The Run Down
About 18,000 years ago, Illinois and Wisconsin were covered under a big sheet of glacial ice. Eventually, these massive glaciers began to retreat, but not before leaving behind fields of rock and debris, otherwise known as moraines. For this guide, we’re headed on a road trip to see this geological formation that extends over 120 miles across the state of Wisconsin. We’ll be making a 2.5 hour drive into Kettle Moraine State Forest where we’ll be camping, hiking up tall ridges, and getting out on the water. Here are the details
1. The Drive and Stops Along the Way
2. Hike and Camp @ Dundee Mountain and Long Lake
3. Climb @ Parnell Tower
1. The Drive
Wind Point Light House
The drive from Chicago to Kettle Moraine is a quick 2.5 hours. However, if you’re looking for a half-way point to stretch your legs while also visiting a place of historical significance, then a short stop at the Wind Point Lighthouse might be right up your alley.
The lighthouse is located in the Village of Wind Point, which sits right on the Lake Michigan coast line. As you make your way here, everything outside the Village of Wind Point looks like what you’d expect Wisconsin to look like. It’s open farm land and the occasional house every few blocks.
When you get into Wind Point, you might think you’ve teleported somewhere else entirely. There are million dollar homes set back behind the street, the roads look like they are freshly paved, and every single lawn and patch of grass looks immaculate. In the middle of all this is the Wind Point Lighthouse, which is one of the oldest and tallest active lighthouses on the Great Lakes, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you happen to be here on the first Saturday or Sunday of the month (once we get past the the Covid-19 pandemic), you can actually go inside the light house for a view of Lake Michigan from 11 stories high. Details here.
Back in it’s hey day, this was actually operated by a member of the coast guard that would live on the premises. Today, although active, it’s in the hands of local caretakers who’ve turned the surrounding grounds into a peaceful park on the water. Not too shabby of a place for a quick rest stop before we get going again.
Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive
We’re back on the road, and where I’m directing you next is to one of the entry points to the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. This is a long and windy country road that cuts through the state forest and passes through small farms located within it. It’s a quiet and peaceful drive and one of the highlights of this trip.
You know you’re going in the right direction when you see these acorn shaped signs. These signs are everywhere and will keep you on the path. From here, we’re following this to the Ice Age Visitor center where we’ll pick up maps and get oriented with what’s around us.
The visitor center is probably 30 minutes away from here. Here are a few things you’ll need to do once you’re there.
– Grab one of their free Kettle Moraine State Forest Maps.
– Because we’ll be stopping off at a few places, you’ll need to purchase an $11 vehicle day-pass.
– If you plan on camping, you can also reserve a campsite in-person. Or you can reserve one online.
– Cell service is a bit spotty, so either download an offline version of google maps before you come
2. Long Lake and Mount Dundee
Another artifact of these glacial movements are the kettles that were left behind. Kettles are depressions in the land that were created when big chunks of these glaciers started to break off. These formed a series of small lakes all across the area — some as deep as 200 ft.
Our next stop is to one of these lakes where we’re setting up camp and getting ready to do a bit of hiking.
Camp @ Long Lake
This is about a 15 minute drive from the Ice Age Visitor Center. It’s a recreational lake with several drive-in camping sites. Some are first-come, first-served and others are available to reserve in advance. This is easy tent camping at it’s finest. There are electrical hook-ups, fire pits set up in each campsite, and shower facilities onsite.
Being so close to the lake, hauling in your own canoe was a common site among campers.
If you’re going the survivalist route and want to catch your own dinner, this lake is stocked with walleye, bass, and pike. No need to buy your own fishing equipment if you don’t have any. You can rent fishing rods and other fishing essentials for free at the Ice Age Visitor Center. Details about that here.
Here is a wide-shot of an empty campsite. All of them had plenty of room and the tall trees provided a nice sense of privacy.
Hike @ Mount Dundee
Within the Long Lake campgrounds is the Summit Nature Trail. It’s a one mile loop that scales Dundee Mountain to it’s peak at around 1,200 ft. Most hikes around Chicago don’t come with a lot of elevation, so that’s what we’re after for this guide.
They make the hike as easy as possible with these built in stairs that lead to the top of Mount Dundee.
The trail is rich with wild flowers, vegetation and little critters. Here’s a picture of a friend we made along the way. He stayed perfectly still for a good 30 seconds for this photo shoot.
Here’s the payoff on this easy 15 minute hike to the top of Mount Dundee. You’ll notice the rolling hills out in the distance. These are called drumlins, which the glaciers shaped as they moved across the land.
3. Parnell Tower
After getting a small taste of elevation, we’re going after more at Parnell Tower. This is about a 15 minute drive from Long Lake and it’s the highest point of elevation in the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
There’s a parking lot at the trail head that leads to Parnell Tower. From here, we’re less than a 10 minute hike up a flight of built-in stairs that lead to a gigantic 60 ft wooden tower. It’s basically the tree house of my childhood dreams.
This is a view from the top of the tower and all the little people below.
We were lucky to come on real clear day with 360 degree views. I think the view itself is worth the 2.5 hour trip from Chicago.
Of all the places we’ve seen in this guide, we’ve touched on probably less than 1% of all the stuff going on in this state forest. Luckily, that means we’ll get to go on another trip here and see what else we can discover.