Lookout at Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Pike Lake Unit offers spectacular glacial views, year-round activities.
Rob Wessberg and Paul Holtan
When the glaciers receded from the area that is now Wisconsin about 10,000 years ago, they had sculpted a unique landscape known as a kame field along a section of the Kettle Moraine near current day Hartford. As the glacier melted, streams formed that deposited sediments in a triangular shape. The action of the stream flow sorted the different sediments, resulting in stratified layers of silt, sand and gravel.
This action created a series of steep triangular hills known as delta kames, combined with "kettle" lakes in this area. Many kames have been mined for their valuable sand and gravel, but a spectacular one is protected in what is now the Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
"The glacial landscape of this area displays what I call the ‘Rocky Mountains’ of Wisconsin, with an average peak elevation of 1,300 feet, offering outstanding views," says Rob Wessberg, superintendent of the Pike Lake Unit for the Department of Natural Resources.
A popular destination, Wessberg says, is to hike up the 1,350–foot Powder Hill kame that offers an elevated view from a 65–foot tower of the glacial landscape and heart-shaped Pike Lake, along with a breath–taking look at the Holy Hill Basilica, which was also built on a kame.
Located about half an hour from downtown Milwaukee, the Pike Lake Unit offers a wide variety of opportunities for year–round recreation and for urban families to connect with nature.
Pike Lake, a deep water lake left when the glaciers receded, is the main attraction during the summer months. At 45 feet deep, the 446–acre lake is the only natural reproducing walleye lake in the region and features a variety of game fish such as northern pike, perch, bluegill and largemouth bass. The lake offers a possibility for a trophy catch: an angler reeled in a largemouth bass that was 22 inches and weighed 6 pounds last summer and this winter a 41-inch northern pike won the trophy at an ice fisheree.
There is a beach that provides the opportunity to swim on the hot summer days, and kayaking is popular in the calm waters of early morning. There are three boat launches on the west side of the lake, which is large enough to accommodate wave runners and water skiers.
"I have talked with visitors sitting along the beach under a shade tree during the hot summer afternoons only to find they have been coming here for more than 40 years to catch the cool westerly breeze off of the lake — Mother Nature’s air conditioning," Wessberg says.
Those loungers had a chance to see a bald eagle that was attracted throughout last summer to the smorgasbord of fish Pike Lake has to offer.
The Pike Lake Unit offers two reservable picnic shelters to assist people in planning for special events such as birthdays, graduations and anniversaries. A big attraction is the shade provided by large sugar maple trees along with the close proximity to the beach. Boaters may moor along the shallow shoreline and take guests out on the water throughout the afternoon.
"These are some of the traditions that have been started with families that have been gathering at Pike Lake for many years," Wessberg says.
Stone walls are found throughout the Pike Lake Unit — a sign of Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage from settlement time. The glacier left cobblestone within the soil that settlers in the late 1840s had tilled up when plowing their fields. As the rocks were cleared for planting crops, they were piled along the edge of the fields forming the stone walls.
One stone wall runs through the edge of the campground, which is nestled in a mixed hardwood forest that provides shade from the hot afternoon sun. The campground offers a backwoods camping experience, with 32 campsites, 12 of which are electric. The campground is popular, so campers should plan ahead by calling Reserve America to make campsite reservations.
The Pike Lake Unit offers a variety of looped trails, including one popular trail with a level surface for people with disabilities to access a boardwalk with a close up over-the-water view from a fishing pier. Hikers may witness a fawn and doe running, the sound of a woodpecker chiseling on a tree, or the frequent chirping of ground squirrels alerting others of their presence.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail passes through the Pike Lake Unit on its way down from the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, passing through the Holy Hill area, before heading through the Loew Lake, Lapham Peak and Southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. As the trail meanders it provides hikers a feel of what the glaciers left behind while traversing the landscape. Many vegetation openings entice hikers to stop and take in a spectacular view.
A year-round property, fall and winter offer great outdoor experiences too. Fall colorama is spectacular, with the moraines and kames providing an elevated view of the color display. Wessberg says the drought of the past season brought incredible colors never seen before by the local residences.
Visitors can plan a stop as they drive the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive that connects the Southern Unit through Lapham Peak, Loew Lake, and Pike Lake units, up to the Northern Unit. Visitors to nearby Holy Hill can climb one of the steeples in the Basilica, from which they can see Miller Park and the Milwaukee skyline.
When snow arrives Pike Lake offers up to five miles of cross-country skiing with trails groomed for classical and skate skiing. Other trails offer snowshoeing opportunities. Winter visitors will see multiple animal tracks in the snow, letting them know that the forest is alive with many mammals that had ventured out overnight.
A very popular winter event is the annual candlelight ski/hike in February each year. More than 1,500 people came out this past winter to cross-country ski and hike along a trail illuminated with over 350 bag candles. At the end experience a sip of hot chocolate and bonfire. Northern Cross Science Foundation offered a glimpse of Jupiter in a winter sky through a high power telescope.
Events at Pike Lake are sponsored or supported by the Friends of Pike Lake, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting a greater appreciation of the Pike Lake Unit. The friends group has a new event called Discovery Day planned for June 1. It will be an opportunity for visitors to experience a variety of outdoor experiences such as fishing, geocaching, making fish-print t-shirts, bird hiking, kayaking and visiting with Smokey Bear.
The Friends of Pike Lake was also successful in securing an Affinity Grant from the statewide umbrella group, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks Unit to provide quality outdoor educational programs during the summer that include live raptor and animal demonstrations. More than 200 kids learned how to build a safe campfire and sing Happy Birthday to Smokey Bear and eat birthday cake last August.
"At a time when many younger kids and families are losing opportunities to develop a passion for the great outdoors of Wisconsin, this grant has allowed us to engrave a memory for a lifetime for these youngsters," Wessberg says.
The Pike Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest will be offering outdoor programs in 2013 every Saturday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Check the Get Outdoors activities calendar of the DNR website or the Friends of Pike Lake website. People interested in being part of promoting the Pike Lake Unit, can also visit the Friends of Pike Lake on Facebook or stop by the office for information on how to get involved.
Rob Wessberg is the superintendent of the Kettle Moraine State Forest Pike Lake Unit.
Paul Holtan is a DNR publications editor in the Office of Communications.