The story of one woman’s trek of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail

by Christy Klein 

Holly Pfaff sat in the corner of the Valley Pub & Grill, sipping her beer. The campers began karaoke night, and she was serenaded with the old country songs her father used to play when she was a child. 


One year earlier, Holly was visiting her great-grandmother’s cabin in Rhinelander when she discovered the trail. While perusing the used books section of a thrift shop, she picked up “Thousand Miler” by Melanie Radzicki McManus, a book that detailed her thru-hike of Wisconsins’s Ice Age Trail.


More than 30,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet advanced into Wisconsin. Its entrance and retreat has shaped Wisconsin’s landscape. The trail began in the 1950s thanks to Ray Zillmer, a man from Milwaukee who envisioned a long park that followed the glacier’s terminal moraine through the state. 


The dream of a long and winding park never came to fruition, but now the Ice Age National Scenic Trail marks the glacier’s former outline, a 1,200-mile footpath that walks the border of the ice sheet before it receded. While it is not complete, there is still more than 600 miles of established trail, as well as 500 miles of unmarked suggested routes that connect the trail’s western terminus in St. Croix Falls to the eastern terminus in Sturgeon Bay. 


One of just 11 national scenic trails, the trail falls entirely within Wisconsin’s borders. 


Even after living and working in Madison for seven years, Holly had never heard of it. Radzicki’s story inspired her, and Holly decided to hike the Ice Age Trail. She knew she needed to train first, so she hiked the shorter Arizona National Scenic Trail that spring. By the end of September, there she was, sitting in a Wisconsin pub just 30 miles away from finishing her 1,200 mile hike of the Ice Age National Scenic trail.

Breaking Trail

On Aug. 2 at 2:30 in the afternoon, Holly and her sister, Eva, stepped onto the Ice Age Trail at the Western Terminus in St. Croix Falls. They walked just under eight miles before setting up for the night. The full day of travel and the summer heat had worn them both down. 


Having easily set up her tent thanks to her experience hiking the Arizona Trail, Holly gazed over the St. Croix River as her sister set up her own tent. She found that this campsite, while primitive, was well-maintained. It even came with a fire ring, though it would go unused. A summer storm rolled through that evening.


For the first two days of hiking, Holly and Eva walked a two-way trail. On the third day at mile 25, the trees became dense. They stepped foot into the deep wilderness of the Northwoods where the trail narrowed. There, they were greeted by clouds of black flies and mosquitoes. 


Holly had begun sweating the moment the sun rose that morning, but she had been bracing herself for the bugs.  


She’d donned her hiking pants to protect her legs, tucking the bottoms into her socks to protect her ankles. She threw on her long-sleeved sun shirt and her rain jacket to keep her arms from being bitten. 


I feel like I’m dying of heat, she thought, but the mosquitoes were horrendous. Her sweat had delaminated the inside of her jacket, and still she refused to take her jacket off.


Holly looked at her sister, “We need bug spray.” 


Eva agreed. 

Holly Pfaff, age 29, finished the Ice Age Trail in 50 days.


Holly’s feet hurt. 


She hadn’t had dry shoes in two weeks. She and her sister had parted ways in the village of Luck after four days; Eva was only starting and finishing the hike with her. The rest was for Holly to hike solo. By the end of each day, her feet were waterlogged and sore. Her pants began to chafe badly, leaving her hips so raw and inflamed that she mailed the pants home at her next stop into town. By that point, the bug spray had been effective enough so Holly could hike comfortably without all of the layers.


By the end of the second week on trail, Holly had reached the Mondeaux Esker segment, a trail that followed a tall ridgeline that borders the banks of the Mondeaux Flowage in the Northwoods. She tried to ignore her wet shoes and focus on staying upright on the rocky and rooty path. She suddenly felt a pain on her right hand so sharp that she dropped her trekking poles.


Bee sting, she thought angrily as she rubbed at the growing red spot on her palm.


The pain intensified until it became disabling. Holly sat down on the trail, cradling her hand and feeling tears burn her eyes. 


Her hand was useless. 


It looks like I have a freaking water balloon for a hand, Holly thought to herself one morning as she slowly broke camp. 


She was forced to put away her trekking poles, which would have provided some extra stability as she hiked the rolling hills of the Northwoods. She tried to hike with her arms down at her sides but discovered that the blood rushed to her hand, leaving her fingers pounding in pain. 


For the next three days, Holly popped Benadryl and hiked with her right hand to her chest. 


She wasn’t even a third of the way into the trail, and she was already done with it. She was dirty, itchy and swollen. 


Do I really want to be doing this? 

Heading South

Pfaff reached the halfway point of the Ice Age Trail on August 30, day 29 of her hike.

Holly reached Antigo, a little town in north central Wisconsin with a population of just 8,000 people. She took a deep breath of relief and looked down at her shoes, a torn up pair of Altra hiking shoes that were practically new when she first started the trail just three weeks prior. The Altras’s deep lugs were made for the trail, and with all of the connecting road walks Holly had taken, the tread had worn thin. 


Holly walked into the local Walmart, grabbing a pair of cheap tennis shoes and deciding to splurge on some sandals as well, hoping she could wear them so her tennis shoes could dry out.


Ironic, she thought as she swiped her card at the register. If Eva wanted to bring sandals, I would have told her that was silly.


From there, the trail turned south, ending her time in Wisconsin’s Northwoods that had proven to be rather unkind. She had no trouble leaving those days behind. 


Holly stared at the sign. 






It was less than ceremonious. 


I need a picture. 


Holly pulled out her phone and looked around. While it wasn’t uncommon to find someone along the trail at one point or another, she found herself alone. She propped her phone up on a nearby rock and crouched down to fit into the frame. 


As she looked at the photo, Holly felt a tug in her chest. When she’d started the trail with her sister, they had taken hundreds of photos together. This accomplishment called for a celebration. After all, it was the longest she’d hiked in one trip, but she had no one to celebrate with. 


She took one last look at the sign before continuing on up the trail. 





Holly looked down at her feet. This is new. Her big toe ached. Her trip on the Arizona Trail in the spring had left her with Christmas Toes, a common phenomenon that leaves hikers with numb toes after walking long distances with heavy packs. The numbness typically sticks around for months, and her toes were still a bit numb when she began the Ice Age Trail. 


Uh oh. 


The night before, Holly stopped at a hotel in Friendship, a village in central Wisconsin, for the night. Her decision to change shoes in Antigo had taken its toll; she had always hiked in Altra shoes, which were built with a wide toe box. Her new shoes were far more narrow at the toes and hiking in them so intensely had given her new calluses. She’d pulled a particularly large one off of her big toe.


Holly sat down on the trail and pulled off her shoe to find her toe a painful and bloody mess. The narrow toe box of her new shoes had irritated the tender spot where her callus had once been to the point of no return. She glared at her shoes, now impossible to wear. 


She strapped the tennis shoes to her pack and hiked 150 miles to Madison in her sandals. 


Holly stepped onto the trail leaving Madison in a brand new pair of Topos, which came with a wide toe box and five-star reviews, and she was confident she could walk the next 500 miles in them. But asking your body to walk 25 miles daily in brand new shoes is a lot, and while her toes had ample space, Holly’s heels were soon marred with blisters. Even with Band-Aids and tape, the pain slowed her down.


This is ridiculous, Holly thought as she pulled off her brand new hiking shoes. Her $8 Walmart sandals were reaching their maximum mileage, but she strapped them on and they took her another 70 miles to Janesville. The sandals had taken her a total of 200 miles on the trail by then.


The soles of her sandals were paper thin, and the big blue sign was a beacon. Holly browsed the sandal selection at the Janesville Walmart, but her original sandal was nowhere to be found. Her eyes landed on a similar pair, but there was one major difference. These were platformed. 


Am I really going to hike in platform sandals? she deliberated. I like this brand though. My feet like them a lot. Plus they match my other clothes. 


Holly headed towards the checkout line. 



The slugs were everywhere.


A massive storm system rolled through Delafield, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee. The rain fell so hard that it collapsed Holly’s tent, forcing her to gather her gear and make her way to the bathroom where she could dry her things under the hand dryer. 


It was only later that she found out the area had over six inches of rain that night. And with the rain came the slugs. 


Holly didn’t mind, for the most part. They coexisted in peace. 


As she climbed into her tent for the night, Holly noticed a slug on the wall of her tent. She managed to put it back outside using a twig. She started crawling into her sleeping bag when she saw another. 


What the heck? She ushered that one out the door as well. What is happening? 


She grabbed her pack, which she had set on the ground briefly while she put up her tent, and found two more. After ensuring all slugs were comfortably outside, Holly settled into her bed for her favorite part of the evening: dinner and a book. 


The next morning, after flicking all of the slugs off of her tent, she found her tent guyline and the strap on her sandal were both chewed through and broken. 


Holly suspected the slugs.

Almost there

What the hell am I going to do? 


Holly had arrived at the Cedar Valley Campground, near Kewaunee on Wisconsin’s “thumb,” only to find its campsites were out of her budget. She debated on simply stealth camping somewhere off the trail nearby, but she was torn. She had already hiked 31 miles that day, and it was going to storm that night. She’d come to dread camping in heavy rain.


They have showers. And laundry. And beer.

After a brief conversation with the manager, the campground gave her a discount. With a sigh of relief, Holly started towards the pub. She was stopped by the campground employee, who very kindly explained how the campground ran, what type of food the pub served, when the kitchen would be closing, how to access the laundry, and where her campsite would be. Holly stared longingly at the pub. 


“Thank you so much,” Holly finally said to the overzealous employee and waved graciously before leaving for the bar. 


All eyes were on Holly and her giant backpack as she made her way to the bartender. She ordered a beer and got a roll of quarters for the laundry and a shower. Just as she began to sit down, she noticed a sign with the bar’s hours; they would be closing at 7 p.m. 


It was 6:15. 


“If you want to set up your campsite, you should go now,” said the bartender. “You can take the beer with you.” 


Holly politely thanked him, grabbing her things. She made her way to the campsite and sat at the picnic table for a moment to enjoy her beer before putting up her tent. As she observed her handiwork, Holly craved a second beer, but there was still so much to do. 

Holly's celebration meal in Valley Pub and Grill at Cedar Valley Campground, just three days before touching the eastern terminus.

She started her laundry and ran to the showerhouse where she stared at the mechanism, puzzled. Holly inserted the quarter and heard the timer running, but she couldn’t figure out how to turn on the water.


How the hell do I work this? 


She gave up, hoping it was a malfunction, and moved to a different shower, but ran into the same issue. Holly had lost a few quarters at this point, and she could think of only the fact that she needed to get the pint glass back to the pub before it closed. Panic began to set in. All she wanted was to sit down. 


Suddenly, the door to the showerhouse opened, and Holly heard two women walk in. Near tears, Holly poked her head out of the showers. She hadn’t brought a towel — towels are too heavy for the trail — so she tried to cover herself as best as she could with her pants. 


“I’m so sorry, but do either of you know how to work the showers here?” she asked sheepishly. 


With the help of the kind women who most likely saw more than they bargained for, Holly showered quickly before rushing to the pub. She checked the time; she was one minute past closing time. As she approached the bar, she discovered it was still as lively as it was when she’d left. 


As it turns out, the Valley Pub and Grill closed at 10 p.m. that night. 

The End

Holly would be meeting Eva again the next day. They would reach the Eastern Terminus in Sturgeon Bay together, but as she sat in the corner of the Valley Pub, freshly showered and fed, Holly considered her hike finished. She would hike the last 30 miles in short 10-mile pieces so her sister could keep up. She had been averaging 25-30 miles every day of the trail, and this was her last high-mileage day. 


She clapped for the karaoke singers as they took their bow, chuckling to herself. She’d brought a book with her, but it remained closed on the table in front of her. The evening was full of life and kindness. The manager and another camper bought her a couple of beers. Just a few people in the whole bar knew about her journey from St. Croix Falls, but that was OK. 


My little secret. 


Her heart was full. 



Holly stared at the rock that marked the end of her 1,200 mile trek. Her sister was celebrating next to her while Holly quietly knelt down and gave it a kiss. 


A week had passed, and Holly still hadn’t announced her completion of the Ice Age Trail. 


She opened the draft of her long social media post, paragraphs full of her hiking reflections and lessons learned. 


At the end of her hike, Holly could only think of all that had come to pass during her hike. A wave of emotion washed over her as she thought about what she had accomplished, all she overcame in order to push through more than 1,000 miles of walking. 



Holly Pfaff begins her trek of the Ice Age Trail at the western terminus in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.

She was proud and excited, but most of all, Holly was grateful. She rewrote her final trail announcement, which was far shorter than her original draft. 


“I feel like I should have something monumental to say about completing the Ice Age Trail, but I just feel blessed for the ability to hike and for the support along the way. Thanks to everyone that answered questions, gave me a shuttle to town, hiked with me, helped with resupply, the trail magic, offered me fresh produce, paid for my meals, the wonderful conversations, or made me smile. This experience was extremely challenging and beautiful. I’m so happy I did it.”


At the age of 29, Holly Pfaff finished her hike on Sept. 20, 2022, just 50 days after her start in early August. She is the 368th thousand-miler, and one of eight people to complete a thru-hike of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail that year.