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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Research Natural Area

Headwater Lakes

[photo:] An outstanding feature protected by Headwater Lakes RNA is Wabasso Lake; 2007 photo by Linda Parker, US Forest ServiceState: Wisconsin

County: Vilas

Forest: Chequamegon-Nicolet

District: Medford – Park Falls

Established: 2015

Acres: 779

Description: Headwater Lakes Research Natural Area (RNA) features a complex of plant communities representative of ecosystems that were once plentiful across northern Wisconsin.  The 466 acres (188 ha) of forested communities are comprised of approximately one-fourth lowland types and three-fourths upland forest.   Upland hemlock/hardwood forests are approaching old-growth in character and are interspersed with high quality wetland communities.  The rolling topography was formed by glaciers that left the area dotted with lakes and knobby hills. The RNA protects three high quality lakes including Wabasso Lake that contains an unusual “sterile rosette” flora. Several uncommon plants and rare animal species are found within the site.

Ecological Information

Physical and Climatic Conditions:

Nearest weather station, with distance and direction from RNA: The Minocqua Dam (Station no. 475516) weather station is 20 miles southeast of the RNA.

Annual precipitation (type, seasonal distribution): Annual precipitation averages 32.1 inches (81.5 cm). Average seasonal snowfall is 112.4 inches (285.5 cm).

Maximum and minimum temperatures: Temperatures average 56.3°F between April and September and between October and March temperatures average 22.4°F. Daily maximum temperatures average 50.5°F and daily minimum temperatures average 28.1°F.

Elevation: Elevations range from 1,540 feet (469 meters) to 1,640 feet (500 meters) above sea level.

Geology and Soils:Bedrock in this RNA includes igneous, metamorphic, and volcanic rock.  Within the Northern Highland Outwash Plain LTA, bedrock is greater than 100 feet from the surface.  In Chequamegon Washed Till and Outwash LTA (southeast portion RNA), greater than 70% of the area has bedrock within 5 feet of the land surface.  Geomorphologic processes include till and glacial meltwater deposition.

Soils in this RNA are composed of three major types Croswell sands,  Padus-Karlin and Sayner soils.  The low areas are peaty soils that occur in drainage ways and depressions which contain strongly acid, moderately decomposed organic soils.    

Aquatic Features: Wabasso Lake is a 49-acre (20 ha) landlocked seepage lake of glacial origin with a maximum depth of 45 feet (14m).  The water is clear, soft and slightly acid with a pH of 5.9.  Littoral bottom substrates are predominantly sand and silt with scattered areas of gravel and rubble.  Cedar Lake is a 60-acre (24 ha) shallow, soft-water drainage lake.  A small, un-named acid bog lake occurs on the northern edge of the RNA with one third of its area extending out of the RNA.  Short stretches of un-named streams that drain Cedar and Wabasso Lakes are within the RNA boundary.

Ecological Classification & Inventory

Section: Northern Highland (212X)

Glidden Loamy Drift Plains (212Xa)
Northern Highland Pitted Outwash (212Xb)

Landtype Associations: 
Chequamegon Washed Till and Outwash (Xa03)
Northern Highland Outwash Plains (Xb01)

Plant Communities:

Curtis Community Type

Dominant species

Kotar Habitat types

initial US National Vegetation Classification

Northern dry-mesic forest

red pine, white pine, red maple, paper birch


Pinus strobus - Populus tremuloides - (Acer rubrum) / Pteridium aquilinum Forest; CEGL005563

Northern dry-mesic forest

white pine, red pine, red oak


Pinus strobus - (Pinus resinosa) - Quercus rubra Forest; CEGL002480

Northern mesic forest

eastern hemlock, yellow birch, red maple (white pine, red pine)


Tsuga canadensis - Acer saccharum - Betula alleghaniensis Forest; CEGL005044

Northern mesic forest

eastern hemlock, yellow birch, sugar maple
(basswood, white pine, red pine)


Tsuga canadensis - (Betula alleghaniensis) Forest; CEGL002598

Northern mesic forest

quaking aspen or paper birch seral - succeeding to mixed forest- pine dominated


Populus tremuloides - Betula papyrifera - (Acer rubrum, Populus grandidentata) Forest; CEGL002467 

Northern wet-mesic forest

northern white cedar, tamarack


Thuja occidentalis - (Larix laricina) Seepage Forest; CEGL002455

Northern wet forest

black spruce, tamarack


Picea mariana - (Larix laricina) / Ledum groenlandicum / Sphagnum spp. Forest; CEGL005271

Northern wet forest

black spruce


Picea mariana - (Larix laricina) / Ledum groenlandicum / Sphagnum spp. Forest; CEGL005271

Northern wet forest

black ash, red maple


Acer rubrum - Fraxinus spp. - Betula papyrifera / Cornus canadensis Forest; CEGL002071

Alder thicket

speckled alder


Alnus incana Swamp Shrubland; CEGL002381

Open bog

leatherleaf, sphagnum (311 ac)


Chamaedaphne calyculata / Eriophorum virginicum / Sphagnum rubellum Dwarf-shrubland; CEGL006513

Northern sedge meadow

tussock sedge, Carex spp


CEGL002258 Carex stricta - Carex spp. Herbaceous Vegetation

Emergent aquatic
(lakes and ponds)

Oligotrophic: pipewort, waterwort



Complete Plant List

View or download (pdf)

Common Fauna: Many species of wildlife that are hunted or trapped in Wisconsin can be found within the RNA including white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginiana), black bear (Ursus americanus), beaver (Castor canadensis), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) and many waterfowl.  Of note, an unusually abundant population of the non-venomous northern water snake exists in Wabasso Lake which can be aggressive and will bite if harassed.

Common Shrub Species: Wetland communities, where appropriate, are dominated by alder (Alnus incana).

Common Herbaceous Species:  The submerged aquatic plants are the principal features of interest in Wabasso lake including pipewort (Eriocaulon septangulare) and waterwort (Elatine minima).

Upland patches of American spikenard  (Aralia racemosa), round-leaved shinleaf (Pyrola rotundifolia), and Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadensis) can be found.

Potential Research Topics:
Any research topic requiring a large complex of relatively undisturbed lowland bogs, conifer swamps and wild lake shores is encouraged. The area needs a complete flora, fauna, bryophytes, and lichens inventory.  Research investigating the prolific eastern hemlock regeneration capacity comparing associated mammalian herbivory and its effect on hemlock regeneration could be of interest.  Also, study of the biology of Northern water snakes, common in Wabasso lake, could be of interest.

Related Websites

Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program: Headwater Lakes (No. 480)


Related Publications:

Anderson, Craig; Ayers, L.; Bergeson, T.  2006.  Biodiversity in selected natural communities related to global climate change, annual summary for 2006 submitted to Wisconsin Focus on Energy Environmental Research Program.  20 pp.  Research permit report on files in Park Falls Headquarters.

Anderson, Craig, L. 2007.  Biodiversity in selected natural communities related to global climate change, annual summary for 2007 submitted to Wisconsin Focus on Energy Environmental Research Program.  21 pp.  Research permit report on files in Park Falls Headquarters.

Brzeskiewicz, Marjory.  2014.  Establishment Record for Headwater Lakes Research Natural Area.  Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Medford-Park Falls Ranger District, Vilas County, Wisconsin.    43 pp.

Curtis, J. T. 1959. Vegetation of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI.

Epstein, Eric.  1991.  Wisconsin Natural Heritage Survey reports of Headwater Lakes area, Vilas County, WI. Copy of unpublished report on file at CNNF Park Falls office.

Hoffman, R. 1998.  Unpublished project report on Headwater Lakes. Unpublished report on file at CNNF Park Falls office.

Kotar, J.; Kovach, J.; Burger, T.  2002.  A Guide to Forest Communities and Habitats of Northern Wisconsin (2nd edition).  Madison: University of Wisconsin, Department of Forest Ecology and Management.

Murray, B.D.; Holmes, S.A.; Webster, C.R.; Witt, J.C. 2012. Post-disturbance plant community dynamics following a rare natural-origin fire in a Tsuga canadensis forest.  PLoS ONE 7(8): 1-10.  Headwater Lakes RNA is the reference site.
NGDC.  National Geographic Data Committee. 2012. National Vegetation Classification Standard (NVCS). Available online:  Accessed 2012.

NGDC.  National Geographic Data Committee. 2012. National Vegetation Classification Standard (NVCS). Available online:  Accessed 2012.

Smith, William; Meyer, Thomas A.  1986.  Evaluation Report: Wabasso Lake Candidate Research Natural Area.  Natural Heritage Inventory Section, Bureau of Endangered Resources, WI DNR. Unpublished Natural Heritage Inventory report on file in Park Falls Chequamegon-Nicolet Office.

Spickerman, Steven; Krause, John.  1997.  Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Biological Survey Report: Headwater Lakes.  Unpublished reports on file in Park Falls Headquarters.

Vora, R. S. 1997. Developing programs to monitor ecosystem health and effectiveness of management practices on Lakes States National Forests, USA. Biol. Conserv. 80:289-302

Last Modified: 02/23/2017