The sun peaked over the horizon illuminating the colorful maple trees around us. Big ridges and long shadows surrounded a small group of runners three miles into the Glacial Trail 50. The hardiest runners started the 50-mile companion race at 5 a.m. with flashlights in hand. The “short” race started at 7 a.m. on this chilly Saturday morning several Octobers ago.
My wife, Karen, thought I was crazy doing the race without the requisite training. But I reasoned that these trails are in my backyard, near Greenbush in the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The race route follows the Ice Age Trail through the heart of the forest, past the Parnell Tower (the highest point in Sheboygan County) on a down and back route.
The run started easy enough, until the climbing started and the cobble multiplied. I started questioning my sanity at the halfway turn around, having rolled my ankle a couple miles earlier. Only 15 miles left, I thought to myself.
Concentrating on the trail before me and the scenic beauty of this glaciated terrain gave me the energy to finish. I was well off the leaders but had a great day in a gorgeous place.
Endurance events aren’t a traditional state forest use, but are taking place more frequently as their popularity increases. (See sidebar.)
The Kettle Moraine is a glaciated zone that extends from southern Wisconsin to southern Door County. This mostly forested and undulating terrain makes a great place for the enjoyment of a wide range of outdoor sports.
This zone is unique in the Midwest, containing landforms such as kettles, kames and eskers. The distinctive geology was caused by the receding glaciers which caused depressions called “kettles.” These range in size from tiny potholes to large lakes. The glacier also bulldozed rock deposits, creating huge ridges and kames.
The ridged moraine area was created by receding glaciers over 10,000 years ago. Some of the best known are Holy Hill, Lapham Peak and the infamous Dundee Mountain. (At the latter, numerous UFO sightings have been reported.)
The Kettle Moraine State Forest is divided into two large and three small units, which are spread across a 100-mile area. The kettles are considered one of southern Wisconsin’s most popular recreation areas with well over two million visitors annually.
What can you do in the kettles? You can camp, hike, bike, ski, snowshoe, hunt, fish, snowmobile, horseback ride, swim, boat, tour the Ice Age Center, participate in an interpretive program, visit a working farm or just enjoy nature.
There are several large campgrounds, horse rider camps, more than a dozen shelters for backpackers and several lakes with beautiful beaches. Want to get lost on a long hike or run? You’ve come to the right place.
And it’s all connected by the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. The scenic route stretches 125 miles, from Elkhart Lake in northern Sheboygan County, south 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.
Northern Kettle Moraine
The 30,000-acre Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is located in southeastern Wisconsin between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac – 50 miles northeast of Milwaukee and within 100 miles of two million people.
Two groomed ski trails, Greenbush and Zillmer, have heated shelters and cater to thousands of skiers annually. There are two singletrack mountain bike trail systems at Greenbush and New Fane. An expansive trail system offers over 130 miles of hiking, biking, skiing and horseback riding.
The trails provide an opportunity to access remote areas of the forest and to view spectacular displays of the glacial geology. For an overview of area’s unique glacial features visit the Henry Reuss Ice Age Center located west of Dundee on Highway 67.
Greenbush Recreational Area
The snow was falling at the rate of one inch per hour with four inches already on the ground. Winter storm warnings were posted but I knew there was time for a quick outing on my fat classic skis with my dog Woody. I barely made it to the Greenbush Trails 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 see head groomer Jeff Welsch making corduroy in these difficult conditions with the Ranger ATV 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 silent sports crowd loves Greenbush with its myriad trails to hike, bike, ski and snowshoe. It’s a trail runner’s dream to connect the various systems through the Ice Age or equestrian trails, both of which run the length of the forest.
One of my favorite trails to run and backcountry ski starts at the Greenbush hiking and ski trails. I take the Ice Age Trail north from where it bisects the equestrian/snowmobile near the Town of Greenbush and turn south back to the trailhead. It’s a seven-mile treat to traverse the huge ridges, glacier-scoured water features and the Kettle Moraine Red Oaks Natural Area.
Greenbush also provides nine miles of challenging singletrack for mountain bikers. These trails aren’t suitable for leisurely family riding or faint of heart. The narrow trails run alongside huge eskers and kettles with 30-foot drops along its sides. Dual suspension on a 29-inch frame makes the cobble tolerable.
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 2K Brown Loop is lighted for cross-country skiing, which makes it a perfect trail for the local youth ski program, led for the past decade by Brian and Tina Henriksen. The heated Greenbush shelter typically becomes the largest day care center in the county on a snowy weekend.
“The Northern Unit is the largest and best,” laughs acting property manager Jason Quast. He admits there’s good natured banter between staff north and south claiming to be working in the better state forest unit.
The Long Lake and Mauthe Lake recreation areas are very similar to state parks with camping, good swimming and paddling access. There are seven formal boat launch sites in the northern unit.
“It’s nice if you have several days to explore,” Quast says. “You can’t beat the fall hiking and winter cross-country skiing.” Asked whether fall hunting and trail user conflict with one another, Quast replies, “Fall hiking and hunting pressure don’t coincide the best. It’s a balancing act, but we pull it off.”
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, prairie and forest. It stretches more than 30 miles with the forest headquarters three miles west of the village of Eagle on State Highway 59.
Nine state natural areas are contained in the park, including the 3,500-acre Scuppernong River Habitat Area which is the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River. A section of the Ice Age Trail passes through the property.
Another top attraction is Paradise Springs located on Highway 67. See an actual spring bubbling up through the sand at the rate of 3,000 gallons per hours.
With so many trail offerings, it makes it hard to pick a favorite one. For a short and scenic trail, visit Lone Tree Bluff Nature Trail. It is one of the few areas where the Niagara Escarpment pokes above ground in southern Wisconsin. Paddlers like the Ottawa Lake Canoe Trail, which is the only water trail in the kettles. No motors are allowed on Ottawa Lake and standup paddleboarders have yet to discover it.
The most popular groomed trails for cross-country skiing are the Nordic Ski Trails located on Highway H. Backcounty skiers have tons to pick from, including sections of the Ice Age and John Muir trails. Snowshoeing is growing and very evident on the Emma Carlin Trails.
A working farm in the kettles? You got it. Milwaukee youth get a working farm experience on the Oak Ridge Farm operated by the Milwaukee Public School System.
There are three smaller recreational units near the southern kettles. Lapham Peak in located 20 miles west of Milwaukee near the city of Delafield. An active Friends of Lapham Peak group has concentrated on the cross-country ski scene which includes the development of a heated shelter, a 2.5-mile lighted ski trail and snow making equipment.
Over 20 miles of trails offer something for everyone. Don’t miss the observation tower which provides a commanding view of the glaciated countryside.
Pike Lake offers camping, hiking, biking and swimming with an observation tower overlooking the park. It is located on state Highway 60 between Slinger and Hartford. Loews Lake is on the Oconomowoc River south of Hartford and offers hiking, hunting and horse riding.
Master planning and forest issues
The kettles gets millions of visitors annually which puts increasing pressure on the land and its caretakers. Dwindling state funds make user partnerships the key to maintaining current offerings. Organizations like the Northern Kettle Moraine Nordic Club have made it possible to sustain and even grow programs.
Ski Club President Clark Reinke understands the DNR’s position. “We know what’s happening to state funding,” he says. “With the cooperation of the local DNR, our club buys the grooming equipment, grooms the trails, developed a lighted ski trail and built a four season recreational shelter.”
Other user groups have done the same, especially mountain biking and equestrian clubs.
The demand for events – namely running, biking and ski races – is growing also. State Trails Coordinator Brigit Brown is working on a policy to reflect this major shift in park and trail use.
“State parks is in the process of developing a special events policy to regulate these new type events. There is a huge demand for having events on our state parks and trails,” Brown says.
Inherent in this policy will be the “total cost” of an event. Currently event organizers cover the cost of traffic control and garbage cleanup. But there might also be fees for trail damage, invasive species propagation and DNR staff time.
Park planners and staff are preparing to update the master plan for the Kettle Moraine in late 2013 or early 2014. It appears every user group wants a piece of the kettles. Some forest users are concerned about a push for motorized trails. The Kettles are highly erodible due to little topsoil and rocky subsurface.
Siting new trails is problematic with the myriad of trails that already crisscross the properties.
“I think we learned a lesson at the Bong Recreation Area on trail sustainability” under heavy motorized use, Southern Unit property manager Paul Sangren says. “Bong is flat and still needs considerable trail maintenance. I couldn’t speculate on future ATV use in the kettles, but based on available data it would be difficult to add ATVs. Kettle geography makes it very difficult from sustainability and location perspectives.”
Asked about the hunting and trail use conflicts, Sandgren replies, “Generally there hasn’t been too much of a problem. Several years ago it was problematic during the October chronic wasting disease hunt. The fall season is one of the busiest for forest users and we had thousands (of visitors) in the kettles who were unaware of the gun-deer hunting underway. Most hunters don’t want to hunt with that kind of activity around them. The November hunt isn’t bad as trail use declines and the leaves have dropped so visibility increases,” according to Sangren.
Ice Age Trail
The Ice Age Trail meanders through both Kettle Moraine units providing stunning vistas, prairie displays and arboreal tunnels through climax forest. There are 31 trail miles in both the north and south units. Add it up and you get a 100K of challenging hiking, running, snowshoeing and skiing trails. Trail designers managed to place the trail in some of the most scenic units of the kettles.
The trail travels over state, county, local government and Ice Age Trail Alliance-owned land. There is an additional 16 miles of road connectors.
“The Kettle Moraine offers a surprisingly wild feel for a place so close to the metro areas of southeast Wisconsin and northern Illinois,” notes Mike Wollmer, executive director of IATA. “It’s wonderfully accessible, well maintained and provides a high-quality backpacking experience within a short drive of millions of people.”
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn’t interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin Governor’s State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush, Wisconsin, with his wife, Karen, and dog, Woody.