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Little-Known Fact: The serpentine ridges in Kettle Moraine State Forest are called “eskers,” formed by streams traveling through tunnels at the base of glaciers 10,000 years ago.
I wanted to do some hiking in the Kettle Moraine State Forest in spring, when the trees were budding, the birds were nesting, and the bugs weren’t yet buzzing. But other commitments kept getting in the way. Then summer came, along with the poison ivy and ravenous mosquitoes, so it was early fall and peak color before I finally made the journey.
It turned out to be pretty good timing. It was a sunny Indian Summer weekend and southeast Wisconsin’s time to tout its fall finery. I couldn’t imagine a better day for a hike or a mountain-bike ride (bikes are allowed on only 23 miles of the area’s 145 miles of trails). The path was a corridor of colors. Clusters of multicolored trees surrounded ponds and streams running across the countryside. Hilltop vistas revealed quintessential dairy-land scenes: rolling hills overlaid with a patchwork of farms and dairies that stretched to the horizon.
About 10,000 years ago, this area was buried under a glacier that covered two-thirds of Wisconsin as well as most of northern North America. The giant sheet of ice advanced and retreated several times during a period of about 15,000 years. In the process, it tore up, picked up, and deposited pieces of terra firma along the way. As the glacier melted, a most unusual landscape was unveiled. Giant boulders and anomalous piles of cobbles were left among the rolling hills and ridges. Large conical hills along with dells and dales dotted the undulating countryside. Ponds and lakes filled depressions left behind.
The conical hills, called kames (some are 350 feet high), were formed by surface rivers flowing down to the ground through cracks in the ice, depositing heaps of cone-shaped debris along the way. Serpentine ridges, called eskers, were formed by streams traveling through tunnels at the base of the ice sheet. Ridges formed by sand, boulders, and cobbles when the glacier melted are called moraines.
Errant rock piles and boulders became a part of the traveling deep freeze, moving with the ice until the glacier melted and randomly deposited its cargo. Often a block of ice would be buried under the stony debris, forming a depression called a kettle. Many of Wisconsin’s lakes occupy these formations.
The edge of the glacier’s handiwork is outlined by the 1,000-mile-long Ice Age Trail, which connects the two Kettle Moraine State Forest units. Hiking possibilities in the Kettle Moraine range from rugged half-day hikes to week-long adventures. Three-sided shelters are interspersed along the Ice Age Trail, and several are in the Kettle Moraine forests.
In winter months, some of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. I was told the silence of a snow-fallen trail in the light of a full moon easily rivals the lively fall colors and pretty spring and summer flowers. I can’t wait to see for myself.
N1765 Hwy. G
Campbellsport, WI 53010
S91 W39091 Hwy. 59
Eagle, WI 5311-0070
Kettle Moraine is located in southeast Wisconsin, about 45 minutes from Milwaukee. If you need restaurants or lodging, try Kewaskum, Dundee, Campbellsport, or Greenbush.
The State Hwys. 12, 59, and 67 all lead to the Southern Unit. Take Hwy. 45 from Milwaukee (Hwy. 23 from Fond du Lac) to the Northern Unit.
In summer, temperatures are between 75 and 95 degrees F. In winter, temperatures are perfect for skiing at 0 to 32 degrees F. Bike trails are open from mid-April through November depending on trail conditions.
You might see whitetail deer, hawks, turkey vultures, raccoons, squirrels, possums, and turtles frolicking through Kettle Moraine, but no bears in this area.
Mosquitoes abound in summer.
The plant life along the area’s trails is as unique and varied as the geologic history. Because the Kettle Moraine landscape is so rugged and forbidding to human settlers, many rare plants thrive in the diverse sanctuary of the forests. Fields that dance with wildflowers one week can become a blanket of shimmering straw grasses just a few weeks later. Groves of fiery sumac, maple, and oak resemble tapestries of green, wine, and pink-orange in fall. Stands of silver-trunked birch carpet the ground with yellow leaves.
There are two family campgrounds in the Northern Unit ~ Long Lake and Mauthe Lake ~ with over 275 sites between them. They are 75 percent reservation, 25 percent first-come, first-served. Hook-ups, flush toilets, showers, and water are available.
There are three family campgrounds ~ Ottawa Lake, Pinewoods, and Whitewater Lake~ in the Southern Unit. All campgrounds accept reservations. You can call 1-888-974-2757 to reserve a site.Pinewoods and Ottawa Lake has showers, flush toilets, and water available. The other sites only provide pit toilets and water.
Visitors can also camp at primitive backpack shelters. Backpack camping along the Ice Age Trail is permitted only at the three designated shelter sites. A roofed shelter, fire ring, and pit toilet are provided at each site. Reservations are required and can be made by phone for one-night stays.
Reservations are recommended. They are limited to one night at each site and can be made by calling the park office. Reservations are accepted 11 months in advance.
The Ice Age Visitor Center (414/533-8322) is open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is also a nature center located at Southern Unit office.
If you’re biking the Greenbush and New Fane trails, there is parking available near the Greenbush Shelter and the Greenbush Picnic Area. For those backpacking, there are sites available near the shelters. Many other parking areas are available throughout the forest. Most parking areas require a valid vehicle admission sticker. For short stays, visitors can park off county roads.
Vehicle admission is $5 per day for Wisconsin residents, $7 for non-residents. Annual parking stickers (good at all Wisconsin state parks and forests for one calendar year) are $18 for Wisconsin residents, $25 for non-residents. A state trail pass is also required for those 16 and over who are biking or horseback riding. The trail pass is $3 for a daily or $10 for an annual. There are senior citizen discounts. Annual or daily trail passes and vehicle stickers can be purchased at any self-registration pay station. A $5 service fee will be charged for failure to use self-registration station when available. Fishing and hunting also require permits.
Memorial Day through Labor Day the camping cost is $7 for Wisconsin residents, $9 non-residents on weekdays. On summer weekends and holidays, all prices increase $2. At other times of year, it’s $7 for Wisconsin residents, $9 for non-residents on both weekdays and weekends. Sites with electrical hook-ups are $3 additional per night. The reservation fee is $4.
- Garbage and recycling bins are not provided at day use areas. Visitors must take their garbage and recyclables home.
- Fires are allowed only in designated fire rings or fireplaces.
- In summer, you’ll have to deal with poison ivy.
- Never wade downstream in rivers because sand bars drop off abruptly on the downstream side.
- Waters of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan can be dangerously cold. Swimming is not recommended in Lake Superior. Because of their large size, currents usually associated with oceans are found along the shore of the Great Lakes. Swimmers should be extremely cautious of areas where the current appears to flow away from the shore.
- Not all trails are surfaced, and steep climbs, descents, and stairways may be encountered.
Leave No Trace:
- Some of the land within the forest boundary is under private ownership. Respect private property.
- Visitors are encouraged to stay in designated areas. Stay on trails and in picnic areas and other developed areas.
- All LNT guidelines apply.
Five USGS topos cover the area: Kewaskum and Dundee maps for the Northern Unit; Eagle, Little Prairie, and Palmyra for the Southern Unit.
Other Trip Options:
- The shores of Lake Michigan are 20 miles east.
- Throughout this part of Wisconsin, Old World Wisconsin provides a trip into the 1700s and 1800s with historic buildings and sites. For more information, call 262-594-6300.