The Ice Age Trail to Lapham Peak: Social Distancing – Is the Ice Age Far Enough?

Three. That’s how many cases of COVID-19 there were in Milwaukee when I rolled into town at 10:30am on March 14, 2020. I was delivering a piece of opera scenery to a shop in West Allis, where it was to be painted. At that time, the show was still set to open in early May. Now the show has been rescheduled for autumn and, at the time of this writing – just one month later, there are 1,193 cases of Novel Coronavirus in Brew Town.

Delivery made, I chatted with the scenic designer – from six feet away. We talked about the state of the world and how it was affecting the arts. We talked about colleagues who were out of work. To lighten the mood, we changed the subject to hiking. I had done some research and had my sights set on Kettle Moraine State Forest South, twenty-seven miles east-southeast of the city. My friend cut in with high praise for Lapham Peak, a small unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest that was actually a little closer to where we were. My plans crystalized like frost on a Wisconsin windshield.

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On March 14th, the signage indicated their Winter Concert Series was still happening, but on March 15th, they postponed that evening’s show.

I left West Allis and headed west on I-94 towards Madison. Thirty-five minutes later, I pulled in to the Kettle Moraine State Forest – Lapham Peak Unit. I picked up an annual park pass at the ranger station and parked in a large lot near a picnic pavilion.

Note: An annual park pass for my (out of state) vehicle cost $38.00. Depending on the park, day passes for out of state vehicles range from $11.00 to $16.00 so if you’re planning to spend more than two days (and if you’re not, shame on you) in a Wisconsin State Park, get the annual pass.

IMG_5930I changed in the car, then grabbed my daypack and looked for the trailhead. I found it in the southeast corner of the lot. The trail took the form of a narrow boardwalk over marshland. A helpful sign indicated that I was headed for the Ice Age Trail. A few hundred yards later, the boardwalk ended. Soon after, I came to a tee-junction and turned east on the IAT.

Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail is a 1,200 mile track that winds its way from Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, on Wisconsin’s border with Minnesota, to Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, on the Door Peninsula. I have previously posted about the IAT in Potawatomi State Park (here) and in Point Breeze State Natural Area (here).

IMG_5931First stop on the IAT: a tranquil pond. It was surrounded by dry brown reeds, and its placid surface rippled slightly in the light breeze – which also rustled the reeds. I climbed five steps onto a wooden observation platform to get a better view of the pond. Canadian Geese paddled serenely in the steel grey water, their compatriots hinking and honking overhead. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker beat a mournful cadence on a hollow tree. I continued down the trail, skirting icy patches when I could.

IMG_5934IMG_5935The Ice Age Trail meandered through lowlands, sometime via boardwalk, but just as often over long stretches of muddy mire that had thawed, been trodden upon, and refrozen. The result was a trekker’s nightmare, a gelid, irregular surface that threatened to sprain the strongest of ankles. I hiked for a little over a half-mile before coming to a junction with a wide grassy path. This was the Moraine Ridge Trail, although I saw nothing to indicate that at the cross-trails. I continued straight, and the IAT began to climb gently through the forest.

IMG_5945IMG_5946I had left the mid-Atlantic the day before in seventy-degree weather. In the upper Midwest, it was still winter: 31°F. The Wisconsin woods were quiet and serene. Freezing temperatures, however, do not keep Wisconsinites indoors, and I still passed a handful of hikers on this trail. We afforded each other the newly appropriate leeway, and I continued upward, approaching the summit.

IMG_5952IMG_5953IMG_5970The sign told me I was at the peak, but, looking around, the word “peak” suddenly seemed a little dramatic. My climb to the top was an easy 250 feet over one-and-a-half miles. Even so, Lapham Peak is the highest point in Waukesha County at 1,233 feet above sea level. Seventy additional steps took me to the top of a five-story observation tower, where expansive views awaited. Looking north from the top of the tower, one can see all the way to Holy Hill which, at 1,340 feet is the highest point in Wisconsin; the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians in Hubertus, stands atop that blessed bluff. From ten miles away, I could just make out the shrine’s twin spires reaching skyward above the horizon. Later, I learned that both Lapham Peak and Holy Hill are glacial kames, a term I first heard from an Icelandic tour god guide on a glacier tour in Iceland (read here).

Kames are mounds of sand and gravel that collected in a depression on the glacial surface, then invert as the ice melts around them.

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Zoomed waaaay in. Holy Hill in the distance

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East toward Milwaukee

On the other side of the tower, the Ice Age Trail descended via earthen steps. The Wisconsin forest was dappled with snow, and a light breeze rustled the few leaves that still clung to the branches of tall hardwoods.

IMG_5967IMG_5968IMG_5971Once I had descended from tower and peak, the Ice Age Trail wound, single track, through the woods. It followed a ridge, rolling over spurs and draws on its journey east. At the two-mile mark, the trail intersected a wide cedar-chip-covered path: the E11. The E11 was a designated ski trail that dipped sharply down into a draw before climbing back up and out again. I turned right and began to circumnavigate Lapham Peak.

IMG_5974IMG_5979IMG_5981I had hiked just over three miles when I used a short connecter trail to cut over to the Moraine Ridge Trail. That was the wide, grassy trail I had crossed at the beginning of my hike; it was running parallel to the E11. My Gaia GPS map indicated that the E11 and the Moraine Ridge Trail one and the same, but on the ground they were labeled differently. Additionally, in the real world, the E11 continued beyond the connector trail. The Moraine Ridge Trail eventually delivered me back to the junction I had crossed on my ascent of Lapham Peak. I turned north and retraced my steps to the long boardwalk that emptied at the parking area.

IMG_5986IMG_5942IMG_5992There are many more trails in the Lapham Peak Unit to explore, although the hike I took is extremely pleasant hike and not too far from downtown Milwaukee. If you’re a peak-bagger, this peak requires only a small bag, but the view from the observation tower is a sweeping 360° panorama. The view reportedly encompasses northern Illinois on a clear day. If one can see thirty-eight miles into the Land of Lincoln, it would follow that one could see the slightly closer Milwaukee skyline, although on that hazy day in March I could not independently confirm that theory. A sign on the tower indicated that it was possible to see at least some of the city. The Lapham summit is also a grassy bald, ideal for a relaxing picnic in warmer weather.

IMG_5966The Ice Age Trail just keeps turning up. This is no surprise, as it winds its way all over the Badger State, tracking north to within seventy miles of Lake Superior and plunging south as far as Janesville, a scant dozen miles from the Illinois state line. Whenever I can, I hike some of its many midwestern miles. At Lapham Peak, I added about two miles to my IAT tally, bringing my total up to an impressive twenty-one out of twelve-hundred. Don’t look for me to cross the finish line anytime soon.  ♦


Date: March 14, 2020
Location: Delafield, WI
Trailhead: 43.040074, -88.402704
Distance: 4.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 431 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

3 thoughts on “The Ice Age Trail to Lapham Peak: Social Distancing – Is the Ice Age Far Enough?

  1. Pingback: The Branded Steer: “Mayor” Meal Be Tasty and Satisfying | BIT|Hiker

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