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In these economically distressed times, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors without breaking the bank. The Madison area boasts a wide variety of public parklands with features as varied as its people.
Most longtime residents are familiar with the bigger parks like Warner (home of Mallards baseball, a spacious community center and plenty of open space), Elver (epic sledding hill, Frisbee amenities, hiking, softball and soccer fields), and James Madison (student sunning spot, playgrounds).
Live pretty much anywhere in and around the city, however, and you're still not more than a hop, skip and a jump away from a park. And plenty of the smaller spaces are well worth a visit - either by yourself, with friends, or as a place to hang with your family. It's also a fun way to explore and better get to know different parts of your city.
From wildlife watching to ultimate Frisbee fields, Indian Mounds to natural springs, fireplaces to playgrounds - here's an introduction.
Take the Lake Monona bike loop and eventually you'll find yourself just across the water in the city of Monona. It's possible to enjoy this ride many times without exploring a little off the path. But deviate from the loop by just a few blocks and discover the expansive and handsomely appointed Winnequah Park.
This gem of a community space has just about every feature imaginable. Along its east side there's the Monona Community Center (1011 Nichols Rd.), Senior Center and a very respectable public pool with a great big twisting water slide.
Head a little further into the park and you'll find a small skate park, too, where kids can practice their board, bike and blade skills right next to a sparkling stream.
The park also has several buildings than can be reserved for group use, including a gazebo that overlooks a small pond. One new shelter has a fireplace, sink and counter space, and even retractable glass doors for when the weather gets nasty.
Directly next to the new shelter is the incredible Dream Park, a fenced-in children's playground built to look like a sprawling fortress. Built with towers and tunnels and plenty of things to climb up or slide down, along with bridges and tiles covered in the handprints of local kids, Dream Park should be a destination for any adventurous kid.
Play equipment includes sand diggers, a
sandbox, a mirror maze, tree house, climbing wall, fire pole, monkey bars and even a stage and a fort. A large wizard and dragon guard the front entrance but do far more to welcome than scare away any would-be rompers.
Winnequah Park sports six ball fields, three soccer fields and two tennis courts as well, and is open year-round.
On Madison's near west side, tucked in the middle of a quiet neighborhood just off University Avenue near Whole Foods, Quarry Park represents a serious urban oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city. From University Avenue, turn left onto Ridge Street, right on Stevens Street, followed by another right back onto Ridge Street, and you'll find yourself parking alongside the outermost perimeter of this heavily wooded park.
Walk up a gravel path a short distance, and the first thing you might notice is the network of narrow trails that wind up and down small ridges and canyons and around the abundant forestation. To your right, too, further evidence of this unofficial landscaping - a mountain bike pump track.
With a wink and a nod from park officials, local mountain biking enthusiasts spend a lot of time building and maintaining the series of trails that run throughout Quarry Park, making ample use of the somewhat incongruously hilly terrain - the result of the area's former life as a limestone quarry.
Trails are rocky and covered in gnarled tree roots and are open to urban hikers, too. The whole park is available for on-leash dog walking, and bikers and pedestrians maintain a friendly truce in their use of the trails. The shaded paths make for excellent trail running, as well as a great place for kids to play and get lost without ever really losing their way.
Cypress Spray Park
While the Goodman Pool offers escape from the summer heat, not all people have the time or money to get there when they want to. That's where spray parks come in. Small installations designed to offer a fun way for neighborhood children to cool off have become more common in recent years, including Cypress Spray Park, 902 Magnolia Lane, on the city's south side.
Open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. between the start of the Madison schools' summer break and Labor Day, the park offers both wet and dry play areas appropriate for toddlers to adolescents. It's fenced in and, best of all, free.
Playing in a single sprinkler on your parents' front yard is fun enough, sure, but now imagine having an entire park made of sprinklers of all sizes at your disposal. And it's right down the street.
Another great free spray park is available just off Allen Boulevard in Middleton at Lakeview Park.
Edna Taylor Conservation Park
Not all parks require manmade materials to be interesting, of course. Occupying 58 acres of land between Stoughton Road and Monona Drive and in the middle of several residential developments, Edna Taylor Conservation Park, 802 Femrite Dr., is a great example of the worth of preserving natural places in urban settings.
Purchased by the city from the estate of environmentally minded teacher, dairy farmer and writer Edna Taylor just four months after her death in 1971, the park includes a glacial drumlin that overlooks a swath of marshland that is the setting for excellent bird and wildlife watching, as well as quiet hiking.
The ponds here play host to everything from egrets and great blue herons to woodpeckers, and are surrounded by oak stands, wildflowers and willows. On the east side of the park are six linear Indian effigy mounds and one panther-shaped mound, all listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The park abuts the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, which uses the space for nature walks and environmental education programs.
When Fido needs freedom
Off-leash dog parks
Most Madison parks that allow you to bring your four-legged friends along for a day of recreation also require that dogs stay leashed. But there are a handful of places where the pup can run free, and some even go the extra mile of providing bag dispensers for handy cleanup.
A separated section of Brittingham Park, 401 West Shore Dr. at Broom Street, has a small area for city dogs - not worth making a special trip unless you live in the neighborhood. Head just a bit further out for more room to roam at Quann Park, 1802 Expo Dr., in the shadow of the Coliseum, but best accessed through the parking lot at the Goodman Pool/Franklin Field.
Sycamore Park, 4517 Sycamore Ave., has lots of space for Frisbee catching and ball chasing, and a loop track for people to get exercise, too. Warner Park's off-leash dog area is off Sheridan Drive near the Woodward Drive boat launch. It features a dog beach... so put a
towel down in the back seat.
Demetral Field (at Packers and Commercial avenues) and Washington Manor Park (702 N. McCormick Ave., just off East Washington near Hwy. 30) are also Fido-friendly.
To build a fire
Parks with hearths
Winter, summer, spring or fall - sometimes the crackle of a good fire is necessary to soothe the soul and/or cook up a smoky, delicious meal. City dwellers looking for the more old-fashioned, outdoor culinary experience face many obstacles, though, in prohibitions on open flames in urban areas and the often sub-par metal grills available at most parks.
Happily, a person who knows where to look can, in fact, find several great old stone fireplaces and fire pits at several of Madison's parks that are free for responsible public use.
On the west side of town lies Hoyt Park, 3902 Regent St., nestled on a bluff just south of Quarry Park and University Avenue. There are sports fields and interesting hiking, and your dog friends are allowed (on-leash), but, more to the point, scattered throughout are 12 historic stone fireplaces that have been restored for public use.
Burrows Park on the near north side (25 Burrows Rd., where Sherman meets Fordem Avenue) is smaller but makes up for what it lacks in acres by having a fantastic lake view that can be enjoyed from a rustic stone shelter featuring its own stone fireplace.
A fireplace can also be found in the shelter at Reindahl Park (1818 Portage Rd.) on the far east side, along with expansive sports fields often populated with soccer and flag football players, family outings, and games of pickup basketball.