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When the country’s last ice sheet melted away more than 12,000 years ago, it left calling cards across the Midwest. Chief among them are the deep kettles and lofty hummocks I’m puffing up and down here in the Harrison Hills. This 15.6-mile section of the Ice Age Trail only has 3,000 feet of gain and loss, but with near-constant dips and bursts, the elevation profile looks more like an EKG. I pause to catch my breath after cresting another hill, 1,920-foot Lookout Mountain, the highest point on the 1,200-mile long path. Thick stands of oak and maple mean there’s no view, but that’s not the point here. From this pile of ancient rubble, I can sense how massive the once-2-mile-thick glacier was—and how it shaped a hiker’s dream.
Turn-by-turn from 1st Lake Road
1) Busy Friday? Enjoy a late start as this route’s first leg is just 2.4 miles: Head south and west on the Ice Age Trail en route to 5-acre Chain Lake.
2) Next day, continue 7.4 miles past a dozen glacial pools and across Lookout Mountain to Bus Lake.
3) Close the segment by hiking 5.8 miles southwest to County Rd. J, passing summer-ripe raspberry bushes along the way.
Campsite 1: Chain Lake (mile 2.4)
This first-come, first-serve spot sits on the southern shore of Chain Lake, a quick jaunt from the trailhead. Only a few tents fit, though surrounding oak and ash trees are great for slinging hammocks. Don’t forget your rod: Chain Lake is rich with catfish, walleye, and northern pike.
Campsite 2: Bus Lake (mile 9.8)
Nab this spacious clearing (first-come, first-serve) on the shore of Bus Lake, the last campable pool on this route. Watch for beavers splashing at twilight, and wake early to see sunrise over the water.
A six-member wolf pack (at latest count) roams here; listen for the predators’ howls at dusk. Also look for black bears, white-tailed deer, and grouse.
DO IT Shuttle car 45.3518, -89.5594; 17 miles northeast of Merrill on County Rd. J Trailhead 45.4337, -89.4251; a 24-minute drive north of the shuttle car on 1st Lake Rd. Season May to October Permit None Custom map ($15) Contact
Distance 15.6 miles (point to point)
Time 3 days