WI Kettle Moraine South John Muir Trails
John Muir and Emma Carlin Mountain Bike Trails - Kettle Moraine State Forest - Southern Unit
The John Muir Trails combined with the Emma Carlin Trails via a connector trail system offers over 30 miles of connected mostly single-track trails in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest.
- Terrain / Scenery: Scenic woodlands with some prairie areas. Mix of gently rolling with some steeper sections. Mostly hardpack single-track intermixed with more technical sections.
- Fees / Permits: A Wisconsin Park Sticker and Trail Pass are required for parking in the park and skiing or biking on the trails.
- Trail Conditions: Call the Southern Kettle Moraine Hotline at (262) 594-6202. Or you can post or view trail reports on this site by clicking the Discussion tab
- Trail Markings: Color coded trails with maps at key intersections.
- Facilities: Pit toilets.
- Official Web Page: http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/land/parks/specific/kms/trails.html Downloadable map is available. Also check WORBA Kettle Moraine Chapter Site
- Getting There: The John Muir Trailhead is located just north of the town of LaGrange, WI on County Road H (Kettle Moraine Drive). Take State Highway 12 to County Road H (Kettle Moraine Drive). Go North on H about a mile and a half to the trailhead on the West side of the road. There is a large sign designating the entrance. Here is a link to The Emma Carlin Trailhead is located about 10 miles northwest of the John Muir Trailhead on County Road Z (see map for more details).
Map Distances: You may notice that my trail distances are different than those posted on the official maps. That's because the official map distances have not changed over the years as the trails have changed. Whenever they replace a straight hill section with a switchback, it adds to the trail length. I recently rode the Blue John Muir Trail, the connector trails, and the Green Emma Carlin Trail and my odometer (which I checked for accuracy) read 27 miles. According to the old maps, it should be only 24 miles. Other trails have been shortened through reroutes. Since I generally ride combinations of trails (and don't bring a pen and pad of paper with me) I don't know the exact trail distances of each trail so I made an educated guess and adjusted the distances based on my recollection on how much the trail has changed over the years. Not an exact science, but I figured it would be good enough for this purpose.
Mountain Biking: Though these trails are officially "Hiking and Biking" trails, mountain biking has pretty much completely overtaken this system. In fact, this system has gone through a series of dramatic transformation over the past couple of decades due to mountain biking. Initially cross-country skiing and hiking trails, these were moderately wide trails with many very steep straight hills. The popularity of mountain biking quickly turned these hills into even wider seriously eroded gravel slides. Then came all the erosion control experiments that included everything from rubber dams, to rubber and plastic matting, to some type of adhesive crushed stone (that's what this stuff looked like to me, I'm not a trail building expert). Over the past decade (and in recent years especially), the DNR and many volunteers from WORBA have essentially replaced the original trail system with natural surfaced single-track that follows more sustainable switchback routes up and down the hills rather than going straight up and down.
Now I'll freely admit that there is a part of me that misses those challenging steep rocky, rooted, rutted, loose gravely, hills. There was no doubt a sense of accomplishment when I could make it up these hills without slipping or having my heart and lungs explode. And then there is the obvious feeling of relief I would get after riding down through some steep technical stuff that was probably beyond my skill level. But to be honest, I also recall that on long rides, there would come a point (especially on the return trip on the connector trail) when on I would get so tired of trying to ride up loose gravel that I would start walking up some of the hills without even trying to ride them. That certainly wasn't how I had planned my day. It was also obvious to me that this just couldn't last.
And the rubber and plastic mat solutions just weren't working for me. Sure, they stopped the erosion and you could (surprising) still climb them even on very steep grades (and they made for some really fast downhills). But the Kettle Moraine State Forest is far too special of an area to cover with rubber mats.
So jumping ahead to the new trail system. Sure it's not as technically challenging as the old system, but it still has some challenging hill sections, it has lots of fast hardpack single-track, it has some slower tight zigzagging single-track sections, it has softer sandy trail sections, it still has enough rocks, roots, and ruts to shake loose your water bottle or anything else that's not firmly secured, and it's probably the best mountain biking trail system in southern Wisconsin.
It's also probably the busiest. If you come on a weekend during the summer make sure you bring your sunglasses because even if it's cloudy, there will be enough brightly colored jerseys parading around the parking lot to burn out your retinas if you're not careful. Fortunately, some of these folks seem to spend more time in the parking area showing off their keen fashion sense than riding the trails, so once you hit the one-way trails it doesn't feel quite so crowded.
By the way, you're supposed to ride over the rubber water dams, not around them! I especially want to make this point to those people that like to bitch about the loss of some of the more technical eroded sections of trail and then proceed to ride around every rock, mud puddle, and water dam that comes their way. Everybody claims they want lots of rocks and roots and ruts to test their skill, but if you pay attention you'll notice that all the rocky, rooty, rutty sections of trail get really wide because everyone rides on the smooth edge of the trail until it gets rocky, rooty, and rutty. Then they ride on the new edge of the trail and so on. Although admittedly it can be a tough battle with your instincts, you're supposed to try to ride the center of the trail and just deal with the obstacles you encounter. This includes the little mudholes too. No, I'm not calling you names, I'm really talking about the little mudholes on the trail.
Trail Closures: The Mountain Bike trails are open to biking year round (including winter), but will close during wet periods (you can pretty much expect the trails to be closed in late winter/early spring). The State Forest does an excellent job of keeping the trails open as much as possible and will monitor them closely to make sure they don't keep them closed any longer than necessary. Even to the point of sometimes having them closed in the morning, but opening them up by mid-day if enough drying has occurred. Call the Trail Hotline noted near the top of this page for current trail conditions. The Emma Carlin system and the Connector trail dry out rather quick, as does the northern half of the John Muir system. They recently (2007) created a bypass trail in the Muir system to allows closing off the wetter southern portion of the trail but still allow riding on the northern portion (see the John Muir section below for more information).
John Muir Trails
The John Muir trail system has the most miles and is generally considered the preferred trailhead for the system. The Blue and Green trails are the longest loops, and even though they follow the same general route (when you look at the map) as they did 10 years ago, much of these loops is new trail. All the really steep hills and most of the wider trails are gone and replaced with single-track, although much of the Green trail is wider than your normal single-track due to heavy use. The Red Trail is the shortest and easiest. If you're completely new to mountain biking you may want to try that first just to make sure you aren't way out of your league. The Orange and White trails had some significant changes made to them in 2008 and 2009. They are now shorter than they previously were, but are more interesting with and provide more options to combine loops.
The far southern portion of the Muir system has some low-lying areas that remain muddy long after the rest of the trail system has dried up, so as of the summer of 2007 there is a new Bypass Trail that allows the southern portion of the Blue, Green, White, and Orange Trails to be closed off, yet still provide access to the northern portions of these trails and the connector trail. Based on the new color coding and signs on the trail, the bypass trail is officially called "Rainy Dew" and is color coded as dark burgundy, which could be a little confusing to people trying to follow the Red trail (it's rare to have two shades of the same color in the same trail system). I only show it as a short connector trail running from the Red Trail to the outer Blue and Green loop, but technically it is now a complete loop that starts with the red trail, takes the bypass, then finishes following the Blue and Green Trails back to the Trailhead. I figure this is about 5 miles total.
With the Rainy Dew bypass and the recent changes to Orange and White trails, there are actually quite a few more options for connecting trails and making optional routes (especially for those looking for a shorter route to the connector trail to Emma Carlin).
Though I don't understand why, a lot of riders seem to avoid the longest trails. If you want to lose the crowds, hit the Blue Trail (and the connector trails). Though most of the Blue Trail is shared with the busier Green Trail, there is a very nice Blue only section that gives you a couple of miles of quieter single-track.
Overall the John Muir Trail system is challenging, but not really all that difficult by mountain biking standards. Most beginners will probably do OK here as long as they control their speed on the hills. On the flipside, experienced riders can still be challenged by simply going faster, and you can't beat the number of miles here.
Emma Carlin Trails
Emma Carlin is the smaller trail system but is not necessarily an easier system. Though there has been a fair amount of new trail put in here, Emma Carlin still has some of the older wide straight steep hills. They have a lot of that adhesive crushed stone (I don't really know if it is adhesive or not, but how else can it stick to the side of these hills) on these hills and rubber water dams across them. These are mainly on the south side of the Green (and part of Orange) Trail. It looks like the trail maintenance people are fighting to try to keep these last remaining steeper sections of trail. Based upon the new rather deep channel that had eroded down these hills in heavy rains that occurred a couple of weeks before the last time I rode here, I'm not sure they can win this one. There is a short unmarked connector trail (shown black on the map) that you can use to get from Green, back to Red to avoid the big hills. But why would you want to do that? UPDATE: As of 2009 there have been significant changes to Emma Carlin. The first mile or so has been completely replaced with narrower winding singletrack. The big eroded hills still remain at last third of the Green trail, but I'm kind of expecting them to be replaced soon (probably 2010) since it looks like they've stopped maintaining them (they are getting really eroded) and the trail crew has already replaced just about everything else.
The term "connector trail" usually means a short, not-all-that-exciting shortcut or connection between two trails. Nothing could be further than the truth here (well except that it does connect two trail systems). The Connector trail can be thought of as an additional large narrow loop that can be used to connect the two trail systems. But more importantly, the connector trail is a hell of a lot of fun to ride.
The connector trail(s) has seen a major transformation in recent years. It went from a single two-way trail to almost completely two separate one-way trails. And yes, gone are all but one or two of the steep hills, but in their place is some really nice single-track. They didn't just add a return trail here; they actually created two new trails and abandoned the old one (at least that's what it looks like to me).
I don't think I'll hear anyone complaining about missing the old two-way trail. Even though the connector trail does not get as much traffic as the main trail systems, the fact that it had traffic going in both directions on the same narrow trail made it feel annoyingly busy on the weekends. The hills on the old trail were either highly degraded gravel slides or completely covered with rubber mats.
The new connector trails are all natural narrow single-track. I don't think there are any artificial materials on this system. In addition, they seem to have intentionally kept the trail very narrow in spots by running it between trees that are barely wider than your handlebars. They have also made it more interesting by letting it wander a bit rather than taking the direct route as was the case with the old trail. There are also several spots where they have intentionally created obstacles including log piles, skinnies (a log run lengthwise on the trail), and some small drops/ledges. The scenery is outstanding on the connector trail as it moves through a nice mix of prairie and woodlands. The southbound trail is a little longer than the northbound trail and is also more technical with a couple of the old hills remaining and the new manmade obstacles.
UPDATE: As of late summer 2009, you no longer need to use the short section of road to get from Muir to the connector (see new trail on map).
Hiking: With all the new narrow single-track added here, these trails would make for nice hiking trails, however, you would need a high tolerance for all the mountain bike traffic that is going to zip by you (and with the narrower trail, you probably have to get out of the way). On a weekday, it may be tolerable (especially earlier in the day), but I would highly recommend against hiking here on a weekend or late afternoons on weekdays. If you want a nice walk through the woods with some nice views of the Kettle Moraine Scenery, you would be better off going across the street and hiking the Nordic Trail system where biking is not allowed. These are wider ski trails (no single-track). If you want to hike narrow trails, I'd recommend hitting a section of the nearby Ice Age Hiking Trail that runs through the Kettle Moraine State Forest. I've included the Ice Age Trail on the maps on this page to show where they run relative to the mountain bike trails and where there are places where you can connect with the Ice Age Trail from the John Muir Trail. I've also included some points of interest along the Ice Age Trail; these include the Pioneer Lime Kiln, Oleson Cabin, Bald Bluff, and the Stone Elephant. You can get more info on these on the Ice Age Hiking Trail Page.
As an added note, you may notice a trail marked "Hikers" at the Emma Carlin trailhead. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a hikers-only trail. This is actually the return trail for mountain biking, and is simply pointing hikers to hike the trails in the opposite direction of mountain bikers.
Skiing: As narrow single-track with tight turning switchbacks has replaced the older wider ski trails, this system is not really a ski trail anymore. There is no grooming here and the rocks that frequently stick 3 to 6 inches above the trail will really tear up your skis under normal winter conditions around here, and these trails are used by mountain bikers year round. Plus, there are outstanding groomed trails right across the street at the Nordic Trail system.
However, if you like some challenging ungroomed backwoods skiing and the snow is deep enough, go ahead and give it a try. I come out and ski the Nordic Trails several times each year and I sometimes think about giving the John Muir trails a try, but if there were enough snow to adequately cover the rocky John Muir trails, that means there is enough snow for some excellent grooming at the dedicated ski trails. We just don't get enough of those conditions around here to pass them by.
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This page is authored and maintained by Dave Piasecki