Recreation Around Madisons Lakes

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Lakes and rivers from glacial times define Dane County. They served as highways and trails and sources of food for the Native Americans, the first to live in the area. European settlers and farmers found a supply of water to sustain their activities from growing crops and orchards to emerging industrial activities.

Today the lakes make our communities fun places to work and play. We have a rich cultural, historic, and recreational legacy from effigy mounds to Frank Lloyd Wright structures, to fishing, hiking, and paddling, and even camping along the shores. You can explore this legacy and even better, you can be a part of it! There is indeed something for everyone.


The lakes and their legacy inspired Dane County to produce a paddle guide in 2007: Yahara Waterways Trail Guide . The Guide describes sites of interest from Cherokee Marsh at the north end of the Yahara watershed to Lake Kegonsa at the south. The maps show the intersection of the lakes with sites of cultural and historic interest. In addition to the website, you can get a copy through the Dane County University of Wisconsin Extension Office and other locations .

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The view over Lake Monona provides the inspiration for Dane Dances . Dance on Friday evenings on the rooftop of the Monona Terrace in Madison. Since 2000, these free community dances, open to all, feature different styles of music, including Salsa, Jazz, R&B, Reggae, and Funk. Dane Dances brings together neighbors, families, and the diverse communities of Dane County for fun and entertainment in a uniquely Madison setting. Join the throng and have happy summer feet!

Sipping a Pint, Good Conversation, or Listening to Tunes

The iconic Terrace chairs wait to welcome you to the Memorial Union Terrace in Madison. A place to unwind on a Friday afternoon or any evening in the summer, the Terrace provides the chairs and the ambience for good conversation, lake views, and a pint of beer. Graduate students, professors, alumni and visitors head to the terrace, creating an international ambiance. Watch the sun set and then stay for Terrace After Dark events. The Memorial Union Terrace has live music four nights a week and movies on Mondays on a giant outdoor screen. This is quintessential Madison with the smell of brats in the air. Note, the Memorial Union Terrace will be closed for renovations starting fall 2015 so make sure you go during the summer.

Fish, Picnic or Walk

Lake Kegonsa State Park hugs the northeastern shoreline of Lake Kegonsa. Take a walk in the woods or enjoy the evening sunlight and sunset with your picnic. Lake Kegonsa, named after the multitude of fish found in the lake, still offers good fishing. Visitors can also swim, boat, and camp. The park has 342 acres of oak woods, prairie, and wetland marsh, including 96 campsites. Approximately five miles of trails traverse the park and shoreline. For more information, visit .

Capital Springs State Park and Recreation Area rests next to Lake Farm County Park on the south shore of Lake Waubesa. The over six miles of hiking trails provide great birdwatching. Arrive by bike using the Capital City State Trail, which links to other local bike trails. Picnic or stay overnight at one of the 54 campsites. For more information, visit .

Photo by Chris Maddox

Ancient Sites: Native American Effigy Mounds

In a 1936 history of Lake Mendota, Charles Brown notes that about 1,000 effigy mounds, earthen mounds of linear ridges, conical domes, or mounds in the shape of bears, birds, deer, panthers, or water spirits, surrounded the five Madison lakes. The majority have been destroyed, but you can still view the remnants from this ancient culture. On Observatory Hill overlooking Lake Mendota, you can find a turtle and a bird mound. In the Arboretum, take a walk in Wingra Woods along the southern shore of Lake Wingra to observe the grouping of mounds, which include a panther and a bird, as well as linear and conical mounds. The mound clusters that remain convey the importance of the lakes to these early residents.


A paddle around one of our local lakes is like a neighborhood walk with your neighborhood defined by the shoreline. Explore the edges and springs of Lake Wingra, the wetlands of Cherokee Marsh, and the shorelines of the larger lakes. Use the paddle guide Yahara Waterways Trail Guide (see Guide above) to locate landmarks along the way. A day out on one of the lakes can be purely recreational or it could be a cultural tour but always fun.

Rentals are available from a variety of places, including:

  • Rutabaga , located between Lake Waubesa and Lake Monona, offers guided paddles or you may opt to paddle from the store on your own.
  • Outdoor UW , at the Memorial Union Terrace.
  • Wingra Boats , located on the north shore off of Monroe Street, provides boats to explore Lake Wingra. Special events include a Full Moon paddle.
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Betty Lou Cruises offers cruises on Lakes Mendota and Monona. Cruising season runs from late spring through mid-fall. Join one of their regularly scheduled trips to enjoy the Madison skyline and shoreline. With a range of options to choose fromday or night, lunch or dinner, seven days a weekthis could be just the summer activity for you and your family. In addition to public cruises, they offer special events and celebrations. Book early if you want to see the 4th of July fireworks from the deck of a boat.

Become a Friend of your Favorite Water

As the central recreational feature of our area, the lakes need your help. Many organizations and friends groups exist that rely on volunteers to carry out their work and mission. So whether you enjoy fishing, boating, or you are concerned about garbage and water quality, consider joining one of the organizations protecting the waters of our region: .

Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at .