Friday, July 26, 2013

Explore 1.7 billion-year-old Blue Hills in Wis.

Blue rock on the Blue Hills West Trail
In Wisconsin, across northwest Barron County and northwest Rusk County, a hazy blue stretch of hills appearing vaguely like distant mountains offers a scenic backdrop. The sight is the ancient Blue Hills, a range that runs for about 20 miles, primarily in Rusk County.

Several miles of footpaths meander through the Blue Hills. They generally are associated with one of three major trail groups:
• Ice Age National Scenic Trail – Trailheads to various segments are located on Old 14/Bass Lake Road, Bolgers Road and Bucks Lake Road.
• Blue Hills East Trail – Fourteen stacked loops over a variety of terrain are used by cross-country skiers in winter but can be day hiked other seasons on a system maintained by the Blue Hills Trail Association.
• Blue Hills West Trail – This sister set of cross country ski trails includes two stacked loops and a lollipop trail.

The Blue Hills West Trail’s first stacked loop at 2.3 miles total is particularly good for day hiking.

To reach it, from Barron County, take Hwy. 8 east to Weyerhaeuser. In the village, turn left/north on Second Street. Take the road out of town for about seven miles. At the Y intersection, turn right/east. After passing Christie Mountain, turn left/north onto Fire Lane Road. On Fire Lane Road, turn left/west onto Excelsior Road (unmarked); if you pass the turnoff for the East Side Trailhead and parking lot, you’ve gone too far.

Rocky Wisconsin High
The West Side trailhead is on the parking lot’s north side; this is Junction A. All intersections are signed with “you-are-here” maps, and junctions are labeled with an alphabet letter.

As the trail heads northwest, you’re at about 1375 feet elevation, which may not be much compared to the Rockies or the Appalachians, but for Wisconsin there are few spots that are higher. In the Midwest, these are the equivalent of mountains.

The Blue Hills formed more than 1.7 billion years ago when sediment settled across a flat plain submerged in shallow water. With each new layer of sediment, the sands below cemented into a hard, glittery rock known as red quartzite. The quartzite now runs 600 feet thick and is highly resistant to erosion.

After about 0.45 miles of walking, you’ll reach Junction B. Go left/west. The terrain gradually will start climbing in elevation.

At the base of these hills, you’ll notice sloping piles of fallen rocks, called felsenmeer. Though smooth sided, their edges are very sharp, so be careful if picking them up.

In a little less than two-thirds of a mile, the trail comes to Junction C. Go right/north.

In addition to being careful with the sharp rocks, avoid stepping on or picking any plants growing in the felsenmeer. Several endangered species live in this unique environment.

Colorful Fall Foliage
In about a fifth of a mile, you’ll reach Junction I. Go right/west for 0.58 miles. Johns Creek flows to the trail’s left, but in short order the stream and footpath angle away from one another, and you descend toward the trailhead.

The Blue Hills primarily sits in a mixed deciduous forest, but you also can find red and white pines, balsam, and hemlock. Because of this, late September and early October mark a good time to hike the trails for the fall foliage. Be aware that hunting occurs during some parts of autumn.

At Junction J, go right/south. This returns you to Junction B, where you go left back to the parking lot.

For amenities, pit toilets are at the trailhead. As the trails are maintained by a private, nonprofit organization, please give a donation if you can to support their upkeep.

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