When the bitter cold of winter strikes like it has the past couple of weeks, I find myself fighting the urge to curl up indoors with adventures of the vicarious nature in the form of a good book.
But I know with the proper attire, a winter hike can be an exhilarating and peaceful prospect, and the John Muir trails deliver on all accounts.
Part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest's Southern Unit, the trail system, about two miles north of La Grange in Walworth County, features five loops ranging from 1.25 to 12 miles.
In the summer and fall, mountain bikers dominate the single-track trails; it's one of the most popular destinations for mountain biking in southern Wisconsin. Hikers are welcome, but the narrow trails are packed with bikes on weekends especially, making for a hike that is more dodging tires and less admiring the scenery.
Come winter, however, hikers and snowshoers reclaim the snow-covered trails a bit. Brave bikers and fat-tire enthusiasts still venture out, but the bike traffic drops significantly, making it much easier to take on the trails by foot.
It's easy to see why the trails are so popular. Well maintained with the help of an army of volunteers, there are a variety of trail loops of varying difficulty, offering something for everyone.
Route: From the trailhead at the parking lot, follow the sign for hikers and begin your walk heading counterclockwise on the trails (bikers follow the trail clockwise).
This beginning section is a relatively easy hike, but remember that these are mountain biking trails that contain logs, tree roots, rocks and other natural obstacles that can be obscured by the snow, so hike with caution. If the snow is deeper than 6 inches, snowshoes can be helpful for making the trek.
As the trail winds through hardwood forest, it begins to narrow and makes a number of climbs, descents and switchbacks along the kettles, making for an interesting and sometimes challenging hike.
Major trail intersections are marked by the letters MR and numbers ranging from 1 to 12. At the first major intersection, MR9, the blue and green loops continue north while the brown, white and orange loops cut back to the west. The blue and green loops are 12 and 7 miles respectively, so follow the trail to the west if you don't want to be hiking all day.
A short distance later, the orange loop (4.95 miles) splits off from the brown and white at MR12. Be careful to not follow the burgundy trail (Rainy Dew pass) at MR11 — this trail connects with the orange, blue and green loops on the western edge of the system and makes for a long hike. The white loop splits from the brown at MR10.
For a quick hike, continue following the brown loop back toward Highway H and the trailhead.
If you have time, the white loop (4.23 miles) is worth exploring. The roller coaster trail winds past pine plantations, shagbark hickories, maples and oaks on its descent to an expansive bog, one of my favorite spots along the trail. A bench along the trail on the southeastern edge of the bog provides a great vantage point for taking in the snowy expanse.
Difficulty level: Moderate. There are a number of steep climbs and descents on most of the loops, made even more challenging in the snow.
Trail tips: While there are maps and trail markers at major intersections, most of the signs face the direction of mountain bikers, making it easy to miss a marker if you're hiking. Emergency evacuation trail cutoffs complicate navigation even more. Be sure you have a map before you set out, and pay attention to markers at trail crossings.
Layers are key when dressing for a winter hike. Opt for fabrics that wick moisture, dry quickly and insulate. A good rule is to have a base layer of synthetic or merino wool (avoid cotton); a middle, insulating layer of fleece, wool or goose down; and an outer layer that is waterproof and windproof.
How much it will set you back: The trails are part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, so you'll need a state parks sticker ($25 annual/$7 daily). Bikers 16 and older also need a state trail pass: $20/annual, $4/daily.
While you're there: Warm up with a hot chocolate and a sandwich at the La Grange General Store, W6098 Highway 12, which also serves up soups, salads and ice cream. The adjacent Backyard Bikes and Ski shop sells and rents a variety of outdoor gear including skis, snowshoes and mountain bikes. See backyardbikes.com or call (262) 495-8600.
Get a double-dose of nature with a glide on the Nordic trails, just across County Highway H from the John Muir trailhead. Popular with cross-country skiers, the trails are open to hikers when they are not groomed for skiing. There's also a warming shelter and hill for sledding.
Visit the trails on the shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, for a winter solstice hike hosted by the DNR. Bring your own food to roast over a bonfire after the hike, which kicks off at 3 p.m. See dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/getoutdoors/events.html.
Getting there: The John Muir trails are at N9097 County Road H, Whitewater, about 45 miles southwest of Milwaukee via I-43 and Highways 20 and 12.
More information: Call 262-594-6200 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/kms/trails.html.
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