Ice Age Trail – Table Bluff

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Not far from Madison, Wisconsin, and just a few miles from Indian Lake County Park in Dane County, there is a segment of the Ice Age Trail at Table Bluff.  The Ice Age Trail segment is about 2.2 miles long and, in the absence of a car shuttle, is easy to experience as an out-and-back hike.  The trail is partly in open prairie areas and partly in woodsy areas; partly on the Swamplovers Nature Preserve, which is managed by the Swamplovers Foundation, and partly on private property via easements.

The Ice Age Trail is one of only 11 designated National Scenic Trails.  It is a work in progress, envisioned to eventually be over 1000 miles long running mostly along the southern edge of the glacial flow associated with the most recent Ice Age.  The trail passes through a variety of landscape features created by the glacial ice and its retreat.

My visit was in July, and a highlight was the variety of wildflowers, mostly prairie wildflowers, in bloom.  One of my favorites was an isolated find: a turk’s-cap lily (Lilium superbum): a superb lily, indeed.

picture of Turk’s-cap lily

Turk’s-cap lily

The Ice Age Trail runs essentially north-south in the immediate area.  The northern trailhead is along Table Bluff Rd not far from County Rd KP.  A southern trailhead is along Cowling Rd, also not far from County Rd KP.  The route is shown in this GPS track image, with the northern trailhead denoted by the orange dot.

GPS track

GPS track

There are two sections of parallel trail, denoted White-Blaze Trail, near the north and south trailheads.  The Ice Age Trail is marked by yellow blazes, mostly painted on 4×4 posts, while the side trails are marked by white blazes.  The difference between the highest and lowest points on the trail is less than 150 feet, so the overall elevation gain and loss is relatively modest; indeed, the Table Bluff feature is somewhat subtle.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

After leaving the north trailhead, the first part of the trail passes through open area, and just 0.2 mile from the trailhead we passed the north junction with the first section of the White-Blazed Trail.  We had decided earlier to save the White-Blazed Trail sections for the return trip.  Until we reached the next white-blazed junction we would be on a section of trail we would hike only once, though we expected all of the sections to have similar habitat range and wildflowers.

One of the first wildflowers encountered was purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea). In the early part of the blooming phase a ring of tiny blossoms resembles a tutu at the base of the flower head.  These were a bit farther along in the blooming phase.

picture of purple prairie clover

Purple prairie clover

After finding a couple of pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) we looked carefully to see if we could find one that was somewhat earlier in its blooming phase, and eventually we did.  The ray flowers are much paler than regular purple coneflowers, and they droop more dramatically.  When you can find (nearly) side-by-side comparisons, you can see that the shape and color of the head of disc flowers is also different between these two species.  The pale purple coneflower is considered to be a threatened species in Wisconsin, and this area is near the northern end of its range.

picture of pale purple coneflower

Pale purple coneflower

In this section of trail we did encounter a wildflower that we did not see elsewhere along the trail.  While it reminds me in some respects of everlasting, it is different.  In the absence of an identification, I simply call it white flower balls.  All of the parts of this plant, from the details of the heads to the tiny blossoms to the stem color and structure, are rather unusual and distinctive.  I could not find it in three separate resources that focus on the more common wildflowers found in Wisconsin, so it remains a mystery.

picture of white flower balls

White flower balls

In this sunny area we found Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), with characteristic tall waving plume-like flower stalks.

picture of Culver’s root

Culver’s root

We also found some compass plant (Silphium aciniatum), one of the four types of silphium found in Wisconsin.  The leaves of compass plant are distinctive: large (typically larger than 8 inches long) with deep lobes, oriented vertically.  The plant’s common name is based on the typical orientation of the leaves, with the blade facing east-west and the tips pointing north-south.  It is said – according to one resource I read – that early settlers in the Great Plains could navigate in the dark via the leaf orientation of this plant!  The plants themselves are also tall, up to a few meters in height.

picture of compass plant

Compass plant

About 0.8 mile from the trailhead we came to the second junction with the White-Blazed Trail and proceeded another 0.7 mile or so on the section we would hike in both directions.  Here we came across a wildflower that we only saw once, with a stalk bearing unusual-looking white-green blossoms.  I believe it is Canadian milkvetch (Astralagus canadensis).  The leaf pattern, visible near the bottom of the picture, was helpful to identify the pea family.

picture of Canadian milkvetch

Canadian milkvetch

The central part of the trail passed through a woodsy area.  In several places we passed eastern bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix) with the bottle-brush-like tips illuminated by small shafts of sunlight coming through the leaf canopy.  This lighting created a pretty effect and made it possible to see the details of the individual blades.

picture of eastern bottle brush grass

Eastern bottle brush grass

We also found some examples of a plant we’d seen several times in the preceding days on other hikes near Madison.  This small (about 1/4 inch across) blossom is at the top of a long stem, perhaps 10 inches tall, and is a brilliant pink color.  My camera does not render this color very accurately, and the actual color is more intense and redder than shown here.  It was rather tricky – and required luck, patience, or both – to get a clear photo with all of the detail on the petals.  It is Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria), and it is quite a beauty!

picture of Deptford pink

Deptford pink

Roughly midway through this woodsy section the trail dips a bit, 50 feet or so, to cross a small tributary of the Black Earth Creek. Within the forest there were other wildflowers, including daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus), white daisies, perhaps ox-eye, American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum), and others I neglected to note.

Just before the next junction with the White-Blazed Trail there is a surprise: a pottery bikini-clad alligator – or perhaps crocodile? – right next to the trail.  Although this is mentioned in one write-up of the hike, the origin is neither speculated on nor mentioned.

picture of surprise find next to the trail, in the woods

Surprise find next to the trail, in the woods

After the junction with the White-Blazed Trail, the trail again emerges from the woodsy area into open area, with sun-loving plants and wildflowers.  Here there was hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  As far as I know, butterfly milkweed is the only orange species of milkweed, at least in the region, and for that reason it is quite distinctive.

picture of butterfly milkweed

Butterfly milkweed

At the fourth junction with the White-Blazed Trail we essentially began the return trip to the north trailhead, omitting a quarter-mile section of Ice Age Trail down the ridge to the south trailhead.  Near this junction there is a picnic shelter, complete with picnic tables, barbecues, and a porta-potty, on a knoll overlooking the area to the south.  I believe this is part of the area that is actually on private property, and it is a privilege as trail users to have access to such a fine picnic area via the easement agreement with the property owner(s).

This segment of the Ice Age Trail is within what is called the Driftless Area, the area just beyond what was covered by the so-called Green Bay lobe of the most recent glaciation (Laurentide Ice Sheet) about 18,000 years ago.  Signage at a vista point is helpful to elucidate this information.  Here is a view overlooking the Driftless Area, now covered by farms, woods, and geological mounds.

picture of view of Driftless Area

View of Driftless Area

As nearly always happens when I visit southeastern Wisconsin, I focused on a typical selection of farm buildings with (preferably multiple) silos.

picture of typical southeastern Wisconsin barn and silos

Typical southeastern Wisconsin barn and silos

The prairie area on the relatively steep slope leading down from the ridge is referred to as goat prairie, perhaps because it was more hospitable to goats than to humans.  In southeastern Wisconsin there is a lot of active prairie restoration in progress: the original prairie was overtaken by trees, shrubs, and other non-prairie flora once the early settlers began to suppress the natural wildfires.  It is interesting to imagine how this view might have looked with original prairie dominating the landscape.

Near the vista area additional signage described the oak savanna habitat, locally including bur oak.  I presume that the oak trees I noted by the picnic shelter were bur oaks, with large, traditionally-shaped oak leaves – unlike what I have become accustomed to in California.

After enjoying the views we began the return trip to the north trailhead, this time hiking both sections of the White-Blazed Trail as alternatives to the yellow-blazed Ice Age Trail.  As we returned to the north prairie area near the trailhead I noted black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia lutea) and some prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with its exceptionally large (up to 2 feet long!) basal leaves but at this time lacking flowering stalks.  We also found some common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), one of the pale pinkish varieties of milkweed.  This specific plant was almost draped across some other plants just at the side of the trail and seemed to be posing for pictures.

picture of common milkweed

Common milkweed

This segment of the Ice Age Trail samples somewhat atypical geological terrain since it is technically beyond the reach of the last glacier and in the Driftless Area.  However, to a non-geologist, the prairie and woodsy habitats and their associated wildflowers are equally enjoyable whether or not there was previous glacial coverage.

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