We are spoiled here in Madison with the presence of three lakes — Mendota, Monona and Wingra — smack in the middle of town, and two (Waubesa and Kegonsa) just down the Yahara River. You can paddle from the north end of Lake Mendota all the way to Stoughton. Why would anyone ever need to go to another lake? Leaving Madison on a summer weekend can feel like a betrayal: I’m cheating on you, Lake Monona. It’s not you, it’s me, Lake Mendota. However, there are many perfectly valid reasons to start seeing other lakes.
Located about an hour and a half’s drive southeast of Madison, Lake Geneva is perhaps the least “Wisconsiny” of southern Wisconsin’s lakes. Its history as a summer resort for wealthy Chicagoans has left its imprint; in downtown Lake Geneva you’ll find more wine shops and upscale clothing boutiques than bait shops and corner taps. That’s exactly the attraction, of course.
The 21-mile Lake Geneva Lake Shore Path circles the entire lake. It’s a narrow footpath (no bikes) from which you can see the “cottages” and estates. The public-access walkway began as a Potawatomi trail; now it gives gawkers a chance to get a closer look at our very own Newport. The path itself varies; some property owners have landscaped it in welcoming fashion; others let underbrush obscure it.
Walk the shore path around Lake Geneva. Tootsies get tired? Hop a ride home on the Lake Geneva Cruise Line.
Not everyone has a 21-mile stroll in them...but you’re in luck. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line accesses the other towns on the lake (Williams Bay and Fontana), enabling hikers to configure two-, seven- or 10-mile jaunts, then boat back to their start. Reservations are required; call 262-248-6206 or see cruiselakegeneva.com. A detailed guide to the path is available from walktalkgawk.com.
The Wisconsin Historical Society offers tours of one of the 19th-century lake homes: Black Point Estate. Access is via the Lake Geneva Cruise Line; the tour and boat trip lasts three hours. More info at blackpointestate.wisconsinhistory.org.
Lake Koshkonong, about a 45-minute drive southeast of Madison, may be best known as a fishing and boating spot. Muskies, pan fish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye and catfish are all here, according to the Wisconsin DNR. Before a dam was built at Indianford in 1850, the lake was a marsh where native wild rice and celery grew, attracting ducks in great numbers, which in turn attracted hunters, who built resorts and established hunting clubs. Large chunks of lake-adjacent land are still owned by hunt clubs.
The lake’s two swimming beaches are both on the south shore; both belong to private campgrounds. However, the Lakeview Campground and Bar (1901 E. Hwy. 59) allows non-campers to use the beach as long as they buy some refreshments at the bar and grill. There’s also a Friday fish fry, naturally, with cod, bluegill or walleye. Swim or just hang out in an Adirondack chair.
This is a great Wisconsin bar-and-fish-fry kind of lake. Norm’s Hideaway (8639 Kuehn Rd., Fort Atkinson) has a deck overlooking the lake and an extensive Friday menu — cod, bluegill, walleye, catfish and shrimp. The Lake House Inn (1612 E. Hotel Drive, on the Edgerton side of the lake) is a historic Civil War-era farmhouse and classic supper club.
Blackhawk Island, which is not an island but a peninsula created by marshland and the flow of the Rock River into Lake Koshkonong, is at first glance a collection of aging fishing cottages.
Hoard Historical Museum
Young Lorine Niedecker enjoying the simple life on Blackhawk Island, at Lake Koshkonong.
It was also the home of Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, who was born on the island and lived there off and on for much of her life. She re-created the sense of the swampy landscape and fishing culture of the area in such poems as “My Life by Water” and “Paean to Place.” Niedecker’s cottage and original cabin on the island (W7309 Blackhawk Island Rd.) and a historical marker can easily be seen from the road, but the property itself is privately owned and not open to tourists.
Devil’s Lake State Park — the state’s largest, at 9,217 acres — is a quick 45-minute drive north of Madison. It’s one of the few rock climbing and bouldering destinations in the state. And even non-rock climbers love to take to the Balanced Rock Trail, a half-mile scramble straight up the quartzite bluffs.
Devil’s Lake is a great size to hike around, too. The one-mile, paved Tumbled Rocks Trail on the west shore is the easiest leg of the trip. On the east side of the lake, make the trek up the rocks to the top of the East Bluff, where the scenery overlooking the lake is spectacular. Words of advice: a counterclockwise hike means you’re climbing up the difficult Balanced Rock Trail; clockwise means you’ll be heading down it. Alternatives do exist: Grottos Trail is longer at slightly under a mile, but provides a more gradual ascent or descent. And a completely flat circuit is possible by hiking along the train tracks on the east side of the lake.
Swimming is popular at the lake, with sandy beaches at the north and south ends. The lake is quite clean and cool. Rentals of single and double kayaks, rowboats, canoes, paddleboards and paddle boats are available from the north beach concession. Group kayak tours and kayaking lessons are also offered throughout the summer; there’s also a special night paddle on July 19.
Skillet Creek Media
The historic pavilion at the north beach was built for dances back in 1925. It will be put to good use this summer with classic Wisconsin fish fries every Friday night from June 10 to Sept. 2, and two big band dances per month on Saturday nights (June 11 and 18, July 9 and 23 and Aug. 13 and 27) with the accompaniment of the Hal Edwards Orchestra.
In addition to a full slate of nature talks this summer, look out especially for the high-tech bat hike on June 29, “Finding Bigfoot” on July 14, and s’mores along with watching the Perseid meteor shower on Aug. 13.
Just north of Baraboo, this state park is tailor-made for families. This is a small, calm lake with a no-wake rule, which makes it great for kid canoeing and kayaking adventures, and an excellent site for learning standup paddleboarding. Rentals are available at the beach (rowboats, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, even pontoon boats); see mirrorlakeboatrentals.com.
Three loops of bike-friendly trails don’t focus on the lake at all, but they are a beautiful place for kids to learn to bicycle off-road. There are no big hills, few rocky spots and only a couple of sandy patches.
Lake Delton has often been overshadowed by the surrounding vacationland of Wisconsin Dells. It’s possible to visit the Dells and not realize that Lake Delton is even there. It most recently made headlines back in June 2008, when heavy rains ultimately destroyed the dam, and the entire lake emptied into the Wisconsin River. While that event was devastating to surrounding businesses, it created a rare opportunity to completely restore, improve and refill the lake.
If Mirror Lake is small and calm, Lake Delton is big and brassy. If silent sports are not your thing, this is the lake where you can rent a wave runner — though kayaks and SUP rentals are also available.
Though the big resorts on Lake Delton are slowly swallowing up the old-time tourist cabins, not all the classic Dells attractions are gone. The Tommy Bartlett Show remains in residence on the southwestern shore of the lake with pro-level water-skiers — take in the human pyramid, ski ballet, ski-less skiers barefooting, and dancing colored lights at the close of the evening performance. With so many baby-boomer Dells attractions now gone, this is one way to make the connection to the lake’s mid-century heyday: Sit back, relax, and spectate.