Cool Summertime Swimming Holes
Who can forget dreamy summer afternoons climbing out onto a slippery willow limb, or dangling from a rope swing, and yelling COW-A-BUNGA just before plunging into the water? And the plunging! What more delicious feeling is there than being covered head to toe in cool agua as the sun swelters overhead? Turn back the clock to childhood at these six springfed swimming holes within an hour’s drive of Madison.
A mere fifteen minutes from Madison’s west side, along the banks of trout-rich Black Earth Creek, is sparkling Salmo Pond. You could easily miss this hidden jewel. But you won’t want to, especially in summer. Once a rock quarry, Salmo Pond is now a seven-acre, sand- and rock-bottom lake managed by Dane County Parks and Recreation. It’s fed by the same springs and aquifer that keep the creek bubbling along. These springs keep Salmo cool even on the hottest days. Dive down a few feet and you can actually feel the cold water seeping up! Once you are sufficiently cooled—or done floating on a raft and looking up at the clouds—join the families picnicking on the grassy shore. You can even bring Rover along, but he must remain on leash.
Yes, this swimming hole sees more than a million visitors every year. But for good reason: ten-thousand-acre Devils Lake State Park near Baraboo is a recreational rock star. Two sandy beaches—one on the north end of the lake near the entrance, one on the south end of lake—offer great (if sometimes crowded) family swimming. Or paddle to your spot in your own craft or one rented at the park concession. You won’t be bothered by powerboats or waterskiers because the only motors you might notice are quiet electric motors of the fishermen. And this is by design: Devils Lake is one of the few southern Wisconsin lakes where electric motors only are permitted. The payoff here is precious quiet and excellent water quality. You can catch panfish and bass by fishing the near-shore cover and weeds. Trout hold in the deep water.
Just to the north of Devils Lake is its smaller and more reclusive sibling—2,200-acre Mirror Lake State Park. While Devils Lake sits in a grand glacial basin rimmed by steep bluffs, Mirror Lake meanders quietly through oak and pine woodlands en route to the Wisconsin River. This fifty-acre widening of springfed Dell Creek is named for the calm, reflective quality of its water. Mirror Lake is the kind of place to while away a summer afternoon in the shade of a big pine tree and then, as the spirit moves, to wade in and take a dip in the cool water.
Located just outside of Monroe in the rolling hills of Green County a few miles north of the Illinois border, Browntown-Cadiz Springs Recreation Area contains another off-the-radar swimming spot. Follow Highway 11 west from Monroe and go south on Browntown-Cadiz Springs Road. You’ll find a picnic area shaded by big oak trees and a sandy beach on clean, cool Beckman Lake. Good bass and bluegill populations invite anglers to drift along in a canoe and try their hand.
If you like a bit of history with your swimming, Lake Ripley near Cambridge is your place. Ole Evinrude, inventor of the modern outboard motor, grew up on these shores and tested prototypes of his soon-to-be-famous engines here in the early 1900s. Another Lake Ripley claim to fame is that the Wisconsin record largemouth bass was caught here in 1940—weighing in at a whopping eleven pounds and three ounces. But you needn’t catch a world record or patent anything life-changing to appreciate this 427-acre springfed lake. Just enjoy the sand beach and grab some nachos at the concession.
The Kettle Moraine region of southeastern Wisconsin is rich in springs. Up until the mid-twentieth century, businesses sold mineral waters bottled in the Waukesha area and well-heeled families built resorts to enjoy these special places. Such a “spring house” can be seen at Paradise Springs in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Fortunately, springs from this same aquifer continue to pump cool water into this region’s lakes. Inside the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit, 640-acre Whitewater Lake is a swimming favorite. Just east of Palmyra, off Highway 59, is 117-acre Lower Spring Lake, offering a 150-foot sand beach.
John Motoviloff is a Madison-based writer.