Trails,