Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest North, Zillmer Trail System — Hiking and a Lesson in Geology

State parks, state forests, state recreational areas, and state natural areas, despite the differences in name and funding, what really distinguishes them? (Asking rhetorically unless someone has a legit answer.) No matter the title, all of these areas have been deemed special, beautiful, and worth sharing with everyone.

This adventure brought us to one of Wisconsin’s most well loved state forests, the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Spread across over 100 miles, this state forest is divided into several sections, all in southeastern Wisconsin. The forest is named for the Kettle Moraine, which stretches from Walworth to Kewaunee Counties (so like Elkhorn/Lake Geneva to Algoma areas.) Digging deeper, the Kettle Moraine is named for being a moraine that is dotted with kettles. Unfamiliar with those geological terms? Don’t feel bad, I had never heard of them either outside the context of the state forest. Let’s learn together.

I usually don’t copy and paste information verbatim, but I am far from a geologist and Wikipedia is so knowledgeable. Not trying to reinvent the wheel here.


Moraine:moraine is any accumulation of unconsolidated debris (regolith and rock), sometimes referred to as glacial till, that occurs in both currently and formerly glaciated regions, and that has been previously carried along by a glacier or ice sheet.

Kettle: A kettle (also known as a kettle lake, kettle hole, or pothole) is a depression/hole in an outwash plain formed by retreating glaciers or draining floodwaters. The kettles are formed as a result of blocks of dead ice left behind by retreating glaciers, which become surrounded by sediment deposited by meltwater streams as there is increased friction. 

Now we know! (Or now I know, maybe you already did.)

During this adventure, we camped at the Mauthe Lake Recreation Area and hiked at a nearby trail. These areas were all in the Northern Unit of the forest. There were a few trails at Mauthe Lake, but they weren’t dog friendly. Let’s focus on the hiking.

The trails we decided to hike were the Zillmer Hiking Trails. It’s important to note that unlike state parks, the forest is divided into a number of camping, hiking, and other recreational areas. Most of these are not nearby each other and require driving to access them. For example, the DNR website of the northern unit has 11 trail maps and 4 campground maps listed. I highly recommend looking at the maps and making a plan before you head out. Make sure to pay attention to the distance between the areas you are considering and become familiar with the rules for each area as they differ. (For example, some allow dogs and some do not.)

Back to the Zillmer Trails.

We drove to the Zillmer parking lot and began the hike. We decided to hike the three mile red loop, which is the green loop plus the red section.

When you’re tired of sitting in the car and you just want to be hiking.

The first thing I noticed about this hiking area was how well marked and color coded the trails are. If you stay on the trail and know what color trail you’re trying to follow, it’s almost impossible to get lost.

The trail begins behind the shelter, which looks like a super spot to host a family reunion, birthday party, or various other event if you don’t feel like cleaning your house.

The trail terrain varies as you go but starts out wide, flat, and grassy.

The trail leaves the forest and travels through a meadow. The clouds were doing neat things that day.

Back into the woods!

Got to have it, obligatory fern pic.

The major reason we chose the red trail was that it appeared to have some proximity to water. Isn’t that usually how hikes are planned, to have a view of water or from a top of a hill? Shortly after the green and red trail meet, the trail crosses a creek with a cute little bridge.

This section of the trail changes to dirt and everything (at that time) became wetter. Swampy areas were soon visible on both sides of the trails.

Can you spot the frog? Luckily for this camouflaged little dude, the dog couldn’t spot it.

Swampy area off the trail. Shortly before this photo was taken an egret swooped through.

Another friend that the dog (luckily) did not see. American toad? I’m not up on my amphibians.

The trail curls back and crosses the same creek a little further downstream.

This bridge isn’t as cute as the first one.

The trail then continues back towards the shelter. It passes through meadow and woods.

Once back at the shelter we took the opportunity to gather a bundle of sticks to use as kindling. As this trip was late in the season, the sticks around our campsite has been thoroughly picked over. It’s good to be resourceful, but remember not to move wood more than 10 miles.

Looking back on this hike, I really enjoy the diversity of the area. We explored one of the eleven areas listed with hiking trails. With an abundance of both hiking areas and campgrounds, you could return again and again to this area of the Kettle Moraine and have it be a completely different trip each time. That sounds like a good plan to me!

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