David Michael Miller
There's a current ad campaign that boasts the tagline, "The only thing more fleeting than summer is childhood." Now if that doesn't tug at the heartstrings. Fortunately it's not just a ploy to get you to drop a chunk of change at an amusement park - it's for New York's Fresh Air Fund, which sends underprivileged city kids to camp. It can also be interpreted, though, as a seize-the-day message to anyone on summer.
Summer, especially once you are employed, has a tendency to slip away. It becomes something you gaze at from the other side of a dual-pane, energy-efficient, permanently sealed window. Even the advent of "summer hours," a deal wherein office workers arise at an hour usually reserved for dairy farmers so they can get to work by 7 a.m. in exchange for taking Friday afternoon off, doesn't give back the way it should.
It's best if summer is an everyday proposition. Dinner is something that's on the schedule anyway, so double it up with a trip to one of the area's parks. Aim for a picnic a week at least. Make a commitment.
Picnics don't have to be reserved for Concerts on the Square. You don't have to head for a marquee park like Vilas or Tenney, either. There is a park near you with a lonely picnic table, I guarantee it.
Pick up a pizza or a couple of sub sandwiches on the way. This is not to say that a wicker basket packed with cloth napkins, a bottle of wine and a dish of Moroccan couscous made with veggies straight from the farmers' market wouldn't be great, but if you can't make that particular vision happen, don't feel guilty.
When things are thrown together at the last minute, you will forget something. Accept it. Note: Plastic deli forks are not ideal utensils with which to flip burgers on a park grill, and fried chicken calls for napkins and lots of them. But happily, the picnic where you grilled the hot dogs on twigs is the one you'll remember.
Governor Nelson State Park
5140 Hwy. M
With its beach, view of the Madison skyline, restored prairies, oak woods and Indian mounds, Governor Nelson is worth the price of admission. The park land was once the home of two summer camps, Camp Indianola and Camp Wakonda. There's a brace of picnic tables near the beach and a playground and a couple picnic tables at the dog beach as well. A few tables are in a quieter, more open lawn area near the prairies, good for tossing the Frisbee or escaping mosquitoes. Plan ahead for takeout: Coming from the north side of Madison, Athens Gyros (in the Shell Station near the Westport marinas) serves Greek fare and hamburgers; coming from Middleton, try Gino's Italian Deli, 6509 Century Ave. The park has grills.
1202 Northport Dr.
It's all about the view. The few picnic tables are stuck in odd spots that don't take full advantage of the magnificent hilltop vantage point overlooking Lake Mendota and the isthmus. Head to the front of the Dane County Human Services building (the old sanitarium) and spread a blanket near the now-defunct fountain. The uninterrupted expanse of lawn is good for games. Eating options on Northport Drive include the deli at Jim's Meat Market and a Culver's.
Spring Harbor Park
5218 Lake Mendota Dr.
Unassuming neighborhood park with picnic tables, playground equipment and some trails, near Lake Mendota. Walk down nearby Spring Court to find hidden Merrill Springs Park, with a WPA-built fountain for the now dried-up Merrill Springs. Takeout options are numerous along University Avenue; closest spots are the Shish Cafe and Buck's Pizza-West.
This sounds like a no-brainer when it comes to a place for picnicking, but in reality, the point has few actual tables. Bring a blanket, or perch on a stone bench adjacent to one of the nature area's fire rings. The best thing about these walk-in sites is that they're among the few places in the city you can legally build a campfire. Drawbacks: On nice days, the jogging and bike traffic back and forth on the main path can be thick enough to be distracting. Mosquitoes have also been known to frequent the area from time to time. Takeout: Deli counters at Whole Foods or Metcalfe's Sentry Hilldale provide fodder for a summer's worth of picnics.
Maple Bluff Beach
365 Lakewood Blvd.
Adirondack chairs and a fire pit grace this charming spot just minutes from downtown and down the shore from the Governor's Mansion. The Maple Bluff Country Club and tennis courts are right across the street. Kind of like taking a picnic in a Cheever story. Plus, the beach has new playground equipment including a climbing/Moebius strip. There's a Jacobson Brother's deli and the Manna Cafe nearby on North Sherman Avenue.
3902 Regent St.
This 27-acre park scores with its rustic walking paths and 12 restored stone fireplaces originally built during the Great Depression. The rock wall and overlook is good for watching the sun set over the west side. Playground equipment, a softball diamond and two shelters are on site too - handy when your picnic event coincides with a rain event. Get a simple bagel and cream cheese snack from Bagels Forever, or fine tavern fare from The Village Bar.
Yahara Place Park
2025 Yahara Place
This modest spot on Lake Monona in the Marquette neighborhood is home to joggers, tai-chi practitioners, a couple of horseshoe pits, playground equipment and picnic tables. Takeout options abound on Williamson Street, as well as deli counters at the Willy Street Co-op and the Jenifer Street Market.
1155 Olin-Turville Ct.
The top of the hill is a great spot to see the city's skyline from across Lake Monona without being so far away that the buildings become indistinct. And it's a still-thrilling vantage point for viewing Monona Terrace that's especially pretty at dusk. The adjoining Turville Woods has miles of hiking trails that wend along Turville Bay. And the park is just a minute or two from downtown via John Nolen Drive. Pick up locally sourced sandwiches, coffee or smoothies from the Washington Hotel Coffee Room on Lakeside Street.
Nichols and Winnequah Road, Monona
Due to the large number of parks the Madison area has right on the lakeshore, off-lake parks can be a hard sell. But the lagoon and the lovely expanses of lawn at Monona's spacious Winnequah Park make it a handsome alternative to busier Olbrich for east-siders. For the kids, there's a Dream playground; for the adults, a gazebo, and for lazy spectators, a few baseball diamonds. Monona Drive and vicinity is a treasure trove of takeout food possibilities, from David's Jamaican to La Bamba.
The Jenni and Kyle Preserve
925 Post Rd.
One of the area's most unlikely spots for a picnic, located on the edge of an industrial park on the edge of Fitchburg, can be unexpectedly lovely. This Dane County park features accessible fishing on two spring-fed ponds, accessible trails, shelter and a wheelchair swing, located on part of the Nine Springs E-Way. The picnic tables are at the shelter, and the fishing is meant for children under age 14 and those who require accessible fishing facilities. Takeout options include Taqueria Marimar and Doug's Soul Food on Greenway Cross.
Erling Avenue and Siggelkow Road, McFarland
This community park on Lake Waubesa is only a few minutes from Madison. A wading beach, playground equipment, grills, a shelter and picnic tables makes it a good place for young families. Sunsets over the railroad bridge. Food options include the Green Lantern restaurant, virtually at the entrance to the park.