Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Hoarfrost hangs over the mostly forested terrain in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. © Mike McFadzen

Hoarfrost hangs over the mostly forested terrain in the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

December 2014

The Kettle Moraine State Forest has the cure for cabin fever

Make it your winter sports playground.

Story and photos by Mike McFadzen

Work had taken most of my day, but with excellent snow conditions and a full moon, I wasn't about to waste a perfectly good ski outing. Woody, my 50–pound yellow Lab mix, knew he was in for an evening adventure, as I ditched the khakis and dressed in cold weather ski garb.

It was 15 degrees out when we unloaded at a nearby snowmobile trail. Marginal snow conditions for sledders would make for a perfect evening ski. Woody charged down the trail with me on my fat waxless skis. I caught and passed Woody on a long rolling downhill. We both enjoyed our evening ski in the heart of the Kettle Moraine. Pets are not allowed on groomed ski trails but are allowed on snowmobile trails that also may be used for skiing. Pets should be on a leash no longer than 8 feet.

The snow was falling at the rate of one inch per hour with 4 inches already on the ground and more on the way. Winter storm warnings were posted but I knew there was time for a quick ski outing. I barely made it to the Greenbush Recreation Area trails in the Northern Unit as bowed roadside trees formed a tunnel from several days of accumulating snow. It wasn't long before I heard trees cracking, collapsing from the weight of the heavy, wet snow.

I was surprised to see head groomer Jeff Welsch making corduroy in these difficult conditions with the trail groomer. I warned him about the conditions, but he shrugged it off as usual. I found out later he had to chainsaw his way out to make it home. Another good winter at Greenbush!

The Kettle Moraine State Forest is divided into two large and three small units, which spread across a hundred miles. The kettles are one of southern Wisconsin's most popular recreation areas with well over 2 million visitors annually.

It's all connected by the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. The route stretches 115 miles, from Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County to Whitewater Lake in Walworth County. The drive takes in all five forest units and is close to almost all natural features the forest offers. How's that for planning?

This mostly forested and undulating terrain makes a great place for a cadre of outdoor sports. This area is unique in the Midwest, containing landforms such as kettles, kames and eskers. The distinctive geology was caused by the receding glaciers over 10,000 years ago, which created depressions called "kettles." These kettles range in size from tiny potholes to large lakes. Some of the best known formations of the ridged moraine area are Holy Hill, Lapham Peak and infamous Dundee Mountain, with its numerous reported and published UFO sightings.

A group of hearty skiers. © Mike McFadzen
A group of hearty skiers take a break while skiing the Ice Age Trail near the Parnell Tower. Be prepared for big hills with sharp turns when venturing off trail in the Kettle Moraine.

Northern Kettle Moraine

The 30,000–acre Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is 50 miles northeast of Milwaukee. The Greenbush and Zillmer groomed ski trails in the Northern Unit both have heated shelters and cater to thousands of skiers annually. An expansive trail system offers over 130 miles of skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and snowmobiling. For an overview of the area's unique glacial features, visit the Henry S. Reuss Ice Age Center located west of Dundee on State Highway 67.

The silent sports crowd loves Greenbush with its myriad of trails. It's a snowshoer's dream to connect the various systems through the Ice Age or equestrian trails, both which run the length of the forest. Be aware when the snowmobile trails are posted open. Greenbush also provides 9 kilometers of challenging single track bike trail, which make for an excellent snowshoe or fat bike experience in winter. You'll be shoeing alongside huge eskers and kettles with 40–foot drops.

A thriving cross–country ski scene is led by the Northern Kettle Moraine Nordic Ski Club. The club recently completed a $25,000 trail renovation, which brought the trails up to national standards. Greenbush's 2–kilometer Brown Loop is lighted for cross–country skiing, which makes it a perfect trail for the local youth ski program. Skiers joke that the heated Greenbush shelter typically becomes the largest day care center in the county on a snowy weekend. There also is a sledding hill right out the door.

Long Lake and Mauthe Lake Recreation Areas are very similar to state parks with camping, good swimming and paddle sports access.

There's good–natured banter between staff at the two larger units, each claiming to be the better state forest.

"The Northern Unit is the largest and best," laughs Property Superintendent Jason Quast. "You can't beat the cross–country skiing and fall hiking."

"It's nice if you have several days to explore," Quast says.

Southern Kettle Moraine

The Southern Unit is located south of a line between Milwaukee and Madison, offering over 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettles, lakes, prairies and forests. The forest headquarters is 3 miles west of the village of Eagle on State Highway 59.

The most popular groomed trails for cross–country skiing are the Nordic ski trails located on County Highway H. Back–country skiers have many options including sections of the Ice Age Trail, John Muir trails and others. Snowshoe use is growing and very visible on the Emma Carlin trails.

Nine State Natural Areas are contained in the forest, as well as the Scuppernong River Habitat Area, which is the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Another top attraction is Paradise Springs located on State Highway 67, where you can see a spring bubbling up through the sand at the rate of 3,000 gallons per hour.

With so many trail offerings, it's hard to pick a favorite. For a short and scenic snowshoe try the Lone Tree Bluff Nature Trail. It is one of the few areas where the Niagara Escarpment pokes above ground in southern Wisconsin.

Lapham Peak

Lapham Peak is located 20 miles west of Milwaukee near the city of Delafield. An active Friends organization has concentrated on the cross–country ski scene, which includes the development of a heated shelter, a 2.5–mile lighted ski trail, snow–making equipment and a thriving youth ski program. Don't miss the observation tower, which provides a commanding view of the glaciated countryside.

Pike and Loew lakes

The Pike Lake Unit is located adjacent to the city of Hartford and the Loew Lake Unit is less than 10 miles south of there. Pike Lake is the more developed of the two, with a popular 32–site campground, a swimming beach, picnic areas, several miles of hiking and skiing trails and an observation tower. Loew Lake is a rustic respite offering hiking, kayaking, fishing and other silent sport activities.

Ice Age Trail

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail meanders more than 60 miles through the Kettle Moraine, connecting all five units and providing stunning vistas, prairie displays and arboreal tunnels through climax forest. Backpack campsites are available for long–distance hikers. Designers managed to place the trail in some of the most scenic areas of the forest.

"The Kettle Moraine offers a surprisingly wild feel for a place so close to the metro areas of southeast Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It's wonderfully accessible, well maintained and provides a high–quality trail experience within a short drive of millions," explains Mike Wollmer, Executive Director of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

Partnerships are key to the forest's future

The kettles get millions of visitors annually and continued growth puts increasing pressure on one of the busiest recreational forests in Wisconsin. The demand for events such as skiing, running, biking and adventure races is also growing, adding additional challenges for staff and property.

User partnerships are key to maintaining current offerings. Organizations like the Northern Kettle Moraine Nordic Ski Club have made it possible to sustain and even grow programs. Ski Club President Clark Reinke understands the DNR's position.

"With DNR's cooperation, our club buys the grooming equipment, grooms the trails, developed a lighted ski trail and built a four–season recreational shelter," explains Reinke. "It's a great relationship, everyone benefits."

Mike McFadzen writes from Greenbush, Wis.