Felsenmeer

The Blue Hills Felsenmeer State Natural Area is one of many unique geologic features to be incorporated into the Ice Age Trail through a 17-mile reroute project. The area has multiple felsenmeers, the German word for “sea of rock.”

Fall is prime time for hiking, especially in Wisconsin’s wildest places, like the Blue Hills in the heart of Northwest Wisconsin.

However, many of the Blue Hills natural wonders—unique rock formations, canyons, waterfalls, felsenmeers—are almost inaccessible to hikers.

But the Ice Age Trail Alliance is seeking to change that with a 17-mile reroute of the Northern Blue Hills Segment over the next several years.

Anyone wanting to visit Snow Falls, Gundy’s Canyon or the Blue Hills Felsenmeer—translates as “sea of rock” in German—either needs to be skilled at orienteering, a highly-ambitious bushwhacker or know someone who can navigate the way on old logging roads and unmarked paths.

But the new Ice Age Trail “Dream Route” would change that. Access to these features would be well-mapped and marked with yellow blazes on the increasingly popular Ice Age Trail.

“The Blue Hills are one of the most remote, rugged, and geologically unique areas in Wisconsin. It feels like a hike you’d find in a big wilderness area or national park,” said Sue Greenway, a Cumberland resident who is on the IAT board of directors.

Such features include the Spring Creek Felsenmeer State Natural Area, Harris Felsenmeer, Devil’s Elbow rock formation, the Devil’s Kettle waterfall and many more.

When the Ice Age Trail was originally marked, these areas were bypassed.

“When these segments of the Trail were originally created—almost single-handedly by UW-Eau Claire professor Adam Cahow during the early 1980s—the path of least resistance was taken,” said Greenway.

This enabled the trail to be completed quickly, but also meant following many old tracks—old farm roads, skid trails and game trails—through mostly county forests, and some private land.

“It’s not the best path geologically speaking, or in terms of a hiking experience,” said Melissa Pierick, IAT director of marketing and community relations.

She said the Ice Age Trail was established to highlight the geological effects of glaciation, so incorporating these unique features fits that mission.

Pierick also said many of the bridges and boardwalks on the existing segment are deteriorating and becoming safety concerns. Rather than just replace them, a more ambitious project lies ahead.

Dreams of a reroute trace back at least a decade.

Several route options were made by a student at UW-Eau Claire for a class project 10 years ago, involving least-cost analysis and Geographic Information System (GIS). Over the following several years, volunteers and Ice Age Trail Alliance staff explored these routes, making refinements. Two Trail Layout and Design events were held in October 2020 and May 2021 with up to 20 volunteers, further refining possible routes.

A final route has not yet been set in stone.

“There is still much work to be done to identify the best, most sustainable route that fits the natural setting and is within Rusk County Forest management practices,” said Greenway. “The reroute would be completely on county forest land, eliminating road walks and providing a more wilderness hiking experience. It would increase hiking usage, public visibility and interest.”

Pierick said increasing use of the Ice Age Trail, including the Northern Blue Hills Segment, accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When people had not much else to do, they discovered the trail,” she said.

Social media and traditional media have increased visibility, especially during Emily Ford’s end-to-end hike of the entire 1,200 mile trail this past winter.

The Ice Age Trail Alliance had 1,716 new members join in 2020, bringing the total to more than 5,500.

The planned Northern Blue Hills reroute promises to make the segment one of the premier hiking spots on the IAT and perhaps even in the entire Midwest.

But moving the existing route further west to incorporate the remote geological features will take time.

“There is no firm timeline in place for completion,” said Greenway. “Actual trail construction will follow completion of compliance protocols and would start in 2023 at the earliest. It’s estimated the trail construction phase will be a three-to-five-year project depending on funding.”

Pierick said the route needs to be finalized and environmental impact studied.

But the new trail will be built to minimize impacts like erosion.

“Due to the scope of this project, professional trail crews as well as volunteer trail crews will be required,” said Greenway.

Reroutes are fairly uncommon for the Ice Age Trail, especially at this scope. Just this fall a reroute of the Ringle Segment in Marathon County was completed. The newest 1/2-mile section took 1,972 volunteer hours, and the entire 5-mile reroute took 5 years. New boardwalks on sections in Washington and Waukesha counties were among other recent projects.

At 17 miles the Northern Blue Hills Segment will be “a major project,” said Pierick.

One way to help contribute to the project is to join the Blue Hills Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance. For more information, contact Fred Nash at 715-353-2948, email BlueHillsChapter@iceagetrail.org or visit www.iceagetrail.org/volunteer.

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