The steep grades made the hike challenging, but the huffing and puffing had an upside: Every rest break was an opportunity to savor the incredible views. In the distance, lines of blue ridges melted into the horizon, although below us the dark green stands of spruce and hemlock offered a cooling contrast to the forests of maple trees that were engulfed in a firestorm of bright autumn color.
Down in the valleys the view was more restricted but no less inspiring. Gin-clear streams rolled over rocky streambeds, tumbling through damp, cool glens. Shaded by overhanging trees, the streams were ideal habitat for trout. The hillsides were carpeted with bracken ferns, and where enough sunlight filtered through the forest, blackberry bushes and flame-colored sumac thrived.
We were hiking through a wild and rugged part of northwestern Wisconsin known as Paja Toyela, or “Blue Hills,” to the Woodland Sioux tribe. The remnants of an ancient mountain range worn down by wind, water, and time, the Blue Hills rise 500 feet above the surrounding plain and cover 60,000 acres, much of which is county-owned forest that is open to the public.
Laced together by a labyrinth of old logging roads and bisected north to south by almost 24 miles of the Ice Age Trail-a 1,000-mile path that follows the glacial formations and activities that shaped the Badger State-the Blue Hills are ideal for backpacking. You can stay on the Ice Age Trail as it dips and winds its way along streams and ridges, or get creative and bushwhack to total seclusion. Because of the ruggedness of the country, anyone going off-trail must be competent with map and compass.