Article by Stephanie Dannenberg, running coach at Ornery Mule Racing and regional director of the Arbor Ridge Trail Race.
You can’t talk about trail running in Wisconsin without mentioning the extensive 1,200 mile long National Scenic Ice Age Trail. The trail winds from the northwestern part of the state, down into a bowl towards the bottom of the state, rising again betweenMilwaukee and Madison in the Kettle Moraine Forest and up through Door County where the eastern terminus lies. Some of the most beautiful sections, and challenging, traverse through Janesville, Wisconsin. Here is a link to the free online map offered by the Ice Age Trail Alliance.
The westernmost section of the trail in Janesville begins with the Arbor Ridge Segment at the scenic Robert Cook Arboretum where you’ll discover a dense-shaded forest. (There is a great parking lot not far off County Road A.) In addition to the trailhead for the Ice Age Trail in Janesville, there are a multitude of other trails in the arboretum providing miles of hilly but well maintained trails. If you wish to follow the Ice Age Trail specifically, follow the marked yellow blazes. At intersections, there are generally signs with small arrows pointing you in the right direction.
From the Arboretum parking lot, you can expect a long descent to a little prairie at the bottom; remember this when you have to make the climb back up! Take a look around and you’ll find a nice stream nearby to splash your face with on hotter days. The trail is lined with wildflowers in the spring, transforming to beautiful autumn foliage in the fall. From the arboretum parking lot to County Road E is roughly 1.9 miles one way just using the Ice Age Trail. However, there are other marked trails that will add plenty of distance for your longer days.
For those interested in planning a nice hike, or those who prefer an easier pace, there are really nice paved trails in the Arboretum. A short walking tour is provided by the local community with appropriate signs for your enjoyment and education.
From the trailhead parking area at County Road E, or the Devil’s Staircase parking (if you Google it, this is most likely the address you will get), you can access the Ice Age Trail heading towards the arboretum or the technical Devil’s Staircase segment of the trail. This is a popular segment for all who explore on foot. The trail follows the Rock River as it meanders up down and all around. As you pass through, there are massive rock outcroppings to behold as well as beautiful views of the river. The trees provide great shelter from sun and wind most times of the year, a huge bonus for runners.
“…the segment descends a steep switchback into the natural feature known as the Devil’s Staircase. This area features a huge gully (usually dry) descending from a golf course down across the Trail to the river. Lining the gully are large rocks that appear as though purposely placed as steps, thus leading to the name ‘Devil’s Staircase.’” – Ice Age Trail Alliance; Mobile Skills Crew project site, 2007, 2009, 2011.
There is a natural “flow” to this single track that just makes it feel special. Devil’s Staircase ends with stairs down to a pleasantly flat, grassy area with playgrounds, restrooms facilities (real running water!), sporting fields, picnic tables, and a great view of the river. This section is less than a mile one way. You can find another parking location here at Janesville’s Riverside Park for any sort of out and back you want to tackle. Honestly, this makes for a fantastic home base for a long day on the trails. Seasonally, there is even a refreshment stand with water, soft drinks and ice cream.
The trail continues past the park along the river’s edge heading towards downtown Janesville. You’re now on the Janesville Ice Age Trail segment! Although the trail turns into pavement coursing its way towards downtown, it still pairs well with the river in all its splendor. There are several places to park downtown if this path is your cup of tea, with lots of places to enjoy a bite to eat, coffee or other beverage. There’s also quite a bit of public art to enjoy. Fun fact: The Ice Age Trail hits its southernmost point in downtown Janesville. Taking this path to the end of the segment will pop you out right past Milton Avenue on the east side where you will need to start using road connectors to get back to single track trail, which is closer to Milton.
Don’t miss out on this stunning section of the Ice Age Trail. Take pictures to share and make your friends envious, or bring them along with you! Whether you are new to trail running or hiking, or a veteran of the sport, the Ice Age Trail in Janesville provides ample opportunity to see and experience the beauty of the area without feeling like a city surrounds you. Escape during any season!