Hiking the North Country Trail Porcupine Wilderness & Marengo Valley

Marengo Valley from Juniper Overlook

There's often disagreement in the state of Wisconsin as to where Up-North begins. But, there is no argument when you arrive in Iron, Ashland, Bayfield, and Douglas Counties that you are are indeed in the northland. It is through these counties that America's longest national trail, the North Country Trail, passes through. And, it is northland Wisconsin that inspired the trail's name.

The North Country Trail begins in North Dakota and covers 4600+ miles to a trail terminus on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont. Of that total distance, Wisconsin hosts only about 200-miles of proposed footpath. The trail is not yet complete. But, in Wisconsin, most of its proposed route is established and certified. The majority of the Wisconsin portion adventures its way through the great Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. These are the most remote and rustic miles of hiking trails that can be found in the state. Backpackers can walk up to three days without crossing a paved road.

Narrowing in on the Chequamegon sections of the NCT, hikers are presented with many possibilities for multi-day or overnight trips. The forest in Bayfield is home to two of the nation's wildernesses: Porcupine Lake Wilderness, and Rainbow Lake Wilderness. A wilderness is an area of the earth and community of life that is untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain. These are areas that have been undeveloped and are left to evolve on their own so as to retain a primeval character. Logging is not permitted, forest management is done with a light touch.

On a recent backpacking trip, I and two friends set out to cover a 25-Mile section of the North Country Trail in Wisconsin. We began our trip by entering the Porcupine Wilderness at Two Lakes in Bayfield County and hiked through the Marengo Valley and on to Lake Three in Ashland County. Along the way we passed and camped beside some of the Northwoods' most scenic lakes, rivers, and streams; and we surveyed the enormity of the forest from the humbling edge of Juniper Overlook. Below is a story of our hiking experience on the first days of summer in 2019.

Hiking the Raspberry Route at Governor Knowles State Forest

Wood River on the Raspberry Route at Governor Knowles State Forest

Governor Knowles State Forest is a forest resource protection area running 55 miles alongside the St. Croix National Scenic River. Within its 35,500 acres, the state forest protects a wilderness zone along the St Croix and includes six state natural areas. The rest of its acreage provides a stock of timber that can be selectively harvested for forest products.

The forest features extensive backpacking and hiking trails within the wilderness zone along the banks of the St. Croix River. The Raspberry Route is one of the legs of the longer point-to-point trail system. The Raspberry Route is a bit confusing though, as it is a small network of short interconnected trails that surrounds the St. Croix Family Campground off Highway 70 in Grantsburg, which is the primary drive-in campground at Governor Knowles State Forest. Basically, all of the trails around this campground are signed as the Raspberry Route, but also sometimes signed as a different trail name. I'll try to explain this further in the narrative below.

The Raspberry Route connects directly to the 5-mile long Sandrock Cliffs Trail on its northern end and directly to the 8-mile long Benson Brook Route on its southern end. Between these two points, the trail is about 2-miles long and moderate in difficulty with a few hill climbs. The Raspberry Route features two primitive campsites along the Wood River which are claimed on a first-come basis and are fee-free but require a backcountry camp registration permit available at the State Forest Headquarters in Grantsburg.

Hiking Sandrock Cliffs Trail in Grantsburg

Sandstone Cliffs Natural Area

Sandrock Cliffs is a natural area featuring stepped sandstone escarpments along the banks of the St Croix River. The area is a part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and is administered by the National Parks Service. Sandrock Cliffs features a popular day hiking trail network that spans up to 5-miles on interconnected footpath loops.

There is a grouping of walk-in campsites in a pine forest on the cliffs with views of the St. Croix below, as well as a paddle-in campsite that is part of the river trail. A canoe/kayak landing is available on the north end of the area and a boat ramp at the south end. Parking lots and pit toilets are available at each end of the trail network.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail Jerry Lake Segment

The Jerry Lake Segment of the Ice Age Trail

The Jerry Lake Segment of the Ice Age Trail is an extraordinary and beautiful segment, but it has its challenges which I'll make very clear in the post below. It is a 15.2-mile point-point trail through the wilderness of the Chequamegon National Forest. The segment does not cross a paved road along its route. It begins at Jerry Lake on Forest Road 571 where the Lake Eleven Segment finishes and proceeds through deep woods, crossing streams and rivers along the way till it finishes at County Road E at the trailhead for the Mondeaux Esker Segment.

Hiking the Ice Age Trail Lake Eleven Segment

Beaver pond and mix of pine and hardwood trees in the distance

The Lake Eleven Segment of the Ice Age Trail is a 15.5-mile point-to-point footpath that covers backcountry of the Chequamegon National Forest in Taylor County Wisconsin. Unlike many segments of the Ice Age National Trail, this segment is not usually considered a day hike. Its length, difficulty, and remoteness demand a more intensive approach and it is more common to see backpackers along this trail than day hikers.

At least two rustic campsites are available at Lake Eleven and you can set up your own primitive campground anywhere along this trail route as it is entirely surrounded by national forest.

This trail is hilly, at times muddy, and requires fording many streams and negotiation of swamped areas of trail. The footpath is narrow and closed in by thick vegetation. Its 15+ miles are difficult. That makes it pretty much the ideal trail experience sought after by wilderness backpackers.  

Canoe Camping the St. Croix River

Sunrise on the St. Croix River

The image of a canoe silently cutting through the morning fog past islands topped with towering white pines on the St. Croix River immediately captures the dreamy summertime feelings that Wisconsinites define as the Up North experience. Up North is a romanticized conception of boundless wild nature and nostalgic memories of lake cabin retreats; blended with an aspiration to the image of a gentleman explorer - a legacy of the French fur traders who were enlightened, toughened, and wizened in this land of endless adventures.

The St. Croix draws a hooking nose-like boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, an essential feature in a profile that defines Indian Head Country. One of the original eight American rivers to be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1968, the St. Croix River has since become recognized as one of the top paddling destinations in America.

Nearly all of the 169-miles of the St. Croix and 101-miles of the Namekagon River flow between parkland preserved through the National Park Service and state and county forests. The banks on either side feature a combination of hundreds of miles of hiking and horseback trails that wind through the homes of black bears, bald eagles, and white-tailed deer.

Recreational paddlers are able to access this wilderness landscape through a network of landings and ramps and can enjoy their evenings gathered around campfires at any of several dozen primitive campsites, many located on small islands accessed only by canoe or kayak. 

Hiking White Mound County Park

Lake Trail

White Mound Sauk County Park is a 1,100-acre park between Loganville and Plain Wisconsin in central Sauk County. The park offers hiking trails, bridle trails, camping, horse camping, swimming, boating, and fishing.

Hiking trails range from the very easy and brief Willie Walsh Nature Trail to the moderately difficult Lime Kiln Trail. The most popular hiking trail is the Lake Trail, a wide mowed grass two-track easy footpath that encircles White Mound Lake. 

Hiking Honey Creek State Natural Area

A hiking trail fords a wide section of Honey Creek
Honey Creek Crossing #3

Honey Creek State Natural Area features an adventurous wilderness trail that cuts deep into the surreal landscape of Borns Hollow along the golden Honey Creek in the Baraboo Hills.

A 1.6-mile point-to-point footpath cuts north through the Harold and Carla Kruse Honey Creek Nature Preserve along the creek bottoms of Honey Creek. The preserve is owned jointly by the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy. These tracts are also designated as the Honey Creek State Natural Area.

Hiking Trails Near Madison

Established on an isthmus between two large lakes, there is no shortage of outdoor recreational opportunities in all seasons in Madison, the capital city with a small-town feel in south-central Wisconsin. Several wildlife preserves are immediately accessible within the City. The surrounding area, with the beautiful Baraboo Hills, Wisconsin River Valley, and the undulating terrain of the Driftless Area add to the diverse offerings of popular scenic destinations within easy driving distance form the City. The Ice Age National Trail also passes through the area and even enters the City of Madison for a few miles on its 1200-mile journey across the state.

Hiking is an excellent low-impact athletic activity that will get you immersed in nature where you can leave your cares behind. This article reviews the most popular trails and hidden escapes in the Madison area.

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UW Lakeshore Preserve Hiking Trails

tree branches framing view of Lake Mendota

The University of Wisconsin Madison is a world-renowned academic institution, but beyond research and academics, its most valuable asset is the beauty of its campus. This is in no small part due to its Lakeshore Preserve, a public greenway stretching from Memorial Union to Eagle Heights on the shore of Lake Mendota.

These 300 acres of woodlands, tall grass prairies, marshes, and shoreline are crisscrossed by dozens of miles of networked pedestrian trails. A highlight of the preserve is Picnic Point, a popular social destination in Madison, but the trails wend deeper into the storied landscapes studied by conservation icons and UW alumni John Muir and Aldo Leopold. 

UW Arboretum Hiking Trails

dirt path through woods

The University of Wisconsin Arboretum is an essential component of the Madison landscape and culture. It is a 1300-acre forest and wildlife preserve set along the shore of Lake Wingra at the geographical center of urban Dane County. It's primary purpose is for research and teaching as a living laboratory of the University. That said, it is among the most important recreational hubs for the citizens of Madison. Few Madisonians can say that they have never, drove through, walked through, ran through, or biked through the Arboretum. It features a network of 20+ miles of hiking trails, 3 miles of biking roads, and 10-miles of trails dedicated to cross country skiing.

In some respects, the Arboretum, a botanical gardens, is like a tree museum. Longnecker Gardens displays various species of trees grouped in "galleries" on a manicured grass lawn. Here, over 5000 plants of 2,500 taxa are displayed including trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs. The Arboretum also displays plant communities, types of prairies, savannas, marshes, wetlands, oak forests, maple forests, conifer forests, and other mixed woodlands.

The Arboretum was founded in 1932 and originally cared for by internationally recognized conservation leaders G. William Longnecker and Aldo Leopold. Much of the ecological establishment of the UW Arboretum was installed by the labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers during the Great Depression

Hiking Hemlock Draw State Natural Area

Ice fall beneath hemlock trees

The Baraboo Hills is designated as one of the Last Great Places on Earth by the Nature Conservancy. Since the founding days of the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, these forest-covered quartzite hills have been a conservation priority. Hemlock Draw is one of the original tracts to be purchased and held in trust. In partnership with the Wisconsin DNR, Hemlock Draw is protected as a State Natural Area.

This 1100+ acre reserve is positioned immediately adjacent to Natural Bridge State Park and Pine Bluff State Natural Area, each acting as links in a green chain that extends from Honey Creek SNA to Devil's Lake State Park. Hemlock Draw features a dramatic topography of deep valleys and sea stacks that wind along Honey Creek. These valleys are the perfect home for towering hemlocks, whose shallow roots make them vulnerable to toppling over in strong wind.

Two challenging hiking trails wend their way through a scenic portion of Hemlock Draw, a two-mile loop and a 1-mile spur. These trails are especially popular in winter when the valleys collect snow that melts off ledges and sea stacks to create ice formations and shallow ice caves. Trails in natural areas do not feature any man-made amenities such as bridges or boardwalks. You will have to ford Honey Creek several times. In spring when the water is flowing deep this can make the trails difficult or impassable. 

Hiking The Black Hawk Unit of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway

log cabin beneath pine trees

The Black Hawk Unit of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, known locally as Blackhawk Ridge, is an 815-acre recreational area, archeological site, and national landmark occupying a range of high mounds overlooking the south bank of the Wisconsin River across from Sauk City.

Part of the park is known to historians as Wisconsin Heights where Black Hawk and his British Band were first defeated by the Michigan and Illinois Militia. Black Hawk and 600 of his followers, mostly women, children, and elderly managed to escape as the battle occurred only to later be massacred at the battle of Bad Axe. The Battle of Wisconsin Heights is commemorated with a Wisconsin Historic Marker and Grand Army of the Republic memorial.

The area today is a quiet and peaceful retreat featuring 12-miles of interconnected hiking and bridle trails. It is mainly used for horseback riding and includes stables and a riding arena.

In this article, I'll provide a brief overview of the Battle of Wisconsin Heights and describe the hiking trails in detail. Included is a detailed GPS recorded map of the hiking trails overlayed with information about the battleground.

Port Washington Harbor Walk

Port Washington Lighthouse and Breakwater

The picturesque maritime city of Port Washington is nestled between its north and south bluffs at the mouth of Sauk Creek. Framed in view by a 19th-century main street, the Gothic bell tower and spire of St. Mary's Catholic Church rises over the city. A few blocks east of this postcard scene keelboats and yachts are berthed in the deepwater slips of Port Washington Marina awaiting the sunrise over Great Lake Michigan.

The central feature of Port Washington, its Lake Michigan harbor, is a series of parks, marinas, and breakwaters that are today predominantly used for recreation. Interconnected public walkways stretching from South Beach to North Beach bring walkers through every part of this historic harbor on a journey spanning 3-miles linear (6-miles out-and-back).

Along this route, walkers will encounter South Beach, an estuary and wildlife preserve, the new Coal Dock Park, Sauk Creek, Rotary Park, the historic inner harbor, the marina, the north pier breakwater and pierhead lighthouse, Veterans Memorial Park, and the North Beach. 

Hiking Trails at Governor Dodge State Park

dirt footpath over stream from historic stone spring house

Set into the dramatic hills of Southwest Wisconsin's driftless area, Governor Dodge is among the state's most popular state parks. On hot summer weekends, the parking lots at each of its two beach areas are frequently overflowing. Governor Dodge offers family camping at two campgrounds, a group camp, six backpacking sites, eleven horse camping sites, two lakes, two beaches, a waterfall, cave, and 40+ miles of networked trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing ... all on 5350 acres of parkland.

Hiking trails at Governor Dodge run the gamut of scenic offerings, difficulty, and length. There seem to be innumerable iterations of loop options available as almost all of the trails are interconnected into a vast network. Two-day backpacking trips are also possible to assemble from these interconnected trails with the added bonus that almost any trip plan can be configured into a loop route.

In this article, I'll provide an overview of a few of the key day hikes and provide a recommendation for a full day hike and an overnight backpacking route.  

Walking the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton WI

Pheasant Branch Conservancy Middleton WI
Pheasant Branch Conservancy Middleton WI

The Pheasant Branch Conservancy is a 550-acre green oasis in Middleton Wisconsin. Dane County Parks manages 160 acres in a partnership with the Wisconsin DNR while the city of Middleton manages the remaining acreage. The combined area serves to protect a vital wetland and watershed for the Pheasant Branch Creek and springs that store and supply water feeding into Lake Mendota and the chain of Madison's four lakes.

Six total miles of multi-use trails ring the conservancy property and are popular for walking, jogging, and biking. The mainline trail is a 3-mile loop that is paved with asphalt, crushed stone, and extensive boardwalks. Across Century Ave from the Conservancy, the trails connect to the Pheasant Branch Bike Trail which heads out past Middleton High School and connects to the 11-mile long US Highway 12 bike trail which runs alongside the highway towards Waunakee.

Devil's Lake Hiking Trails

Looking towards Lake Wisconsin from the East Bluff Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

Devil's Lake State Park was recently ranked the #5 best state park in the United States by USA Today. It draws 3 million visitors annually, more than all but the top 4 national parks. There are many things to do at this recreational hub including camping, swimming, boating, scuba diving, rock climbing, and mountain biking ... but hiking is the top activity at Devil's Lake.

Some of the best and most challenging hiking trails in Wisconsin and the Midwest are at Devil's Lake. In the post below you'll find a directory and summary of each trail along with a link to articles with more details and images of the trails. So, let the challenge begin, can you hike all of them?

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Steinke Basin Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

Hiking through the Steinke Basin at Devil's Lake State Park

The Steinke Basin Trail is 2.6-mile easy hiking loop. It covers ground through open prairie, hardwood forest, and through a pine plantation. This easy loop trail is family friendly and is accessed from the Steinke Basin parking lot on County Road DL. Steinke Basin is a multi-use trail that is popular year-round with hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers.

Johnson Moraine Loop Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

Johnson Moraine at Devil's Lake State Park

The Johnson Moraine Trail is a 3.5-mile easy loop trail at Devil's Lake State Park. It crosses through the Ice Age Campground and can be accessed from the Steinke Basin Parking Lot. Portions of this trail are multi-use and are used for mountain biking, hiking, and cross-country skiing. A portion of the Johnson Moraine Trail is also a leg of the Devil's Lake Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. 

Upland Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

Hiking along the Upland Trail at Devil's Lake State Park

The Upland Trail at Devil's Lake is a wide multi-use trail that runs 2.8-miles between the Steinke Basin parking lot and East Woods Trail. This trail is very easy, flat, and shaded. It is popular with hikers, trail runners, bikers, and cross-country skiers. Portions of the Upland Trail are part of the Devil's Lake Segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.