By Amy Bayer
Stretching from Whitewater Lake in Walworth County to Elkhart Lake in Sheboygan County, the Kettle Moraine was created more than 10,000 years ago when two glacial sheets collided, creating friction and land buckling. The area is dotted with kettle lakes, wetlands and valleys formed when pockets of ice melted, as well as high hills, moraines and kames formed by piles of sediment that were deposited when the glaciers retreated.
There are several regions of the Kettle Moraine that are protected by the Wisconsin DNR as state forests. Take a leisurely drive along the 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Route, bike the 6.5-mile crushed limestone Lake-to-Lake Bike Trail connecting Mauthe and Long Lake Recreation Areas, hike to the top of an observation tower (there are three located in this region), or canoe along crystal clear lakes. There is a varied landscape just waiting to be explored.
Here are just a few amazing natural wonders and great Kettle Moraine trails.
Northern Unit (Fond du Lac, Sheboygan and Washington counties)
Dundee Mountain – Summit Trail
The Long Lake Recreation Area in the Northern Unit is home to the Summit Trail, which takes hikers to the peak of Dundee Mountain. Dundee Mountain is the largest kame in the state forest and provides incredible panoramic views of the area. The nature trail loop is only 0.75 miles long, but it’s a strenuous hike with a 200-foot elevation gain in a quarter-mile. Once you’re done hiking, you’ll want to cool off at one of Long Lake’s two beaches.
This recreation area has two separate trail systems, including nine miles of mountain bike trails and 13.5 miles of hiking trails. In the winter the hiking trails are groomed for cross-country skiing and the bike trails are groomed for snowshoeing, so it’s a year-round destination to explore!
The top of this tower is the highest point of elevation in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. From the Parnell Tower parking lot there are a series of steps that take visitors to the 60-foot tower rising above the treetops. Dundee Mountain and Holy Hill are visible from this perch. In addition to the tower there is a 3.5-mile trail loop to explore this section of the forest, which overlaps with a short segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
Southern Unit (Jefferson, Walworth and Waukesha counties)
Ottawa Lake Canoe Trail
Ottawa Lake is a shallow 27-acre kettle lake fed from groundwater springs. A canoe trail is marked along the lake with numbered buoys that correspond to a pamphlet providing detailed information about each stop. From descriptions of vegetation to wildlife, this self-guided tour provides a snapshot of the lake’s fascinating features.
Rice Lake Nature Trail
This easy .5-mile trail circles a small section of Rice Lake, which was created in 1947 when a dam was built along Whitewater Creek. Formerly a wetland area, it is home to abundant wildlife including bullfrogs, blue heron, raccoons, mink, muskrats, mallards, geese and painted turtles. On the southwest section of the trail is a wildlife blind, giving visitors an opportunity to be immersed in nature.
Powder Hill is the second-highest point in southeastern Wisconsin. Located a half mile from the Nature Trail parking lot or just over a mile from the Pike Lake beach parking area, an observation tower near the top of the peak provides panoramic views of the region. To the south you can even see the spires of the Basilica at Holy Hill – a must-see destination when the fall colors are in full swing.
Located in southern section of Washington County, this unit of the Kettle Moraine is a 1,200-acre wooded property. With a free boat launch and a no-wake policy, paddling activities are popular on the 23-acre Loew Lake. The area also is a popular hunting destination in the fall, and like most sections of the Kettle Moraine, it contains a significant section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine has several features worth exploring. Unlike Parnell and Powder Hills, the Lapham Peak Observation Tower has a paved road for people to drive to the base of the observation tower, making it a little more accessible. In addition to the tower there are 4.8 miles of off-road biking trails, several miles of hiking trails, prairie restoration sites and a butterfly garden. In the winter the hiking trails are used for cross-country ski trails, and this is one of the few destinations in the state that makes snow and has lit trails for nighttime cross-country skiing in the winter.
Want to read more? Check out these seven statewide natural wonders, and keep an eye on TravelWisconsin.com as we roll out more articles on scenic wonders by county.