Kettle Moraine State Forest-North Unit

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments here and on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn about my two posts from Door County. Those five days in beautiful Door County were memorable. If you missed those two stories, click here and here for a look-see.

A couple of weeks after our Door County adventure, we hitched up the Minnie to Red Rover for our last camping outing of the season. This time our destination was the North Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest located about an hour and forty minutes northeast of Madison between Fond du lac and West Bend. This was our first time at the North Unit, we wondered why haven’t visited and camped here before. It’s scenic and quiet. We did visit and camp at the South Unit in August 2020. Here’s a link to that post.

The Kettle Moraine was created by the collision of two glaciers during the last glacial period that covered this area between 11,000 and 75,000 years ago. The result is a very hilly terrain and interesting landforms. Some definitions are needed to understand the Kettle Moraine.

  • Kettles were created when a large chunk of ice broke off the glacier and became buried in sediment. When it slowly melted, a depression occurred, some shallow, some deep. Some became kettle lakes.
  • Kames are steep-side conical mounds of sand and gravel deposited by a melting ice sheet.
  • Eskers are long, narrow ridges made up of sand and gravel by melting glaciers. In between these landforms are lakes and rivers that populate the Kettle Moraine.
  • Moraines are jumbled hills of unsorted, unstratified glacial debris found at the sides or in front of a glacier.
  • Drumlins are oval teardrop-shaped hills formed under the glacial ice near the advancing from of a glacier.

Now that you’ve had your geography lesson for today, let’s focus on Kettle Moraine! This State Forest consists of nearly 30,000 acres covering parts of three Wisconsin counties. It stretches over 22 miles from south to north and 3 to 5 miles wide. There are three campgrounds, beaches, boat launches, and an observation tower. The property also has nearly 150 miles of trails for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and horse back riding. It receives over 800,000 visitors per year. It’s a very popular outdoor recreation area in east central Wisconsin.

We camped four nights in the Mauthe Lake Recreation Area. Because it was during the week, the campground was only about a quarter full so it was very quiet, especially at night. When we returned home, we yearned for the peace and quiet of this remote area. No loud car noises, no dogs barking late at night, no random gunfire!

We did have some rain during our first night and day of camping. This led to a leisurely morning of coffee, reading, and writing. By mid-morning, the drizzle stopped so we climbed aboard the Red Rover to begin our exploration of the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive.

The campground is nearer to the southern end of the North Unit Scenic Drive so we explored the southern segment first. The road took us through the very neat, clean village of New Fane, a place we never heard of before. There appears to be one business in town, a combo bar and restaurant. There are houses on either side of the road through town, we thought it quaint and tidy.

After several miles of up and down the kettles, we arrived at the outskirts of West Bend. The photo below is an example of a drumlin.

While I’ve been to this city of 30,000+ people, my Traveling Partner had not. I took her on a short tour, we especially liked the historic downtown area.

Soon we were back on the road heading north. We stopped at the campground for lunch and then started out on the north segment. Every day during our stay, the trees became more and more colorful.

On our return trip, we stopped at the Parnell Tower, the highest point in the North Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest. The sixty-foot Parnell Tower offers a panoramic view of the surrounding terrain. Now I must confess, since the weather was overcast and foggy, we chose not to trek up the hill then up the tower and be disappointed with the view. Therefore, there is no photo of the said tower. Maybe next time! 

On the third day of our stay, the sun came out so we hiked the Tamarack Circle Trail. The trail was close to the campground and easy access. This circle trail took us all the way around Mauthe Lake and over the Milwaukee River in two places. 

Mauthe Lake, a kettle lake, is about 70 acres in size and has a maximum depth of about 23 feet. It’s a popular for fishing, kayaking, and there’s a nice sandy swimming beach.

The headwaters of the Milwaukee River are located a few miles north of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. This river flows through Lake Mauthe eventually emptying into Lake Michigan in the Milwaukee harbor nearly 50 miles downstream.

Along the trail, we saw some trees that have already lost their leaves. We noticed several shrubs with the bright red berries that stood out from the background.

The path was easy to follow and level in most places. We passed by the Kettle Moraine headquarters and a plantation of pine trees planted after over logging had removed large segments of the white pine forest.

We were intrigued by the White Cedar Swamp, a marshy lowland where cedar trees thrive. These shallow rooted trees fall over from weather events or old age. I thought the gnarly root system looked like artwork. Honestly, the black and white photos don’t do the real thing justice, they were intricate and elegant, in my humble opinion.

It was an enjoyable walk on a beautiful day. In the afternoon, we stopped by the Haskell Noyes Memorial Woods State Natural Area located with the State Forest. Here the path was less traveled but a great place to see the kettles, eskers, and moraines.

During our walk this delicate fine, leafed plant stood out among the larger plants, trees and brush. The leaves are about the size of a dime so quite small in comparison.

Later that afternoon, we stopped by the Visitor Center for Kettle Moraine and the Ice Age Trail on Highway 67 west of the village of Dundee. We perused the nicely done exhibit hall and the small gift shop. The ranger directed us to a couple of hiking trails with access from the parking lot. We walked up the Vista Trail (an example of a kame) hoping to have a vista, no such luck. Too many trees blocking the view. After completing the 1/3 mile loop, we walked the 3/4 mile Moraine Nature Trail. This trail focused on identifying the major tree species in the State Forest. It was very informative with the handy brochure available at the trailhead. I just wish I could remember what I learned!

On our last morning at Kettle Moraine, we woke to more drizzle and heavy fog. This canceled our plans for hiking a short segment of the Ice Age Trail. The park newspaper had an ad for Baker Cheese declaring they had awards for the best string cheese in the United States and the best flavored string cheese in the world. As fans of the Door County makers of smoked string cheese, Renard’s, we had to put their claims to the test. About 20 minutes north of the campground, we pulled into cheese plant parking lot at the corner of County G and T, near St. Cloud. The day of our visit, they were out of the jalapeño and smoked string cheese. They did have made-that-morning fresh string cheese in 1 to 5 pound packages for very reasonable prices. We purchased a couple of pounds and a couple of other varieties of cheeses from their display case. Ok, I still like Renard’s smoked string a little better, but Baker’s fresh string is a close second. Stop by when you are in the area. Click here for a link to their website and directions to their store.

Too soon, we had to pack up and head home from our last camping trip of the 2021 season. Can’t wait until next year for more camping adventures.

Until next week, happy travels!