To orient oneself with Madison’s waterways, it helps to understand how the lakes relate to one another. They’re primarily fed by the Yahara River—which starts northwest of Morrisonville, passes through DeForest and Windsor and feeds Cherokee Lake before reaching Lake Mendota in the town of Westport. After flowing through lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, the Yahara meets the Rock River north of Janesville. That’s essentially the Yahara Watershed. Our beloved lakes within it? That’s another story.
With nearly 26 miles of shoreline, 9,847 acres in size and 83 feet at its deepest, Lake Mendota is the largest lake in Dane County and the eighth largest in Wisconsin. Yet it was referred to as Fourth Lake, as early settlers counted them from the south.
“Lake Mendota can be wild and woolly. It’s a big body of water,” says Donald Sanford, author of “On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota” and a captain for Betty Lou Cruises. “When the wind is blowing hard out of the north, the city shoreline can be a treacherous place.”
Despite the increasing number of motorists who skirt the north side of the lake on County highways M and K to avoid traffic on the isthmus and the Beltline, Sanford says, the north shore of Lake Mendota “still feels like the country.”
My daughter and I make a ritual of going swimming in Mendota off the pier at the [Memorial] Union. We go on every decent weather Sunday of the season and get ice cream,” says Wade Stewart of Verona.
Lake Monona is Madison’s second largest lake. It tends to be calmer than Lake Mendota and thereby more easily navigated by paddlers, who push off near Monona Terrace, Olin Park or Brittingham Park on Monona Bay.
The Lake Monona shoreline is the most developed with small lots dominated by big homes. A few true cottages still exist, but the resorts of yesteryear are all but gone. The grounds of the once grand Tonyawatha Hotel, large enough to house 300 guests in 1883 but destroyed in a 1895 fire, was subdivided and sold for summer cottages, marking the rocky start of a tourist economy in the city.
Lake Waubesa wasn’t generally accessible by boat until 1911, when the Yahara River was dredged between Lake Monona and Mud Lake. In 1916, a railroad track was raised to allow passage by boaters.
It is now a lovely hybrid for lake home living and boating on its east side and a destination for cyclists through the Capital Springs State Park and Recreation Area and low-traffic local roads.
“People here like it for the country setting” and because it’s only a few minutes drive from downtown Madison, says Mark Sutton, 27-year resident of one of the few remaining Waubesa Beach cottages.
Lake Wingra is unique as it is spring fed—thus not on the Yahara River chain of lakes—and is almost entirely surrounded by the woods and marshes of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. On Wingra’s northeast end is the Henry Vilas Park and Zoo and on the west end is Wingra Boats, a popular place to rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards to explore that lily-pad laden end of the oversized pond.
Lake Wingra was purchased as a city park by William Freeman Vilas and others in 1904. It was a 63-acre tract, only 25 acres of which was not marshland. The arboretum took the place of the failed Lake Forest Land Company development. A crusade, led by Michael Olbrich, set the area aside as a public wilderness and outdoor classroom in 1934.
My first SUP-yoga [session] on Wingra last summer was the most liberating experience on a Madison lake,” says Laura Marie Kaiser of Madison. “It was a new way to do yoga, see and experience the lakes and further bolster a sense of community.”
The southernmost lake in the Yahara chain is 3,200-acre Lake Kegonsa. The lake, just north of Stoughton, is largely surrounded by farmland and small homes, and is best experienced from Lake Kegonsa State Park on the northeast shore.
I like coming here year round. It’s kind of a hidden gem that’s underutilized and never crowded. That appeals to me,” says Lake Kegonsa State Park visitor and Stoughton resident Yvonne Meichtry.
In the 1850s, the village of Madison banned bathing and swimming in Lake Monona within a mile of shore, during the day and between certain streets “or anywhere else within public view.” Swimming was finally legalized in 1879 after 28 years of bans, restrictions and arrests, according to David Mollenhoff in “Madison: A History of the Formative Years.” The prohibition was lifted after several young boys were arrested for skinnydipping. “At last the city council relented and legalized swimming provided that bathing dress covered the person from the neck to the knee,” Mollenhoff wrote.