Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ice Age Trail: Grandfather Falls Segment

While sipping my morning coffee, I pulled out my Wisconsin Gazetteer to find a place to go hiking today. (If you are an adventurer or road-tripper, I highly recommend you go get one - you can find them at most gas stations and even Wal-Mart.) So after perusing various pages, I found a sweet spot. Since I've never hiked any part of the Ice Age Trail before, this seemed like the perfect time to start. And after today's hike (which was *awesome*), you can expect a series of Ice Age Trail reviews to come.

This segment of the trail is located about 10 minutes North of Council Grounds State Park along Hwy. 107. The marker on the map was for Camp New Wood County Park and there was a dotted line next to it indicating a trail for the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. I figured it would be worth a shot to check it out, and if it was a bust, we could always go back to Council Grounds.

The winter has not been kind to Hwy. 107 and the drive was pretty bumpy. But the scenery made it all worthwhile. Halfway between Council Grounds and the Grandfather Falls Segment is a peak marker on the map for Ninemile Hill; there is a momentary but spectacular view of the Wisconsin River Valley from the top of this hill. Also there are two pick-your-own strawberry farms on this stretch of road ~ Engelberry Farms and M&M Strawberry Farm ~ so if you end up checking out this trail in June, make sure to leave time to get some strawberries!

Upon arriving at the  Camp New Wood County Park, I realized the parking lot had not been plowed and had to put the Jeep in four-wheel-drive so as not to get stuck. There is alternate parking across the road (with a plowed parking lot) for the Merrill School Forest.

The park itself has pit toilets, playground equipment, covered picnic shelters and plenty of parking. Down the trail a little ways, there is another pit toilet area and a few campsites... although the road is only about 30 feet from the camping area ~ it may not be the quietest place to camp, but being so close to the Wisconsin River might be worth the trade-off. I'll let you know when it warms up enough to camp!

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the Jeep was how silent it was. So quiet. You could barely even hear the river gurgling. Normally, when we're at parks you can hear the distant sound of a highway or roads or... something. But here, there was only silence. The evergreen branches hung heavy with the newly fallen snow from yesterday and there were stray snowflakes still falling from the white sky.

The trees along the trail are marked with little yellow rectangles so you don't lose your way. I'm not sure if this would even be possible because it's pretty clear where the trail is ~ even with over a foot of snow covering it! Luckily, someone had already hiked this section of trail earlier and the footprints matched my stride perfectly! (I found this person at the end of this section and talked with him for a minute about other trails in the area, and thanked him for leaving nice footprints for me to walk in!).

There are cute little foot-bridges throughout the trail. Because the trail is kind of "cut into" the hillside between the river and the road (above the trail), I'm sure there's quite a bit of water runoff down the hillside that would wipe out the path, or make it impassable if it weren't for these little bridges. In any case, I think they're cute.

I seriously cannot get over how SCENIC it was along this trail. I can't seem to find the right words to bring it to life properly. Instead of taking my word for it and trying to experience it through these photos, I highly recommend you get off the computer and make the road trip out there!

I realize a lot of the beauty today had to do with the blanket of fresh snow on everything, but I can't wait to check out this trail during the different seasons... birds and smell of fresh pine in the spring, camping and swimming in the summer, and the beautiful fall foliage in autumn.

As we got closer to Grandfather Falls, the river got increasingly louder. The babble of water over the rocks of the rapids was so soothing. At the end of this segment is a dam with a portage area for canoes. The trail continues across the river, but we had already hiked 3 miles and needed to conserve our energy to get back to the parking lot. Plus I only brought along one bottle of water and had shared some of it with Charlie (which she didn't drink anyway!) and I knew I was getting dehydrated.

Charlie was definitely much slower on the way back and stopped to chew on sticks along the way. She had been so exuberant when we started the trail, funny how walking through a foot of snow will tire you out so quickly. We had fun though, and that's the whole point.

Even though there was a lot of snow on the trail, I never felt like I was in danger of sliding down the slope to the river below. There were good footholds and if you pay attention to where you're going, you'll do just fine. It is a bit of a challenging hike, but still do-able for beginners. Just make sure you stop frequently to enjoy the view and bring along water so you don't get dehydrated. However, if you're super-afraid of heights, this may not be a good trail for you.
Small bird's nest I saw on the way back ~ tiny treasures!
I've lived in the Wausau area since 1996 and I can't believe how little I know about this part of the state that I call home. I'm so lucky to live in the Wisconsin River Valley where there are many natural resources to explore. I can't say it enough, people, get out there and explore your world... whether it be your neighborhood, your city, your state or any part of the world. Don't miss out on anything!

Exploring, going for a walk, checking out a local park... nature is free, people. It doesn't cost you anything to experience the natural world around you. And the reward is immense.

Happy Hiking!