One of the best lakefront walking routes in Madison starts at the Memorial Union Terrace on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus and follows the shady trails along the shores of Lake Mendota to Picnic Point.
Long popular with serious runners, romantic couples and leisurely bicyclists, the Lakeshore Path offers a quiet respite from the busy city and takes visitors out to the historic peninsula once frequented by indigenous people living along the Yahara Chain of Lakes.
In fact, there is evidence that humans created footpaths along the southern shore of Lake Mendota some 12,000 years ago. So, if you take a stroll here, you are literally following in the steps of native people who came before us.
Today, the path is part of the 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve which was pieced together over decades through various land acquisitions and gifts. It includes 4.3 miles of continuous shoreline along Lake Mendota — from Muir Woods in the east at Park Street, to Wally Bauman Woods near Shorewood Hills.
Area residents and visitors in the Madison area are fortunate to have access to hundreds of acres of public shoreline. You’ve got busy urban parks like Tenney and James Madison; boater-friendly county parks such as Lake Farm and Goodland; and large state parks including Governor Nelson and Lake Kegonsa.
The city of Madison also maintains a dozen beaches, mostly staffed by lifeguards during the summer months. Vilas Park Beach on Lake Wingra and BB Clarke Beach on Lake Monona often offer the best conditions for swimming.
And despite pressures for prime real estate, there is more local lakefront in public ownership now than ever before, according to Dane County Parks Director Darren Marsh.
“Absolutely,” says Marsh. “Shoreline property, watershed protection and access to the lakes has been a priority at the state, county and municipal level for years.”
While waterfront land doesn’t come cheaply, major public acquisitions of recent note include 325 acres for the Capital Springs State Park Unit on Lake Waubesa and continued expansion by Dane County of public access at Upper Mud Lake, a popular fishing spot.
There is certainly plenty of demand for public water access. A 2011 survey by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ranked boating, visiting a beach and swimming in a lake as three of the most popular outdoor recreation activities among parks users.
At the same time, agricultural and residential development continue to put pressure on the Yahara Chain. The past decades have seen a continued decline in water quality in direct proportion to population growth.
As the urban and suburban areas have grown, so has the amount of land covered by streets, parking lots, roofs and sidewalks. This has increased the volume of runoff from rainstorms and snowmelt which erodes waterways, increases flooding frequency and intensity and carries contaminants directly into the lakes.
And despite efforts to control runoff from area farms, other contaminants such as pesticides, manure, sediment and toxic chemicals continue to challenge policy makers.
Still, there is strong support for protecting and improving the lakes, from groups such as Madison-based Clean Lakes Alliance, which provides outreach and education on what individual citizens can do.