The capacious nearby forest offers varied trails, birds, and camping options.
Illustration by Maggie Denman. photos by Holly Marley-Henschen except where otherwise noted.
In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.
There’s a place about an hour away from Madison where one can wander in a fairy-tale-like wilderness. Many (of my friends and acquaintances) have heard of it, but few have taken full advantage of Kettle Moraine State Forest in Southeastern Wisconsin. Neither had I, until a few weeks ago.
This geological wonderland comprises 56,000 acres of rolling, wooded hills and prairies. Kettle Moraine, divided into five units, was constructed by glaciers during the Pleistocene epoch, aka the Ice Age, somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. Now it’s home to numerous resultant natural landmarks and a healthy portion of Wisconsin’s famed Ice Age Trail, among other trails, including mountain biking, cross-country skiing, beaches, and campsites galore. There are horse trails and snowmobile trails too. And. So. Many. Trees. The perfect place for getting your forest bath on.
“The Kettle Moraine is a world-class example of glacial depositional features—some of the most classic, textbook glacial features that you will find anywhere in the world,” says Wisconsin State Geologist Ken Bradbury.
So, what’s a kettle? What’s a moraine? Let’s jump in the Way Way Back Machine with Bradbury.
The Kettle Moraine began to take shape between approximately 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, Bradbury says. Ice and snow had accumulated for thousands of years, building mammoth ice sheets—continuous glaciers that cover large landmasses. The Laurentide Ice Sheet covered what is now Canada, and much of the northern United States, from New York City to Chicago and as far south as St. Louis. Two curved lobes of the sheet—the Lake Michigan and Green Bay Lobes—met in what is now the Kettle Moraine. The gravelly sediments they carried from far distances were deposited along the way. As the lobes receded, the ice melted more quickly than it accumulated. Then, about 14,000 years ago, the deeper permafrost and buried ice melted away. These conditions created the curious landforms that mark Kettle Moraine.
Kettles, in the geological sense, are deep depressions that developed in spots where sizeable blocks of buried ice left over from the receding glacier melted, leaving cavities in the landscape. Many kettles became lakes as they filled with water, like Butler Lake in Kettle Moraine North. The Ice Age Trail rounds Butler Lake atop a formation called an esker. Eskers are narrow ridges of sand and gravel that were deposited by rivers flowing on or in tunnels beneath the glacial ice. When the ice melted, these sharp-topped, winding ridges remained, Bradbury says. The Parnell Esker flanks Butler Lake.
In early May, I hiked 20 or so miles of the Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine North. Starting at New Fane Trails to Butler Lake, I camped at nearby Long Lake for two nights. On the second day, sans backpack, I continued on the Ice Age Trail up to Parnell Tower, which offers awe-inspiring 360-degree views of the rolling hills in the area. The tower area has its own 3.5-mile hiking loop, which I declined to take because my right pinky toe had formed the largest blister I’ve ever developed. Foot topography!
Later, this noob was relieved to learn that backpackers often buy boots one to two sizes larger than normal to accommodate swelling and changes to the shape of the foot from constant walking with added weight. And you can loosen your laces to your heart’s content. Foot agony begone.
Blisters aside, traipsing through the woods around Butler Lake felt like braving the wilderness in an unsanitized folk tale in which both peasants and royalty are threatened by wolves, bears, and witches. Forests: the great equalizer. I evaded these threats, but encountered a new one: giant woodpeckers. Pileated woodpeckers, the largest and wily-est-looking of woodpeckers, are the Babadook of birds. (And not the cool, openly gay Babadook.) Males have wingspans of about two feet. They’re fascinatingly creepy and clamber up trees in an unsettling, off-kilter see-sawing motion. They also straight-up destroy trees. If you scare easily like me, beware of these red-headed devils.
A pleasant 2021 feature of not just Kettle Moraine, but all hiking trails, is the vaccination effect. I’m vaccinated and assuming that some people on the trail are as well. With this newfound immunity, I wasn’t gripped by a visceral impulse to leap 10 feet off of the trail to protect my life from approaching fellow hikers. This chill new-old hiking experience is highly recommended. Nature time is for chillness.
Backpacking is allowed in Kettle Moraine North and South. But the only permissible places to sleep are in the three shelters in the South Unit and five in the North. And they’re booked up months in advance, particularly over the weekends, but you can try your luck booking a shelter during the week. Reservations are good for one night and 10 people. You’re also welcome to pitch a tent outside the shelter if you prefer the earthy comfort of sleeping on the ground versus concrete. Who doesn’t?
In Kettle Moraine South, I explored the Ice Age Trail from the Southern Unit Forest Headquarters to Brady’s Rocks, a settlement and trail loop marked with a historical plaque. The nearly 11-mile round trip was more prairie than forest, yet just as calming. Except for the hour that it took to get out of hearing range of the unceasing shelling from a gun show at the nearby McMiller Sports Center public shooting range. You’ve been warned.
Though pets are generally verboten in Wisconsin’s state forests, parts of Kettle Moraine are pet-friendly. Many campsites allow dogs and Kettle Moraine South has two pet swim areas. Check the web for the rules of individual locations before packing up the pooch. Due to the pandemic, office buildings, visitor centers, enclosed shelters, and nature centers at state parks remain closed until further notice. However, some admission windows are open in fee areas.
You don’t have to hike, bike, horse, or ski the Kettle Moraine’s trails. The 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive snakes through six counties and ample landforms filled with flora and fauna.
Kettle Moraine State Forest has green space for days and sights that allow the mind to wander, conjuring bucolic inspired musings like, “John Deere tractors are the same color as grass and dandelions.” If you can stomach the hazard of ghoulish behemoth woodpeckers, check out Kettle Moraine: a state forest for all seasons. May you avoid blisters and enjoy greeting approaching hikers with ease.