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.
QUICK TAKE: Blue Hills Recreation Area, WI
DRIVE TIME: The Blue Hills are in northwestern Wisconsin, about 250 miles (5 hours) northwest of Madison and 120 miles (21/2 hours) east of Minneapolis/St. Paul.
THE WAY: From the town of Weyerhaeuser (located on US 8 about 16 miles west of Ladysmith) take County Road F for 7 miles north to Stout Road. Park your vehicle at the end of Stout Road to access the Ice Age Trail and points beyond. The Ice Age Trail is also accessible from the following Rusk County roads: Old 14/Bass Lake Road, Bucks Lake Road, and Bolgers Road.
TRAILS: Besides the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, there are two Blue Hills Trails (East and West sides) that were developed by the Rusk County Trail Association. Together, the trails loop for 20 miles through a wide variety of landforms. They are located 10.5 miles north of the town of Bruce off Fire Lane Road.
ELEVATION: Ranges from a high of 1,729 feet at the site of the Blue Hills fire tower (about 6 miles north of Weyerhaeuser) to a low of 1,220 feet where the Ice Age Trail crosses Pigeon Creek near Red Cedar Lake.
CAN'T MISS: Fall colors reach their peak in late September or early October. The cool green of hemlock and spruce seem to heighten the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows.
CROWD CONTROL: There are usually some hikers on the Ice Age Trail, but most other sections of the Blue Hills are all but deserted. In autumn, backpackers share the Blue Hills with hunters.
PIT STOP: If you love a great breakfast, visit Maxine's, a restaurant located on the far-south side of Rice Lake, or the Back Door Cafe, in downtown Ladysmith.
WALK SOFTLY: A number of endangered plant species live among the Blue Hill's felsenmeer, slopes of broken talus created by fractured quartzite bedrock. Tread carefully.
MAPS: The USGS 7.5-minute topo maps needed to encompass the Blue Hills include Bucks Lake, Becky Creek, Edgewater, and Mikana. Contact MapLink; (800) 962-1394.
MORE INFORMATION: A $10 permit is required for overnight camping and can be obtained in advance by contacting the Rusk County Forestry Department, 311 Miner Ave. East, Ladysmith, WI 54848. The Rusk County tourism office will answer any questions you may have about the Ice Age Trail and the Blue Hills region; (800) 535-7875. Also, the Rusk County Trail Association maintains a helpful Web site: http://www.wi.centuryinter.net/bluehills/index.htm.