If you’re up for a road trip, the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest is one of the best trail running options in the Midwest. The state forest contains more than 22,000 acres in southern Wisconsin, about 37 miles southeast of Milwaukee. For runners, that means more than 130 miles of trails to explore—with lots of variety. You’ll find hardwood forests, pine plantations and prairie.
The term “kettle moraine” is actually a geological description that comes from how the area was created. A moraine is an accumulation of rock and soil that comes from a glacier, while a kettle is a shallow body of water formed by a retreating glacier. You don’t need a degree in geology to figure out that this means the area is filled with rolling hills, valleys and ridges.
So you'll discover some great views, but also have to do some serious climbing. Keep in mind when planning your mileage that these trails can be tough.
What Makes It Great
You may be able to find other trails like this in northern Wisconsin or Michigan, but this is by far the best off-road experience you can find within a couple of hours of Chicago. Kettle Moraine’s southern unit is full of trails, but you’ll probably want to start with the two most established trail clusters: the John Muir Trails on the south side of the preserve and the Emma Carlin Trails in the central part of the forest.
The John Muir Trails—you’ll find parking off of Highway H just north of Route 12—features eight trails rated from the easy 1.25-mile brown loop to the most-difficult rated blue loop, which is 12 miles long. There really is something for everyone here, and you have a choice of loops that let you test your skill and endurance before getting too far from civilization. See the trail map here.
The Emma Carlin Trails, which can be accessed off of Palmyra Rd. just north of Route 67, offers three main loops (3.5, 6 and 8 miles long), in addition to a 7 mile connector trail that links it to the Muir trail system. Like the Muir trails, you’ll get a good variety terrain here—with plenty of hills to challenge you. Check out a trail map here.
From either location, you’ll also be able to jump on the Ice Age Trail, a national scenic trail that covers more than 1,200 miles in the state of Wisconsin. The 30+ miles in the Kettle Moraine State Forest are among the best, and the site of a 50 mile ultra run in the spring.
The pine forests and steep climbs make these trails unique in the Midwest. The sheer volume of singletrack for trail running makes this a must-try place for any serious hiker.
Who is Going to Love It
Hikers who want to explore a variety of terrain. Check out the trail maps to find a route that best suits your skill level.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The state forest is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. You’ll need a vehicle admission sticker if you’re driving there, which is good for all Wisconsin State Parks and Forest. The cost is $7 a day for cars with Wisconsin plates, $10 a day for those from out of state. Buy a yearly pass for $25 (Wisconsin residents) or $35 (out-of-staters). You don’t need to buy an additional state trail pass if you’re running or hiking—but cyclists and cross-country skiers should be aware that they will need that as well ($4/day or $20/year).