Last Updated on September 9, 2020 by Janet Frost
The Kettle Moraine State Forest is truly a Wisconsin gem. Covering 55,000 acres of unique topography, the Forest draws campers, hikers, bikers, boaters, motorcyclists, skiers, naturalists, and photographers from around the country.
Let’s Go Learn Things in the Kettle Moraine
Glaciers and the Ice Age
20,000 years ago as the last Ice Age came to an end, two massive glacier lobes met in a grinding collision atop what is now Wisconsin. The Lake Michigan Lobe from the east and the Green Bay Lobe from the west left a path of debris and geological landforms. It was here, in Wisconsin, along the Kettle Moraine ridges, that North American glacial history was defined.
A bowl-shaped valley that was formed by the melting of buried glacial ice. Some of the kettles actually held water and became lakes.
A ridge of jumbled hills formed by piled up debris at the glacier’s leading edge.
A conical-shaped hill that was formed from meltwater flowing into a vertical crack in the receding glacier.
An oval-shaped hill that formed under the ice at the leading edge of the glacier.
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Enough of science lessons. Today the Kettle Moraine State Park protects and showcases over 55,000 acres of glacial formations, diverse wildlife and recreational resources in Southeast Wisconsin. The Forest encompasses five designated units and 115 miles of official Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. Kettle Moraine-Northern Unit, Kettle Moraine-Southern Unit, Lapham Peak, Loew Lake, and Pike Lake make up the five units. An added bonus is the Ice Age Trail meanders through the entire Kettle Moraine Forest.
Kettle Moraine State Park-Northern Unit
The Kettle Moraine Northern Unit starts 45 miles north of downtown Milwaukee and runs another 31 miles to Glenbeulah. Glenbeulah is 20 miles west of Sheboygan. This Northern Unit offers more than 335 campsites including 22 sites for horse riders. There are hiking/biking/skiing trails and recreational lakes. Picturesque Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive zigzags through the Forest. The Henry Reuss Ice Age Center has informative glacier and geologic exhibits and staff eager to help plan your visit to their part of the Forest.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit Campgrounds
Mauthe Lake Recreation Area
Located a mere 50 miles from downtown Milwaukee, this is an extremely popular site for Southeastern Wisconsinites. The 70 acre lake has a swimming beach, fishing pier, and boat launch for non-motor boats. Mauthe Lake Campgrounds has 135 campsites and a fun Plains Native American tepee available for reservation. For the truly fanatic campers this campground is open for winter camping.
Long Lake Recreation Area
Long Lake Recreation Area is less isolated than the Mauthe Lake area. There are 200 campsites, two beaches a boat launch and a fishing pier. The tiny town of Dundee sits on the south end of the lake with an ice cream shop and the local biker bar, Camp Dundee.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit Trails
Lake-to-Lake Trail traverses from Mauthe Lake Recreation Area through the Kettle Moraine State Forest to Long Lake Recreation Area. It is crushed gravel and well-maintained for both hikers and bikers. The trail is 6.5 miles one way.
Parnell Tower Trail
Parnell Tower Trail is a more rugged and natural trail. A 3.3 mile loop starts with a long steady climb to the 60 ft tower. Views from the tower are expansive and the rest of the trail is hilly and wooded.
Nature Trails are short loops with informative guides. The Kettle Moraine-Northern Unit offers three designated and annotated trails. Moraine Nature Trail starts at the Ice Age Center and loops for an easy .75 miles. Summit trail is a one-mile nature trail loop which scales Dundee Mountain. Glacial geology interpretive signs and an audio tour guide you along this challenging trail to the top of the highest kame in the forest. Mauthe Lake has a two-mile nature trail that loops around the lake.
Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit
The Kettle Moraine Southern Unit runs for 30 miles southwest from Dousman to Whitewater. For perspective, Dousman is 35 miles west of Milwaukee and Whitewater is 35 miles north of the Wisconsin/Illinois border. The Southern Unit Forest Headquarters and the Natural Museum are a great resource located just outside of the town of Eagle.
This stretch of forest offers hiking, mountain biking, bridle, snowshoeing and groomed Nordic skiing trails. Even the avid snowmobiler can find 87 miles of trails that wind through the Forest and into the surrounding villages.
There are a variety of camping options, two swimming beaches and three lakes with boat launches. The neighboring towns cater to the visitors of the Forest with rentals, shopping and dining. For the history buff, Old World Wisconsin sits on the edge of the Forest in Eagle, WI and the Forest itself has three historic cabins sitting on their original sites. If you are interested in Old World Wisconsin see this post in our Living History Series.
Kettle Moraine State Park Southern Unit Campgrounds.
Ottawa Lake campground offers 100 campsites and a 17 acre shallow lake. There are no trails in this unit but the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail is across the road and the complex of Scuppernong Trails is less than a mile away.
Whitewater Lake Campground is a facility of 63 primitive sites with no showers available. Whitewater Lake and its twin, Rice Lake, are both privately developed around most of the shoreline. The ubiquitous Ice Age Trail does cut through this campground.
Pinewoods has 101 campsites and a section designated as a Quiet Zone. The Ice Age Trail winds through the campground and the Scuppernong Trails are accessible from the park. This park does not have a lake but I find it one of the prettiest and peaceful of all the Kettle Moraine campgrounds.
Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit Trails
This Southern Unit contains some of my all-time favorite hiking trails. There are an impressive 160 miles of trails spidering through the Forest. They vary in length and difficulty, but you should expect some steep climbs and descents. Of course not steep in the sense of “mountain” climbing but definitely steep enough for a good workout. You will also enjoy deep coniferous forests, prairies, wetlands, fens, savannas, springs, creeks and rivers.
Emma Carlin Trail
This trail system goes through a hardwood forest with mostly hilly terrain. There are three color coded trails ranging from 3.5 to 8 miles. The trails are designated for hiking, single-track mountain biking and snowshoeing. Parking, water and vault toilets are available.
These are some of my favorite trails for fall color. The trails have a nice rolling characteristic through hardwood forest and pine plantations. There are three color-coded loop trails ranging from 2 to 5 miles. Scuppernong Trailhead provides convenient parking, water and a vault toilet. Trails are designated for hiking, snowshoeing and ungroomed nordic skiing.
Cross-Country skiing trails cover 30 miles in the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit. Classic and skate skiing is available on the Nordic Trails, McMiller Trails, and John Muir Trails. Nearby LaGrange General Store offers rentals for bikers and skiers, depending on the season.
Nature Trails are short loops with informative guides. The Kettle Moraine Southern Unit offers three different options with downloadable guides. The Scuppernong Springs, Stony Ridge and Stute Springs Trails.
Stute Springs Trail is a nature trail that explores an original farming homestead.
This unit is located between the Southern and Northern Units. Pike Lake Unit offers nine hiking trails, a kayak launch, groomed ski trails and one designated bike trail. Motor boating is allowed on the lake but the launch is outside of the park. There are 32 campsites, 24 wooded and eight open. Eleven campsites have electricity. Park map.
This unit is also located between the two major Northern and Southern Units. Loew Lake is a small shallow lake with access via the Oconomowoc River. The park land surrounding the lake is most popular for hiking and horseback riding. A word to the wise, bring your bug spray during the summer months! Loew Lake boasts a long segment of the Ice Age Trail.
Lapham Peak is named in honor of Increase Lapham, a self-taught scientist and early Wisconsin explorer. This unit is my favorite spot for hiking year round. It was here on the kame, Government Hill, that Increase erected one of the first National Weather Service signal stations. Today an observation tower provides views of nearby Lake Country and downtown Milwaukee, 25 miles to the east. As with many of the Kettle Moraine Units, the Ice Age Trail crosses through the park. The park gives the visitor a comprehensive experience of all the geologic landforms and habitats. For more Lapham details check out the post Curiosity is born at Lapham Peak Park
Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive
The Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive is a perfect way to enjoy this glacial landscaping. It connects all the various units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest via 115 miles of backroads. As you drive along, stop at a park or a trail and admire the beauty! Spend some time observing and learning about Wisconsin’s geological landscape and history.
WOW! What a Wisconsin Treasure
You can see why I consider this a treasure. There is a ton of information in this post and it might seem overwhelming. Don’t despair, anywhere in Southeastern Wisconsin is close to some part of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The interesting thing about this State Forest is that it winds in and around quaint and picturesque towns throughout Southeastern Wisconsin. If you are not a camper, there are plenty of great lodging choices in the area. Many Chicagoans and Wisconsinites migrate “Up North” every weekend in search of the very things we have right here in the Kettle Moraine. Motorcyclists flock to the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. This is an especially beautiful destination for a Fall Color Trip.