Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Horse trail photographed on horseback. © CYNTHIA EISENMANN

The Wisconsin State Park System has more than 700 miles of trails and over 175 campsites for equestrians.
© Cynthia Eisenmann

December 2013

Horseplay allowed

Trail riding and camping with your horse go hand in hoof.

Amanda Laurenzi

Just like old Western movies where cowboys went on long rides and hitched up their horses at the end of the day, you can enjoy the fun in riding your horse through picturesque terrain while camping overnight with your equine friend.

If you have never been trail riding before, Wisconsin’s state parks and forests have some awesome, scenic routes and camping opportunities for novice and expert horseback riders alike. Giddy up to these prime Wisconsin locations for a day —or two or three —of relaxing trail riding and horse bonding with your family and friends.

Wildcat Mountain State Park

If you love horseback riding, you will absolutely enjoy this state park. Wildcat Mountain offers a variety of trails for all different riding levels. The trails are open from May 1 through Nov. 14. The park also has 24 campsites for equestrians. The campground includes picnic tables, fire rings, drinking water, vault toilets, a corral, hitching posts, parking pads, loading ramps and a large parking lot.

When asked what attracts riders to Wildcat Mountain, Cindy Gagan, a visitor services associate and horse camp host at the park, explains, "We have rugged terrain. Horse riders come here because they prefer that to flat land."

The park features five color-coded trails totaling 15 miles. The Red loop is a 5-mile trail that takes riders through valleys and hills. Connected to this trail are the Blue trail (four miles) and Yellow trail (seven miles), which lead out further past the main areas. The Green trail is a mile long and connects to the Blue trail by cutting through the Red trail. The Rock Johnson loop, starting in the horse campground, features a ridge for riders, before making its way back to the Red loop.

"We have a variety of narrower, sustainable trails, not wide, more like hiking trails," says Gagan. "But we also have some of the other ones where a gator or something would fit."

The trails have different habitats —wooded, grassy and meadow, and one with a large water crossing. "First-time riders can cross the bridge if they’re uncomfortable going through water, but there is also the actual water crossing. Depending on weather, the water usually only comes up to the horses’ knees. The bottom is also nice, not rocky," says Gagan.

Governor Knowles State Forest

Thanks to the Equestrian Friends of Governor Knowles State Forest, the horse trails and campgrounds have seen vast improvement over the last several years. The Trade River Horse Campground is open to both equestrian campers and general campers. April 1 through June 15 and Aug. 15 through Oct. 15 are solely for horse campers —the rest of the year the campground is open for all campers. The campground has 40 campsites, each with a fire ring, picnic table and horse tie post available. Governor Knowles offers five trails that range in length between two and 21 miles. Each trail offers a unique experience for riders.

Brown Trail, Barrens Loop – The Barrens Loop is the main trail in the forest, and also the longest at 21 miles. The first two miles south of the campground allow riders to venture through pinewood plantations and beautiful hardwood forests, at which point the trail crosses the Trade River.

After crossing the Trade River, the trail then parallels the St. Croix River for another three miles. The trail then loops back to the campground. Riders have some remarkable wildlife watching opportunities along this trail.

Green Trail, Sunrise Shortcut – If you’re feeling a little less adventurous and only want to ride half the distance of the Brown Trail, take a trip down the Green Trail. On this shortcut, you will pass through scrub oaks and pine and hardwood forest habitat.

River Trail – This trail is perfect for more experienced riders. While this 3-mile trail is considered the most scenic route in the park, it is also the most challenging. First you must travel up a steep, sandy embankment that can be eroded depending on recent weather. Once you reach the ridge, take a little time to enjoy the view of the Trade River before tackling the steep, sandy decline towards the river bottom. From there you can choose either the Brown Trail or the Red Trail for another adventure.

Red Trail, Wolf Creek Loop – This trail has both wooded and clear sections to ride through. The southern section follows the St. Croix River. At the halfway point of this loop you can cool off with your horse in the Wolf Creek before heading back to camp or trying another trail.

Yellow Trail – While you’re on the Brown Trail, you have the option of taking this newest trail in the forest on a route through oaks and jack and white pine trees. This 2-mile spur trail takes you back to the Brown Trail.

Three riders on the trail at Wildcat Mountain State Park. © WI DEPART MENT OF TOURISM
The varied terrain at Wildcat Mountain State Park offers great riding opportunities.
© Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Kettle Moraine State Forest – Northern Unit

The Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest has 22 family campsites and three group campsites for equestrians typically available between May and October. The New Prospect Horse Riders Campground offers picnic tables, fire rings, picket posts or metal pipe corrals, drinking water, a picnic shelter, vault toilets, covered stables with box stalls and manure pits. Electrical pedestals were also recently installed, thanks to the Northern Kettle Moraine Horse Trail Association.

There are 41 miles of trails to ride. The main trail is 33 miles long and winds the length of the forest. The two loop trails that provide riders an opportunity to go a less linear route are the Crooked Lake and Forest Lake trails.

Forest superintendent Jason Quast says, "Horses will get a workout. There are lots of hills and various habitats throughout the different trails."

Habitats surrounding the trails include pine plantations, open prairie and hardwood forests.

Kettle Moraine State Forest – Southern Unit

The Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest offers 87 miles of trails for equestrians. There are also 56 campsites in the Horseriders’ Campground available between April and November. There are both electric and non-electric sites available. Amenities in the campground include a picnic shelter, horse shower, manure deposit stations, drinking water, vault toilets, running water and wheelbarrows. Riders will see fantastic views of wet kettles, oak savanna prairies and area lakes while out on the trails.

Ottawa Trails – This series of trails has a lot to offer riders. In addition to the main trail, there are various, marked loop trails. The trails can be a little rocky, but for the most part have soft ground.

Eagle Trails – Riders like this set of trails for their scenic beauty. These loop trails, near the city of Eagle, vary in length and are sandy with few rocks.

Palmyra Trails – This series of looped trails begins just east of the city of Palmyra and the Horseriders’ Campground, making these trails very popular among riders.

Governor Dodge State Park

One of the best known state parks in Wisconsin, Governor Dodge is a fantastic location for trail riding. The park also has 11 non-electric, horse campsites and two group horse campsites. The trails at Governor Dodge have a variety of habitats and beautiful views.

Interior Horse Trail System – This trail system totals 6.7 miles and gives riders a chance to make shorter loops around the camp and day use areas. The two more popular trails that lead from this system are the Woodland Trail and Old Orchard Pass. The Woodland Trail is 1.5 miles and offers riders a chance to wind through wooded areas and some of the hills. Old Orchard Pass is 1.25 miles and connects the Interior Trail System to the Outer Trail System. Both trails provide fantastic views of Twin Valley Lake.

Outer Horse Trail – Being the longest trail in the park, at 15.3 miles, this trail takes riders through amazing, diverse terrain as it weaves through the more remote areas of the park. This is a one-way trail that moves in a clockwise direction.

Uplands Trail – This is another great trail for variety. It offers 2.5 miles of hills, prairies, wooded areas and an agriculture field.

Plan Ahead

The availability of horse trails and the opening of campgrounds can vary depending on the weather. Equestrians are encouraged to contact the property before going riding. For more information about all horseback riding and camping opportunities in the State Park System, or to reserve your campsite for the upcoming riding season, please visit dnr.wi.gov and search "Parks."

Tips for trail riding

Consideration and polite behavior are essential to ensure the enjoyment and safety of all trail users and for the protection of our natural resources.

  • Be courteous to other riders. Slower riders should stay to the right so others may pass safely. Announce your intention to pass before passing others.
  • Take extra precaution of other trail users such as those biking, hiking or walking pets. Let other trail users know when it is safe to pass your horse.
  • Be sure you understand all signs on the trail. Obey posted speed/gait limits. Avoid cantering or galloping on busy trails.
  • Purchase a state trail pass before riding and keep it with you while on the trails.
  • Make sure your horse has the temperament and training for riding on congested trails, and advise other trail users of your horse’s temperament, e.g., a horse with a tendency to kick should be last in a group of riders.
  • Know your horse’s capability. If you choose to ride a more difficult trail, it is important to know your horse can handle a challenging terrain.
  • Get a map and have your route planned out before heading out on the trails.
  • Keep hydration in mind for both you and your horse. Make sure you know where water can be found while you are riding, or bring enough for the trip.

Amanda Laurenzi is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She also contributes to Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.