There are so many hiking trails in the Baraboo Hills area that it’s challenging to get all local trail information in one place! Just the photograph above contains a surprising amount of space open for visitors to have an adventure including; Devil’s Lake State Park, the Merrimac Preserve, Lake Wisconsin and of course many beautiful sections of the Ice Age Trail. Our goal with our Backyard Explorer series is to help folks discover trails & natural areas that they may never have thought to visit or even heard of before. With that in mind, we took a ride across the Merrimac Ferry, parked the car and took off on the 2.4 mile Gibraltar segment of the Ice Age Trail and back. The round trip will cover about 5 miles with an elevation change of about 200ft.
It’s funny how simply crossing the Ferry from Merrimac to the Lodi side of lake Wisconsin can feel like we’ve just traveled hundreds of miles from home! I’m sure it’s the same the other way around as well! When the ferry isn’t running in the winter, it is quite a drive either using the Interstate or coming around via Sauk Prairie. On the other hand, there is often a wait for the ferry during the busy summer months.
To start your Gibraltar segment of the IAT adventure, you simply park in the parking area to the east of the ferry crossing on Hwy 113. There are pit toilets and a picnic area available but no running water. You’ll definitely want to pack water bottles for this hike and maybe even a picnic lunch for the beauty spot we’ll be stopping at before turning back for the day. In addition, sunscreen and bug spray are pretty much required on the trail as well. This trail is not wheelchair accessible and can be quite challenging depending on your abilities and physical fitness.
This section of the Ice Age Trail (IAT) doesn’t start out looking very promising. You’ll walk to the east side of the parking area and see a signature IAT brown post and marker. From there you’ll walk on a steep bank along Hwy 113 for a time before reaching a proper trail that continues into the woods, 20 feet or so off the highway. This first small wooded section is lined with poison ivy (So stay on the trail!) . To your left you will see a slope down to active railroad tracks and lake Wisconsin through the trees beyond. Soon the trail will abruptly turn south and you will net to cross HWY 113. Watch for traffic of course. Once across, you’ll hike along the road under some power lines for a short distance before turning south again into the forest. This is when the Gibraltar section starts really getting good.
Now the trail will start climbing through the a forest of oak, hickory, maple and up the limestone bluff. I should note here that unlike the bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park, these hills were once completely covered by the last glaciation. If you look around you will see large basalt and granite boulders called “erratics” scattered throughout the area. These “erratics” were left behind as the glaciers melted and are the tell-tale signs that the glaciers fully covered these 200 foot bluffs.
While certainly steep, the ascent is nothing compared to climbing the bluff trails at Devil’s Lake State Park. You’ll only encounter about 4 stairs the whole way. Instead of stairs, the dirt trail uses a couple of switchbacks to take you to the top of a ridge. Near the top, the forest becomes dominated by a gnarly tangle of old red cedars. It’s pretty cool actually! On our hike on June 15th, 2014 we discovered a variety of interesting birds and insects along the way including a few cool dragon flies!
Once at the top, the trail follows along a ridge and offers some marvelous views of rolling hills and lobes of Lake Wisconsin. The land is currently undergoing obvious restoration with many stumps and burn areas this season however, you’ll enjoy the mix of forest and remnant prairie along the way.
About a mile and half into the hike you’ll come across what the IAT calls a “dispersed camping area” created specifically for long-distance, multi-day Ice Age Trail hikers. There are no facilities and it is not intended for day hikers. Basically you find the sign, turn west and walk to a medium-sized white pine and set up your tent.
From the camping area we continued along the ridge and slowly made our way up to the very top of the bluff, about 200 feet above the lake. You’ll easily see the goal for this trip which is a large, heavy rough-hewn yellow pine bench. The IAT guidebook designates this the “Colsac View” in that you could see the ferry below IF all the summer foliage wasn’t in the way. Even if you can’t see the ferry however, the Colsac View is a perfect spot for a picnic with amazing views in most all directions (top photo).
After your break, and taking a few snaps of course, you can begin your trip back down the bluff and to your parking area below. It’s hard to give you an exact time this hike will take as we tend to puddle.. but give yourself at least half the day to enjoy the hike without feeling rushed. The free ferry runs all night, so there are no worries about getting back to the Devil’s Lake side.