Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hike remnants of ancient mountain range

Penokee Mountain Trail, near Mellen, Wis.
Cabin-goers to northern Wisconsin can hike across the remnants of an ancient mountain range that once soared as high as the Alps.

The Penokee Mountain Trail – a cross country ski trail in winter, a day hiking trail in summer – also is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail. It actually consists of three loops, which depending on your time and energy levels, can be done separately for as short as a 2 mile hike to one up to 5.3 miles.

Autumn makes for a lovely time to hike the trail, as the rugged uplands offer superb views of the multi-colored trees in the valley below.

To reach the trail, from Mellen drive about 3.5 miles on County GG. You’ll turn right into a parking lot. A fee is required to park. The trailhead sits at the parking lots north end. Follow the trail counterclockwise.

Range once as tall as the Alps
As you’re in the Chequamegon National Forest, walking paths are in good shape, but you will be going up and down some hills if you take the longest route.

The first loop runs for 2 miles along the area’s eastern side. You’ll head through a hemlock forest that provides home to whitetail deer, bears and ruffed grouse.

Reaching the north side, you’ll get a spectacular view of the valley below, which maples, oaks and basswood with an understory of balsam fir and white pine dominate. You actually are walking along one of the highest ridges in Wisconsin; the surface of Lake Superior, which sits 19 miles to the north, is 850 feet below your elevation.

The ridge with its granite ledges are all that remain of an ancient mountain range that once towered more than 10,000 feet high. Rock folds suggest what this range must have looked like some 500-600 million years ago: lofty peaks and deep valleys, similar to the Alps. These mountains are among some of the oldest in the world, predating animal life on land.

What remains 200 million years later...
For the past 200 million years, the mountains have been slowly eroding into a low, slightly undulating flat area called a peneplain. The Penokee range, which stretches about 80 miles long and is up to a mile wide, is known as a monadnock because its resistant rocks leave them standing about this plain.

The three trail loops upon this monadnock are fairly easy to follow, as several signs indicate the North Country Trail’s route. In addition, ski maps of the trail can be downloaded or picked up at area establishments.

Should you be up for a longer walk, staying to the right rather than looping back by going left at trail junctions, will allow you to can extend the walk to 3.2 miles on the ridge’s northern side. That loop in turn can be extended to 5.3 miles, which covers the trail’s western portion. If opting for this longer route, you will twice cross a quarry road. The approaches at these roads are abrupt declines. You’ll also come across an Adirondack shelter, a great place for taking a rest break.

Read more about family friendly day hiking trails in my Headin' to the Cabin guidebooks.