Touring Lulu Lake in the Kettle Moraine State Forest
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Take a lake to find another lake, a secret lake, one that’s surrounded by public land in the Kettle Moraine State Forest and protected as a state natural area, this little excursion to hidden Lulu Lake makes for a fun and scenic outing on flatwater in southeastern Wisconsin.
April 28, 2019
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
There should always be enough water to paddle this section.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Eagle Spring Lake boat launch, Eagle, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 1:50p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 2h 10m
Miles Paddled: 5
Wildlife: Frogs, geese, ducks, sandhill cranes and a snapping turtle.
We first heard of Lulu Lake about five years ago, while exploring various portions of the Mukwonago River (as yet published on the site). At the risk of getting a little convoluted right from the start, let us clarify a few matters. This trip is a lake paddle – to wit, launching on one lake that then connects to a smaller, more intimate lake. But both of these bodies of water are fed by/part of the Mukwonago River (which is really more of a creek, but we won’t go there).
Type “Mukwonago River” into your interweb search bar and the first results will allude to the dazzling variety of its wetlands and woodlands, its clear waters and critical habitats for endangered species, and proximity to urban areas (namely Milwaukee and the white-flight suburbs thereof). There’s a “Friends of” organization, not to mention a significant investment from The Nature Conservancy. What’s perhaps all the more impressive (but not necessarily surprising) about this is just how small the Mukwonago River actually is – approximately 20 miles long, about half of those miles comprising lakes created by dams. Heck, it’s only two miles long from the dam in downtown Mukwonago to its confluence at the Illinois Fox River. For paddlers, the only other intact segment of river, apart from the impounded lakes, is a five-ish mile stretch between Eagle Springs Lake and County Road I. That’s it. That’s all, folks. In this sense at least, the Mukwonago River in Waukesha County is akin to Token Creek here in Madison.
But to be clear, this trip is all about lake paddling, not the true Mukwonago River-as-river. Specifically, it’s about launching on a big, crowded, popular lake in order to access a smaller, hidden lake connected by a natural channel. Show us something we can’t see, and our interest is piqued, especially when there’s no other way to access the smaller, hidden lake. Who doesn’t have a little Nancy Drew in their hearts? On the case, sleuthing with a magnifying glass, telescope, and folded map? What’s that? The name of the hidden lake is “Lulu”? Game, set, match. We’re on.
The boat launch at Eagle Spring Lake is an official public site featuring easy access and convenient parking. Despite the development all around the lakeshore on Eagle Spring Lake, it’s a pretty environment just the same and features an interesting diversity of house styles, from “shack chic” to tastefully modern to ostentatious (or, as we like to joke, thank goodness for the big hearts in those big homes opening their big doors to all the troubled youth and foster kids after-school). Anyway, since the real purpose of this trip is Lulu Lake, how much time you care to spend on Eagle Spring Lake is entirely up to you. If you think of the big lake as clock face, then the channel leading to Lulu Lake is at 7 o’clock. We more or less made a beeline to the channel, but passed a quaint small island or two, with quaint small cottages dotting their shores. A peninsula juts out towards the northwest followed by two parallel bays, all on the left. The entire shoreline here is private, just house, lawn, and dock after dock after dock.
After the second of these bays the development disappears. As the big lake begins to taper, you’ll see cattails just about everywhere. If that weren’t enough of a tipoff that something’s changing, there’s signage for motorboats alerting of invasive species and a slow no-wake zone. (Is it me or does anyone else think of “no-wake” zones and those “do not disturb” signs hung on hotel room door handles? Would that be great if waterways had housekeeping crews?) The channel connecting the two lakes – technically the Mukwonago River – is about half a mile long and 30′ wide. There’s no shortage of “dead ends” or “back alleys” through cattails along the way, any of which can be explored, of course, should you have the time and inclination. To the left (east) you’ll see a long modest ridge rising above the otherwise flat marsh environment. You’ll pass beneath a set of utility wires as well. As you approach the entrance/exit (depending on your orientation) of Lulu Lake itself, you’ll see a few more subtle uplands, mostly on the left. This is classic Kettle Moraine territory created by the – say it with us – retreat of the glaciers 10,000ish years ago.
Lulu Lake is just shy of a hundred acres big and runs some 40′ deep. To quote from the DNR, it is a “large wetland complex with patches of calcareous fen and shrub carr embedded within a sedge meadow matrix surrounding the lake on the north and west.” Want another fun fact? Lulu Lake was designated a State Natural Area (SNA) in 1977 – the year I (Timothy) was born.
Let’s just get rid of the bad news right away, eh? There are a couple of private houses on the southeastern shore/hillside of Lulu Lake – it’s not all protected and pristine. To use our clock face comparison again, these homes dot the uplands from 3 to 6 o’clock. But the rest of the shoreline – which is to say 75 percent – is entirely undeveloped and lovely.
As before, where you want to go tootling around Lulu is up to you-you. We went counter-clockwise for no other reason than a personal preference when paddling lakes to have dry land on the starboard side, open water to port (plus I wanted to find terra firma for my canine companion to hop out and stretch his landlubber legs on). You’ll come upon a small dock, behind which is a fence and a small garage behind that. There was signage indicating that this was not accessible, although it had the look of a DNR-owned facility. So, we pushed on along the so-described “amazing mosaic” of landscape features and rarities til we found friendlier footing for my pup to scamper about. I can’t say exactly where along the lakeshore this was, other than somewhere on the south side (we couldn’t find the Mukwonago River inlet either, entering near the 8 o’clock area, probably on account of the thick wall of cattails). We found a mowed trail that led up a hill through woodlands and a mix of dune-like hills, upland prairie, and even hedgerows of small pines. I felt like we’d entered another world entirely! I didn’t see this until after the fact, but there’s more signage at the water’s edge stating “NO BOAT LANDING ALLOWED – Sensitive Shoreline.” Whoops! Lesson learned and duly noted.
For fun, we went through a side channel along a 700’-long cattail island once we were back in the boat. This made the paddling less lake-like and more of an adventure. Plus the water clarity in the side channel was extraordinarily clear, being shallow. A huge snapping turtle paddled underneath the canoe and toward the shore, one of the trip’s highlights. Back in the lake proper, you’ll see the aforementioned couple of houses gracefully grandfathered atop a sinuous wave of a ridge. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live there and have Lulu Lake as the view outside of your living room window, right? But most of the landscape is natural. The leaves were still modest buds at the time of this paddle, but come summer the shoreline must be awash in lush green. And if deciduous isn’t your thing, there’s a tamarack forest here, too, complementing the several bog areas.
Second verse same as the first, but now in reverse – exiting Lulu via the outlet, back to Eagle Spring Lake. You can, of course, return as you first came, or you can trace the western shoreline of the lake, i.e., clockwise and past/through some even larger islands than those initially encountered. For what it’s worth, the single-most undeveloped portion of the big lake is its southwestern quadrant, where the channel connecting it to Lulu is located. Then again, it’s all cattails, and perhaps you’ll have had your fill of that by then…
What we liked:
Lulu Lake is lovely and charming. The channel that connects it to the much bigger lake is fun and evokes a sense of exploration and adventure. To be sure, not all of the land surrounding Lulu is public or owned by The Nature Conservancy, but the area still has a hidden, protected feel to it, and it is a classic example of a kettle lake in southeastern Wisconsin. The water clarity and wildlife, the wooded uplands – it’s a very scenic location that makes for a fun, relaxing escape. Perfect for a summer sunset picnic or quiet paddle on a moonlit night.
What we didn’t like:
Slogging across the big lake. Not a big deal, and definitely worth the price of admission to Lulu Lake. But when you live in Madison already, the notion of driving ninety minutes to paddle a busy lake surrounded by development is quite counterintuitive; why go out of your way when all of that’s already here? Indeed, it’s somewhat akin to launching on Lake Monona to go up Wingra Creek and then into Lake Wingra (a worthy expedition of its own right, for the record).
Also, in retrospect it’s disappointing to learn that you’re not supposed to access the shoreline from the lake on account of its sensitive nature. We respect that, of course, and get why there are posted signs, but… still.
If we did this trip again:
We wouldn’t change a thing, other than maybe doing it in autumn in hopes of seeing some foliage effects. Oh, and next time we’ll drive to the designated parking area for the State Natural Area at Nature Road and explore the area by boot in addition to boat.