WISCONSIN — There's no better way to embrace winter in Wisconsin than by exploring some of the state's more remote spots on foot. For this is the time when late fall's empty landscape has been transformed into a sparkling, snowy wonderland, best viewed up close. Even when the snow takes a hiatus, the magic lives on through ice, whether it comes in the form of a skating pond, a swath of glittering icicles or a frozen waterfall.
Not sure where to hike? Here are four prime options. All treks can be done wearing boots, snowshoes or traction devices, such as ice cleats.
The Harrison Hills segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail winds more than 14 miles through thick stands of oak and maple in north central Wisconsin. More than 10,000 years ago, the retreating glacier left this area with deep kettles, massive hummocks and numerous deep-blue glacial lakes, especially striking in winter. The trail is strenuous, so plan stops at Chain and Bus Lakes, which sport primitive campsites with log seating.
Partway through the hike, you'll climb to the top of Lookout Mountain. At 1,920 feet above sea level, it's the highest point on the entire Ice Age Trail. The old fire tower here, now closed, once afforded visitors sweeping views. But winter hikes mean a bare landscape that allows you to see far into the distance.
The Ocooch Mountains in southwestern Wisconsin are home to the 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve, a beautiful parcel of land bisected by the Kickapoo River and its tributaries. The reserve features hardwood forest and firs, damp wetlands and massive sandstone bluffs, with miles of trail zigzagging from corner to corner. While some of these paths are reserved for cross-country skiing in the winter, plenty of others are open for backpacking.
One popular activity for those on foot is searching for ice caves and formations. Since the reserve has both an abundance of groundwater and numerous rocky cliffs and overhangs, they form easily every winter. Grab a map from the visitor center before heading out, as some are hard to spot.
Wisconsin is home to more than 200 miles of the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail, all in the state's northernmost tier. One especially scenic spot to explore in the winter is an eight-mile stretch near Hurley connecting Upson Lake and Wren Falls. Heading westbound, the trail partially circles pretty Upson Lake, then begins tumbling up and down hill after hill. After crossing four bridges in quick succession, you'll reach Wren Falls. Although at 12 feet it's not nearly as tall as the waterfalls at nearby Copper Falls State Park, it's quite impressive as it plunges forcefully into the rocky gorge below.
The 10-mile Timm's Hill Trail is a spur path off the Ice Age Trail leading to Timm's Hill, Wisconsin's tallest natural point at 1,951.5 feet above sea level. Every winter, it's groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, although you can walk alongside the groomed portion if you're wearing boots. The hilly trail meanders across bridges, past a century-old logging camp and through thick stands of spruce, which are especially enchanting when snow-covered.
A few notable sights along the way include the Blomberg and Beaumont Sugar Bushes, two stands of sugar maples tapped for syrup every spring, a 33-foot trestle bridge and the steep Stone Lake Esker, where you can sign a guestbook tucked into a trail kiosk. When you reach Timm's Hill, climb the observation tower and drink in the views.