Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Heart of Vilas Trail at the Heart of Leaf-peeping season

It's 44 miles of paved bike trail passing a number of lakes and marshes, four quaint towns, and loads of north woods forest. 

Vilas County, Wisconsin has been a popular tourist destination for generations.  It's where I spent summer vacations as a kid.  It's a gem. 

This report covers the three days I took to hike the greater part of this bike trail.  Here are the three maps:

The photos above cover the big picture of the scenery.  I'll add a few of the details, and then I'm done.  I don't need to say much.  I loved the trail, the weather, and obviously the sights.

Fellow hiker pauses to appreciate the same dew-bejeweled leaf that caught *my* eye.
Autumn leaf-change means a riot of color, but this was a first for me--a shrub that turns truly blue.
Roof-top garden

Great place to be, great time to be there.  Thanks, Vilas County.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hiking Iron County, Wisconsin: Corridor 17 and the Mercer Bike Trail

View of Pine Lake from the Corridor 17 trail, a former railroad grade.
Now that I've left the North Country Trail, my route will take me south and a bit back east from Ironwood Michigan toward Eagle River, Wisconsin.

When I first started considering this route, I thought I would be doing nothing but walking along busy US 51 and then Wisconsin 70.  No big deal.  I figured it wouldn't be any worse than the North Country Trail's own 30+ mile road walk into Wisconsin.

Then I started doing my research.  The internet is made for this.  From my desk I am able to 'scout' a prospective route in great detail, and I'm often able to discover trails that I can hike along the way or trails that suggest new routes.  The discovery of Iron County's Snowmobile Trail map was what led me to Corridor 17.

Corridor 17 had my planned route covered like a frikkin' blanket.  It makes use of an old railroad grade, often well away from the highway, that runs south from Hurley (across the state line from Ironwood, Michigan) all the way to Mercer (which seems to be an ATV hotbed--the place was crawling with them).

From Mercer east to the Vilas County Line there is a brand new 7.2 mile paved bike route called the Mercer Bike Trail, barely a year old, that takes me right to another stunningly useful 42 mile bike trail called the 'Heart of Vilas' Trail.  44 more off-road miles!  That gets me beyond St. Germain; and from there to my childhood vacation spot is just a dozen more miles mostly through Vilas County Forest land on well maintained, well marked fire lanes and primitive roads.

Wow.  It's *all* covered.  I will barely have to set foot on a paved road, let alone a busy highway.

So ... back to Corridor 17.  In my experience snowmobile trails and ATV trails can be pretty sketchy. Where the NCT chose to follow them it was usually a bad experience.  But the 'corridor' designation seems to make a difference.  A corridor is more than a trail.  It's a preferred route; and I'm finding that this one gets lots of love.  Two snowmobile clubs do the work in Iron County--the Mercer Club had just graded their section yesterday.  Then I came to the start of the White Thunder Rider's section.

This is trail that the local enthusiasts use a lot, showcase for the tourists, and take great pride in.  Thank you, people.  I am in your debt for a fine hiking experience.

While on Corridor 17 I met a dozen or more ATV riders, all with friendly waves.  At Mercer the Corridor 17 trail continues on, but I switched over to the Mercer Bike Trail.  Turn right at the big Loon--right next to the Chamber of Commerce building.

Here I found I had company of a different sort, and not all too friendly from the looks of this little runt.

With fall in full swing, the lingering summer flowers are on their last legs, most looking dour and peaked.  But this spring-bloomer had decided that winter had magically come and gone.

Sorry, pal, but you're in for a nasty surprise one of these days.  Snow and bitter cold are as little as two weeks away here in the North Woods.  And when that sort of weather comes, you'll be stuck, but I'll be hitting the road south.

Meanwhile weather is still holding up, and I'm continuing my trek into Wisconsin.  Here are the GPS tracks of the two Corridor 17 hikes with the tagged on Mercer Bike Trail section on the second day.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Hiking The Iron Belle Trail into Wisconsin

Until a couple weeks ago, I had not heard of the Iron Belle Trail.  Surprising, since it is 1273 miles long and I've already hiked most of it.  It is Michigan's official state trail, extending the length of the state from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood at the west end of the Upper Peninsula.  The reason I'd not heard of it is that the idea of an official state trail for Michigan is very new.  The name was just announced in 2015.

It is here in Ironwood where I finally saw the 'flesh-and-blood' manifestation of trail by that name.  Here it's a brand new paved bike trail--less than a year old and so new it doesn't (as of the time of this writing) even show up on the Google Map satellite view.  Here is the proof of that--a close up of the Google Map view of the Siemens Truss Bridge and a beaver pond, and then the 'ground truth'.  The image is copyright 2017 - I estimate it was captured in late 2016 or early 2017 based on the deciduous trees being bare of leaves.

This bike trail into Ironwood is *not* part of the North Country Trail, but the vast majority of the designated hiking route of the Iron Belle trail is indeed coincident with the NCT, so, as I said, I've been hiking it for months without knowing it.  I was even hiking it (the separate bike route) when I deviated from the NCT to hike the North Central Trail in northern Lower Michigan.

It was a frosty morning when I hiked this converted rail bed into Ironwood.

Before hitting the new rail trail, I had to finish a road walk past Powderhorn Ski Area.

On the other end, heading into Ironwood, the trail passes the Stormy Kromer Hat factory with its giant ball cap advertising.  I would make this my hat number 92 if only the things weren't so expensive - $45 a pop.

Then near the end, in downtown Ironwood, the trail passes the old train depot building, now an information center with displays honoring iron mining and the lumber industry.

And then, at mile zero,

I crossed into Wisconsin--the twenty-third US state or district (Columbia) that my footprints have connected.

The old railroad bridge in the shot above is the route of the 'Corridor 17' trail.  This is an ATV and Snowmobile trail.  Other motor vehicles are prohibited and hikers are most welcome.

I had zero road walking to get to it. It literally passes right by the bridge from Michigan that the Iron Belle Trail uses, and it will start me south into Wisconsin toward the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and on to my next destination--my birthplace at Madison General Hospital.

Here's the composite GPS track of my departure from Michigan via the Iron Belle Trail and my start into Wisconsin.

I've fashioned a route through Wisconsin that covers a half dozen of the state's major trails and is rich in personal and family history.  Beside my birthplace and my first residence, I'll pass the farmstead of my Great Great Grandfather, who immigrated to Wisconsin in 1852 and lived to be 101 years old.  I'll visit the homes of both sets of grandparents, just two doors apart; and hopefully I'll walk by some of my father's boyhood homes.  Most of that will probably happen next hiking season.  But before this year is over I'll be visiting the Wisconsin north woods lake that was our family's regular vacation spot all through my childhood--a place full of powerful memories for me.  That's just 50 or 60 miles away now.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Waterfall Tour

This is it.  I came out of the woods today and won't go back on dirt trail for the rest of Michigan.  Of course the rest of Michigan is only a couple more days now.

The last trail in the woods covered two big rivers and a sorry bit of trail connecting them.  I won't go into that because it appears a reroute is under active development.  I'll focus on the walks beside the Presque Isle and Black Rivers.  Here are the GPS Tracks.

Waterfalls abounded.  Most of them happened where the rivers were carving their way through unusual conglomerate rock made of large rounded stones cemented together with silt and sand and time and heat.  Here's Hat number 89 with my walking stick and my hiking Crocs lounging on a fine example of that lumpy conglomerate.

And here's Hat number 90 on the same sort of material at Rainbow Falls on the Presque Isle River.

Not only is this the last of the woods trail in Michigan, but this is the last photo documenting my hat collection. (I can just about hear the sighs of relief.)

The waterfall collection continued, though, on the Black River.  The headline photo featured Potawatomie Falls.  Though it was not as photogenic on this dim cloudy day, Gorge Falls had by far the most gravitas, with its thundering sound and rising mists.

There were several others, but that is enough tumbling water for one post, and then I was out of the woods.

The road walk took me past Copper Peak's chairlift and ski jump hill.

They don't have any other ski slopes there, just the jump.  But they do have a network of nicely maintained bike trails that I suggest the NCT ought to consider using.

Connect points 3 and 4 and you'd have another nice 1.8 miles of trail in the woods.

From there, as you can see from the third of the GPS tracks, I hiked on south to Powderhorn Ski area.  From there I'm following the route of the Iron Belle Trail and deviating from the published map road walk of the North Country Trail.  I didn't even know the Iron Belle Trail existed until a couple weeks ago, but it turns out that I had been hiking it most of my way across Michigan.  It is Michigan's state trail.  It has a biking route and a separate hiking route.  It partners with the North Country Trail for the hiking route except at either end of the state.  It starts at Belle Isle in the Detroit River and it ends on a wonderful, brand-new paved bike trail that the official hiking route uses from near Powderhorn to the Wisconsin State Line in Ironwood.  More about this in my next report.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness - a backpacker's Mecca

This first class hiking trail, featuring miles of panoramic views, is not part of the North Country Trail.  It should be.

With 91 miles of well maintained trail and some of the best scenery this side of Pictured Rocks, Michigan's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park deserves to be showcased.  There are plans on paper for the North Country Trail to someday be rerouted to take in the best of the Park, including the view shown above, but right now the trail skips along the south edge of the park, missing all of the mountains and views of Lake Superior like this:

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to absorb all this beauty, so I fashioned my own hike through the park.  Here's the overview map of what I hiked and where it deviated from the NCT.

The Escarpment Trail, with its breathtaking views overlooking Lake of the Clouds, is the highlight of the park.  That's where the headline photo was taken.  This is trail worthy of the Gods.  Here is a sampling of more of the spectacular vistas.

There was also this elevated glimpse of the Lake Superior Shoreline off to the east.

And the same four miles of trail also passed a rock outcrop that I'm calling Michigan's "Old Lady of the Mountains".

The ridge of exposed bedrock that allows all these views is glacier-smoothed solid bedrock.  Here Hat 87 and my walking stick highlight some glacier scratches, the signature of moving stones embedded in the glacier being scraped against the bedrock.

The scratches are from lower left to upper right, whereas the natural grain of the rock itself is oriented right to left here.

Off the escarpment there was some good gnarly trail.  This blaze seems to forewarn of the many climbs, up and down the banks of the river gorges and of course the mountains themselves.

Getting down to the rivers meant several miles along the wonderfully noisy Big Carp River on the trail of the same name.

Along the Government Peak trail is another couple miles beside a frisky mountain stream with dozens of cascades, Trap Falls being the only named one.

The other end of Government Peak Trail brought me to picturesque Mirror Lake

Note that not one of the photos above is taken along the route of the North Country Trail.  Hats 88 and 91 did find poses along the route of that trail.  Number 88 found a hat-sized mushroom.

And with the maple leaves dropping, Hat 91, sporting the colors of my Dad's Alma Mater, found itself in its natural element.  Can you find it in this scene?

This park is truly special--a place truly worth preserving in its natural state.

It all lies in primary forest, full of huge trees and not touched by loggers in ages; and the DNR has built a number of rustic cottages that are for rent, as are dozens of prepared primitive campsites with fire pits and bear poles.  It's the only place in Michigan that I've met backpackers out doing multi-day hikes, taking advantage of all this infrastructure.  It was so much fun to talk trail and not be talking to myself for a change.