Snowshoeing & Winter Camping Underdown Recreation Area


The Underdown Recreation Area is a 44,000-acre outdoor adventure playground in Lincoln County near Merrill and Tomahawk. In summer it is the northwood’s most popular horseback riding area. It also draws in mountain bikers, hikers, and anglers. The Ice Age National Trail cuts through the middle of it along the Underdown and Alta Vista Segments … and with three campsites along the IAT it has become a popular segment with backpackers. The Underdown has its own drive-in campground with 11 campsites and dispersed camping is allowed in the Lincoln County Forest 50 feet from trails, roads, and lakes.

In winter, The Underdown is a regional draw for cross country skiers, fat tire mountain bikers, day hikers on the Ice Age Trail, and there is a lengthy and challenging snowshoeing trail network.

In mid-January of 2021 me and a friend were looking for a winter overnight hike with camping along the trail and we settled on The Underdown for what would be our first winter backpacking trip. There are several advantages to this area for winter hiking and camping. This article is a review of that trip.

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The winter of 2020-2021 left winter sports enthusiasts at home, socially distancing, and dreaming of the blizzard to come. COVID-19 had inspired thousands of new outdoorspeople to buy out all the winter gear and there wasn’t a snowshoe or cross-country ski left on store shelves after Christmas. But all that new expensive gear was sitting in garages because without deep snow there’s little reason to bother lacing up. Temperatures and snowfall were mild up through mid-January. Madison, with its typical dusting of 4” had deeper snow than North-Central Wisconsin. I happened to be one of those lucky recipients of winter gear for Christmas, and I was itching to try out my new snowshoes, shallow snow be damned.

The snowshoe trail network at Underdown consists of three interconnected loops that total 8-miles in length. Maps of the Underdown have split these loops into a 2-hour loop, 3-hour loop, and a 4-hour loop. These are ambitious time designations … we averaged 40-minute miles.

The snowshoe trails cover a variety of terrain from steep climbs and winding descents to wetlands and lake crossings. Parts of the trail route are unique to snowshoeing, but most of the trail follows along mountain bike trails and the Ice Age hiking trail. There is a variety of forest cover, most of it sheltered beneath pines, but some hilltop areas through deciduous woods.

I’ll rate this trail network as difficult. The hill climbs are typically less than 100ft, but they are steep and there are a dozen of them along the trail which add up to 1200 feet in total elevation gain. It is also difficult due to navigation challenges, meaning the route is not well marked and there are plenty of trail intersections and crossings that leave first-timers less than confidant of the intended route.


THE UNDERDOWN IS AN IDEAL PLACE TO TRY A WINTER OVERNIGHT HIKE

A challenging trail with varied terrain is what we envisioned when we committed to searching for our first primitive winter hiking/camping trip. There are several additional advantages that made the Underdown an appealing winter overnight destination.

First, the snowshoe trail length seemed about right. We were looking for a two-hour walk-in and a two-hour walk-out. For our first overnight in winter, I wanted to be close enough to our vehicle that we'd be able to pack it up in the middle of the night if it turned into an unbearable misery.

Second, the Underdown is an easy 2.5-hour drive from our base in Madison, and the rec area parking lot is not far from Highway 51. The only road that could be challenging to drive in a sudden snowstorm is a few miles on Copper Lake Ave. I didn’t want to get snowed into a parking lot 20-miles in on gravel national forest roads that rarely (if ever?) see a snow plow. Requiring easy car access eliminates a number of great hikes and primitive sites available in the Chequamegon along the North Country Trail.

Third, there is a very well-built and well-sited shelter on Dog Lake. This shelter gave us some comfort; it was a dry place out of the wind and snow to cook our meals in, and it is roomy enough to setup a pair of 1-2 person tents inside it if the wind became too ferocious. Not all of our gear is 4-season rated, so a hard-walled shelter helped us have the confidence to try out winter camping without the risk of being battered by winter weather. It turns out this shelter is also protected in a grove of dense hemlocks and pines which kept the whole site still and comfortable through our stay.

Fourth, there is good cell service. My friend had Sprint/TDS and I had ATT; both of us were able to get 4G and LTE connections throughout most of our hike. Should things have gone sideways, there would be a way to call for help.

Fifth, The Underdown is incredibly quiet, especially at night. One of the reasons I like to hike into primitive campsites is to get to a place where I cannot hear roads and highways. It is surprisingly difficult to find a truly quiet place, even in remote areas of Wisconsin. The quietness at the Dog Lake Shelter is notable. It is also dark, and had the sky been clear on our overnight we would have had a good view of the stars over Dog Lake.

And lastly, There are several places to camp along the IAT in the Underdown. There are three established primitive sites which allowed us the flexibility to hop between sites if we wanted to extend our trip to two-nights, or to choose an alternative if our targeted site at Dog Lake was already occupied.


THE UNDERDOWN SNOWSHOE TRAILS

The snowshoe trails begin on the far west end of the Copper Lake Ave Parking lot. We took a counterclockwise approach to the trail. The narrow trail winds around and up hills, rising above Copper Lake Ave before dropping down to Loop Road. The route follows Loop Road a few hundred feet. You’ll cross an intersection with the xx-ski trails and just after crossing a stream the snowshoe trail diverges off the road. It then crosses an unnamed lake.

After crossing the lake there is a short walk through woodlands before reaching Big Bog. This is where the tracks we were following fell off. Fortunately, we spotted a signpost far in the distance on the west side of Big Bog and cut a path towards it. This trail post marks the 2-Hour Loop cutoff. We continued forward (towards Dog Lake) and spotted a small signpost at the edge of the bog. The trail then followed a confusing set of bike trails that wound around to the top of a hill. At a 3-way intersection at the top of the hill we had a disagreement over which path to follow. We tried a trail marked ‘X’ for a bit and then found our way back to the intersection and decided to follow trail ‘C’. Trail C is the correct path to follow and this trail is also a bike trail named the “Hill That Won’t End” – so that should give you an idea of the terrain.

Following the Hill That Won’t End and The Saddle we intersected with the Ice Age Trail which is well marked with yellow blazes. From that intersection it was only another 10-minutes before we reached Dog Lake and found the shelter and campsite. We arrived there at 2:30pm which left us a couple hours of daylight to get setup and find some firewood before nightfall. A snow shower began as the darkness of night descended.

The next morning, we considered doing the Mist Lake loop before heading back to the main lot. But, even though we were camped right on Dog Lake and had explored the frozen lake there was some confusion about the proper route. A new trail called the 2020-Line cut directly across the lake from the shelter to the southeast bank where there was a sign indicating a trail to Underdown Lake. The 2020 Line and Underdown Lake were not on our maps. It turns out this 2020-Line is a fat tire bike route linking to Bike Trial ‘D’. With our uncertainty about the Mist Lake route, we decided to instead follow the 3-Hour Loop back to our car.

The first half of our hike that day followed the Ice Age Trail which is well marked with yellow blazes and easy to follow. At an intersection with the Green Ski Trail we found the Snowshoe Trail cutting off towards Bumpy Bog. There were no tracks to follow through Bumpy Bog and again we were uncertain of the trail route. Bumpy Bog is also true to its name. Two-to-three-foot-high bundles of wetland plants rise above the frozen marsh. Without deep snow this was a terrible challenge to hack our way through. I propose a name change from Bumpy Bog to the Swamps of Eternal Sorrow. Crossing the Swamps of Eternal Sorrow exhausted my no-breakfast energy and Rediculous Hill was still ahead of us. We trusted the map and cut a straight line north through the bog and then turned northwest when we hit some flat ice. There was the faintest evidence of footprints leading into the forest edge which we followed out of Bumpy Bog to Loop Road.

The trail then climbs Rediculous Hill, following the route of Bike Trail ‘A’. After descending the north side of the hill down a winding cordwalk the remaining distance was a pleasant jaunt to return to the Copper Lake Ave lot.


WINTER PRMITIVE CAMPING

We lucked out with January weather. The nighttime low was 27 and the daytime high was 35. There was no wind and a wet snow fell and dripped off the pine trees above us from nightfall through into the early morning. I would have enjoyed larger flakes and a 3”-5” overnight snowstorm, or conversely, a clear night for stargazing. But the snow that did fall added up to an inch or two of fresh snow on trail and tree branches the next day which was a welcomed refresh of the winter landscape.

There are some unique challenges to winter camping … and some benefits.

There are no bothersome bugs, and the bears are asleep. The winter landscape is surreal to hike through, especially when the tree branches are dusted with snow. Frozen lakes provide additional hiking route options.

As to the challenges, there are four important ones to note. First, water sources are frozen. If there is snow on the ground you have to option to melt it … but melting snow is not as easy or clean as it may seem. I brought 2.5 liters of water and ran out after morning coffee and before the second day’s hike.

Second, firewood is harder to find. If you can pull some off the ground it will be soaked through. Because the snow was shallow, we were able to kick a few logs free from the frozen ground, and they did eventually burn. But we had to rely on constantly feeding the fire twigs and birch bark.

Another challenge is the short daytime hours. In summer you can drive north, get started on a hike at noon, hike for five hours, and then have three hours to setup camp, gather firewood, and cook dinner. In Winter, the schedule is compressed. You'll want to get to your campsite by 3pm. Then you'll have a lot of time to lounge around. We were in bed by 9pm. Ten hours of sleep before daylight may seem luxurious, but it's also ten hours below freezing without moving.

And finally, its cold even when its not that cold. A person can get hypothermia on an 80-degree day if they are wet for a long enough time. So, imagine how easy it is to get hypothermia in 40 degrees, or 30, or 20. Staying dry is a must, which means bringing a second set of everything wearable.

We had the right supplies for a single overnight. And, now that I’ve purchased all this expensive specialty equipment and shed tears over my credit card bill, I will make a point of taking more winter camping trips.

My big tip is to bring an extra set of dry clothes. I had a thermal base layer, sweatpants, snow pants, a mid-layer jacket, a shell jacket (that I never used), three pair of wool socks, two beanie hats, a balaclava, waterproof liner gloves, mittens, and a light sweater. It snowed on us from 5pm till 9pm when we went into tents. So, the hat I was wearing, my mittens, and my mid-layer jacket were wet. My base layer was also damp with sweat. But on entering my tent I was able to change into a dry pair of socks, sweatpants, the light sweatshirt, the waterproof glove liners, my dry hat, and a dry pair of socks before getting into my sleeping bag.

I also brought two sleeping pads and 1 2/3 sleeping bags. For layering my bed, I put down a foam pad and then an air mattress on top of it. Then I had a 20-degree sleeping bag and on top of that a Thermarest Corus quilt that I use for summer camping. Needless to say, I was warm and snug. I only felt the cold at around 4am – presumably, the coldest point of the night.

Another key item to have is a towel. I had a lightweight Owl Towel, but you can pack half of a bath towel just as easily. No matter how careful one is, there is always a little bit of snow that ends up in the tent. Once I had shed my boots and snow pants and zipped up the tent, I was able to mop up the few bits of snow that came in with me. A dry tent floor is a wonderful thing.

The trail shelter at Dog Lake does not have a latrine. I have a small titanium spade and given the 35-degree day I’m sure I could have gotten a cathole dug if I needed it. In colder weather, I don’t know. The frozen ground also presented another potential difficulty, staking a tent. I had snow stakes on hand but did not need to use them as I was able to pound my regular tent stakes into the ground with a stone I found in the shelter.

Otherwise, my winter pack included most of everything from my summer pack less a water filter system, bug spray, bear spray, and sandals. With those items out, I had no trouble fitting the extra sleeping quilt, and my winter pack seemed lighter weight than my summer pack.


OTHER WINTER CAMPING LOCATIONS IN WISCONSIN

There’s a few state parks in Wisconsin that offer drive-in and walk-in sites for winter camping. For remote camping overnight with winter hiking/snowshoeing/xx-skiing I’m looking at these areas for future trips.

1. Newport State Park with reservable campsites
2. Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area with primitive sites on trail
3. Turtle Flambeau Scenic Waters ice access to island primitive sites
4. Rock Lake Ski Area with primitive sites at Rock Lake near Cable WI
5. The Lauterman Snowshoe Trail with primitive sites on Lake Lauterman and Perch Lake
6. North Country Trail Rainbow Lake Wilderness
7. North Country Trail Porcupine Wilderness
8. North Country Trail Brule River State Forest
9. Ice Age Trail Kettle Moraine reservable shelters
10. Ice Age Trail in Langlade County
11. Governor Knowles State Forest North and South trails with primitive sites
12. Namekagon River or St. Croix National Scenic Riverway ice access to primitive sites



invisible trail leading to snow covered trees
The snowshoe trail crossing Bumpy Bog is invisible unless you can find tracks. In this photo the trail goes straight ahead a the center of the photo into the trees. Trust the maps.





Underdown Recreation Area Snowshoe Trails

COUNTY
Lincoln
COMMUNITIES
Gleason, Merrill
TOTAL MILES
8-MILE TRIPLE LOOP
DIFFICULTY
DIFFICULT
LOWEST ELEVATION
1480 AMSL
HIGHEST ELEVATION
1620 AMSL (THE HILL THAT WON'T END)
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN
1200 FT


Directions and Trail Map


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If viewing on a mobile device, open the trail map above to load into Google Maps App by touching the expand rectangle in the upper right corner.

Address for your GPS: W3221 Copper Lake Ave, Gleason, WI 54435
| coordinates: 45.32994675204681, -89.58632067708386 |

From Milwaukee3.25 Hours
From Madison2.5 Hour
From Green Bay2 Hours
From Wausau40 Minutes
From Minneapolis3.5 Hours
From Chicago4.5 Hours



Photos

man crossing frozen lake
The trail starts at the main parking lot and winds down through thick forest and then crosses a small unnamed lake


red sign and trees in winter
Big Bog is easy to traverse. There is a a red sign near the south end, chart a course to the that sign if there aren't tracks to follow


pair of red directional signs
This sign in Big Bog marks the turn off for the Two-Hour Loop. If you are continuing on follow the general direction pointed out by the Dog Lake sign


three trail intersection with directional signs
At the bottom of the 'Hill That Doesn't End' the snowshow/bike trail C intersects with the Ice Age Trail. Heading west from here to Mist Lake takes you on a 2.5-mile loop that ends at the Dog Lake Shelter. Heading south takes you 10-minutes more directly to Dog Lake Shelter. If you are traveling clockwise, then Home is the route that will take you to Big Bog and then on to the main parking lot. Note: during summer months this HOME trail will be impassable as it crosses a lake and Big Bog.


A shelter on a knoll beneath pines
The Dog Lake Shelter and campsite is at the southernmost pint of the 'Three-hour Loop'. This is an important intersection where the Mist Lake Loop connects to the Three-Hour Loop. The shelter is open year round on a first-come-first-serve basis and is fee free to use. It is a trail shelter for overnight hikes and is not intended to be used for more than one night.


Shelter, tent, and fire in winter
The Dog Lake Shelter has a fire ring, benches, a table, a sleeping bench, and 2-3 tent pads. There is no latrine near it as of 2021.


View of frozen lake
View of Dog Lake from the Dog Lake Shelter


snow covered frozen lake with fat tire bike tracks
Dog Lake has two winter trails running over it. The 2020-Line is a fat-tire bike trail that runs from Dog Lake Shelter to 'Bike Trail D'. Also, the snowshoe loop to Mist Lake runs out over Dog Lake on the northwest side of the lake.


snow covered trail hemmed in by low pines
Ice Age Trail Underdown Segment. The Snowshoe trail uses the route of the Ice Age Trail between Mist Lake and the Green XX-Ski Trail intersection south of Bumpy Bog.


snow covered tree limbs


snow covered footpath
Ice Age Trail Underdown Segment


View of hills in the distance from top of snow covered hill

Ice Age Trail Underdown Segment


frozen bog
True to its name Bumpy Bog is bumpy and very difficult to traverse. This photo shows the north end where the trail flattens out. It may not be obvious where the trail is in Bumpy Bog ... trust the maps and signs at each end of the bog. 



North end of Bumpy Bog
North end of Bumpy Bog


The Snowshoe Trail follows 'Bike Trail A' up and down Rediculous Hill north of Bumpy Bog





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