Guide to running routes near Madison

Guide to running routes near Madison
Illustration by Tim Burton

** Due to recent flooding in the Madison area, sections of these routes may be impassable and even dangerous. Extensive trail repair will be needed in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, on the Capital City Trail and elsewhere, so proceed with caution.

Into the Woods

University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
The 10K loop through “The Arb,” starting and ending at the Henry Vilas Beach, is a canopy-covered, deceptively hilly favorite. The loop is run repeatedly by participants in April’s Mad City 50K and 100K, the latter serving as the USATF National Championship course. But there’s much more to the Arb if you follow the gravel trails or venture deeper still to the singletrack. Make sure to take the tunnel under the Beltline to the South Arb for another 3 miles of trail.

Lake Mendota Path and Picnic Point
From the Memorial Union Terrace, head west on the popular (i.e., packed with students running and biking) Lakeshore Path. Bikes are not allowed beyond the gateway to Picnic Point, so enjoy the 4-mile out-and-back to the restored circle (and famous kissing spot). For a hilly but well-shaded extension, add a loop through the Shorewood Hills neighborhood farther west.

Open Prairie

Capital City State Trail and Lower Yahara River Trail
Tackle the Capital City Trail in sections, venture off the paved trail onto grassy paths or take on the entire 20-mile loop as a late marathon training run – Madison’s signature ring is ripe for all the above. The section through the Capital Springs State Recreation Area is particularly pretty. And Lake Farm County Park is where to get on the Lower Yahara River Trail, which features a mile-long boardwalk – ”the longest inland boardwalk bridge constructed solely for nonmotorized transportation in North America” – spanning Lake Waubesa to the doorstep of McFarland.

City Streets and Paths

Yahara Parkway Loop
Starting at James Madison Park, runners take the Yahara River Bike Path between lakes Mendota and Monona. See and be seen on State Street, but keep your eyes open for inattentive pedestrians stepping off the curbs.

Monona Lake Loop
The Lake Monona 20K is run in early May each year, mostly on paved bike paths and city streets. Start at Olin, Olbrich or Winnequah parks, and regardless of the direction you head, you’ll log a solid, low-traffic, 12.5-mile jaunt.

In The Burbs

Pheasant Branch Conservancy
In Middleton there’s a lovely 4-mile gravel path looping through the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The view from the mound on the north side – a vista that includes the Capitol – is worth the climb.

Ice Age Trail, Verona Segment
Several miles of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail lie within the Madison area. But the prettiest and least broken-up section starts on the south side of the new pedestrian bridge over McKee Road. This 6.4-mile section cuts through the Ice Age Trail Junction Area (paved and grassy paths) and Badger Prairie County Park (grass). After crossing the Military Ridge State Trail, there’s a long section of singletrack terminating at Prairie Moraine County Park. Bonus: The Wisconsin Brewing Co. is located nearby if you’re in need of a victory beer.

Indian Lake County Park
Unless you show up at Indian Lake County Park on Highway 19 near Cross Plains on the day of the annual trail run (Oct. 6 this year), you can expect to have the place largely to yourself. Aside from the trail skirting the edge of the lake, the wooded trails have several steep but short sections. Do your hill workouts here.

Worth The Drive

Military Ridge State Trail and Blue Mound State Park
Nothing’s better for long tempo runs than a straight and flat trail of crushed limestone. The Military Ridge State Trail, covering the 40 miles between Fitchburg and Dodgeville, is the ticket. Much of the trail is exposed to the sun and wind, so on hotter days the wooded refuge provided by the adjacent Blue Mound State Park is welcome. While the state park doesn’t allow motorized vehicles in the warm-weather months, know that hikers and mountain bikers flock here. The more than 15 miles of rocky singletrack will make you weep, but it will also make you stronger. and

Devil’s Lake State Park
If you enjoy running up steep, century-old stone steps while soaking in epic views, head to Devil’s Lake. In mid-July, Dances With Dirt offers race distances from 10K to 50 miles. That about describes your options: You can have as hard a day of running as you wish, but you won’t likely experience one that disappoints.