When it comes to getting the inside scoop on the quietest spots in Wisconsin's Northwoods, there's just one source I trust: the state's widely roaming timber wolves. The wolves send a clear signal when a place—like the headwaters of the Yellow River—meets their high standards. They raise their pups there.
After just such an endorsement, I spent 4 days hiking the Ice Age Trail in the Yellow River area. Along the way, I found a glacier-scoured mosaic of hemlock groves, verdant wetlands, clear-running rivers, and so much wildlife you'll be dazzled, even if you don't see a wolf. Bald eagles circled over the streams while river otters left tracks on the banks. The primeval bark of sandhill cranes echoed across the marshes and a romping fisher crossed my path. I even spotted a goblin fern, a rare and otherworldly 4-inch-high gremlin that sprouts on the sheltered forest floor.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail corkscrews across Wisconsin from east to west, offering a 600-mile geology tour through the erratics, eskers, kettles, lakes, and drumlins left by receding glaciers. (Pick up a free Ice Age Trail brochure at the Medford Ranger District to bone up on your glacial vocabulary.)
My favorite weekend route, the Jerry Lake segment, starts at the North Fork of the Yellow River and winds southwest through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Thirteen shady, solitary miles later, the trail meets Jerry Lake, where you can leave a car if you don't want to double back.
Add 5 miles to your trek by taking the Chippewa Lobe Loop. The side trail passes near a remote lake frequented by wood ducks and great blue herons. Pitch a tent here and muse about the twin beaver dams at the lake's outlet, an engineering feat that probably took generations to craft. Just be sure to bring earplugs if you're a light sleeper. Somehow, I had forgotten how loudly a beaver slaps its flat tail on the water. I wonder if the wolves really have found peace and quiet here.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Ice Age Trail, Wisconsin
DRIVE TIME: The Jerry Lake segment is 2 1/2 hours (about 160 miles) east of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and 4 hours (240 miles) northwest of Milwaukee.
THE WAY: From Medford, take WI 13 to WI 64, then drive west 4 miles on
WI 64 to County Highway E. Turn north on E and go 26 miles to Forest Service Road 102. Continue 1.6 miles west (200 yards past the North Fork bridge) and park.
TRAILS: The Ice Age Trail winds for 42 miles across the Medford Ranger Dis
trict. The Jerry Lake segment, combined with the Chippewa Lobe Loop, makes a good 18-mile point-to-point hike (car shuttle required). Waterproof boots and trekking poles are useful for creek crossings.
ELEVATION: The trail is at a shade under 1,400 feet, with almost no elevation change.
CAN'T MISS: The impressive hemlock grove south of the South Fork crossing.
CROWD CONTROL: Solitude prevails on the Jerry Lake segment. The Ice Age Trail is closed during the gun deer-hunting season (usually the week of Thanksgiving). Use caution and wear bright colors during other fall hunting seasons. Check with rangers for hunting season dates.
SEASON: The Jerry Lake segment typically is snow-free from mid-April to late October. Beware of bugs in early summer.
GUIDES: Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation (IAPTF) Jerry Lake Segment #61 map ($1), or Forest Service map Ice Age National Scenic Trail (free), both available from the IAPTF (see Contact below).
WALK SOFTLY: Lakes and streams are abundant, so be sure to camp at least 200 feet from water.
CONTACT: Medford Ranger District, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, (715) 748-4875; www.fs.fed.us/r9/cnnf. Ice Age Park
& Trail Foundation, (800) 227-0046; www.iceagetrail.org.