By Julia Hunter
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
More than 12,000 years ago, glacial ice sculpted much of Wisconsin's unique landscape. The state's famed Ice Age Trail takes hikers on a journey that follows the edge of the last glacial retreat, and its many overlooks help illuminate this story while offering magnificent countryside scenery.
If you look closely enough, you'll be transported back in time to an era when saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths roamed the earth. But no matter your scientific background (or lack thereof), these five scenic hiking trails in Wisconsin will reward you with some of the most gorgeous landscapes the state has to offer.
This steep ridge just west of Madison formed more than a million years ago. Just outside glacial boundaries, the area that once resembled Alaska's Arctic Coast is covered with endless wildflowers and oak savannas.
Hiking south from Table Bluff Road, trail-goers are rewarded with splendid natural views along the way before coming upon a dramatic overlook that provides panoramas of the Driftless Area. Pause and allow the rugged surroundings to awaken your inner adventurer.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, is perched atop a highland along the Ice Age Trail. The kame—a hill formed when water carried sand and gravel down a crack in the glacier—offers bird's-eye views of the entire Kettle Moraine. It's one of the largest such formations in the world and, on a clear day, the sights stretch on for more than 20 miles.
For the best look, climb the church's 192-foot spire, which is open to the public much of the year. Be sure to check the basilica's website for weather- or maintenance-related closures. Most importantly, don't forget to snap some photos to make the extra steps worthwhile and remember this one-of-a-kind Wisconsin experience!
From the north, hikers traverse through a giant tunnel channel—a valley carved out by a river that once flowed under the ice—to make their way up to the ridge above Straight Lake. As the trail emerges from the tunnel, it winds around to panoramas of the 107-acre body of water.
The setting in Wisconsin's newest state park, founded in 2002, is especially peaceful because access to the property is limited to foot traffic only. Enjoying this quiet gem, you'll feel like the keeper of a magnificent secret.
Climb this 60-foot tower to peek above the wooded terrain's treetops for a glimpse of the world-famous Parnell Esker, a narrow, winding, four-mile ridge southwest of the overlook. Sculpted by streams that flowed through channels at the base of the glacier, depositing limestone, granite and other pebbles, the formation supplies a look at the debris of the last Ice Age.
This highlight along the Ice Age Trail also provides another perfect spot for a photo op, high above the surrounding forest and farmland.
For thru-hikers, the tower at the eastern terminus of the Ice Age Trail serves as the beginning or end of a nearly 1,200-mile journey. Situated on top of a 150-foot bluff, Potawatomi State Park's 75-foot observation tower provides awe-inspiring views of Sawyer Harbor, Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay.
The heavy, powerful sheets of glacial ice carved out the basins of the Great Lakes, which were then filled with meltwater. Notches on the rock nearly 100 feet above the coastline are evidence of the ancient shorelines.
At the western end of the trail, visit Interstate State Park for a view of Minnesota and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Unique potholes formed here when rocks caught up in the swirling glacial meltwater acted as drills, boring large holes into the bedrock.
Want even more scenic overlooks to explore? Check out Gibraltar Rock, Mecan Springs, Brady's Rocks and Lookout Mountain on the Ice Age Trail Alliance website's maps and guidebooks page.
Also, don't miss the eight scenic Wisconsin spots we handpicked for Instagram shots that will make your followers jealous!