How to safely embrace the outdoors in Madison

Outdoorsy options to beat the pandemic blues.
Buckeye Butterfly Flying To The Next Bloom
Photo by Richard Hurd
A buckeye butterfly flying at the Allen Centennial Gardens.

There’s not much better than the great outdoors — decreased anxiety and stress, improved vitamin D levels, boosted exercise habits — but now with months of brewing cabin fever and a widespread concern over ventilation in enclosed spaces, the phrase applies more than ever. Things may look a bit different with hikers masked up and gardens or parks oriented for six-feet-apart travel, but adapted programming and adjusted hours keep the green thumbed people of Madison safe.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens: When your own home begins to feel a bit too crowded, get some space at the recently reopened Olbrich Botanical Gardens — 16 acres of it, to be specific. Stunning roses, perky perennials and other floral alternatives fill the 14 outdoor, manicured beds, and are now accessible with adjusted hours and limited capacity. Small-scale concerts are bringing musicians like Lo Marie and Raine Stern to the (socially-distanced) party, Virtual Garden Visits and Flash Flower Sales flood Olbrich’s social media pages and Tai Chi Meditation sessions via Zoom keep patrons grounded. Want to seek out some blossoms in your own neighborhood? Check out this Sidewalk Garden Tour — walking and biking friendly, of course — and peruse the arrangements and yards of east side homeowners.

Allen Centennial Garden: “Garden reservation for four, please?” This may not be the most predictable phrase to enter Madisonians vocabulary following the pandemic, but it’s the new reality at Allen Centennial Garden. This UW-managed conservatory has officially opened up its gates — but make sure to call ahead first — for masked folks and well-behaved pups wanting to get out and about. Still not ready to head over in IRL? Schedule an online one-on-one gardening coaching session with an expert, tune in to weekly “Let’s Grow Stuff” video segments, or pop into Virtual Lunchtime Wellness for some feel-good crafts and lessons.

A scenic view of a river at the UW Arboretum.

A scenic view of a river at the UW Arboretum. Photo by Richard Hurd

Hiking in Town: It’s no secret that we host some impressive outdoor walking spots, but what trail systems are currently open? You may not be able to rent out a fire circle, but you can still jut your way out to Picnic Point along the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. The UW Arboretum is allowing guests — with limitations or closures on indoor spaces, events and photo shoots — and its wide open paths and spaces are a distancing dream. (If you are lucky, you’ll make a few friends of the crane sort.) The city of Madison parks and trails system are also back up-and-running, and have offered up advice on how to safely immerse yourself in the outdoors.

Henry Vilas Zoo: For the first time, since opening more than 100 years ago, the Henry Vilas Zoo shut down back in March to protect patrons, workers and animals alike. You read that right — primates, big cats, badgers (the human-type included), skunks and many others can catch COVID-19. So, snag a face covering before heading over to the one-way trail passing by your favorite critters. Otherwise, schedule a Zoom the Zoo meeting with yourself and your 19 closest pals for educational programming or sign your little ones up for Virtual Zoo Camp.

Right at Home: Plenty of local and national environmental organizations have curated activities, lesson plans and other forms of engaging and outdoorsy content for families. The International Crane Foundation has downloadable activity packets for varying ages online, and the Urban Ecology Center shares “Backyard Classroom” projects regularly. Madison’s prized Children’s Museum has even curated a neighborhood scavenger hunt for antsy youngsters and Madison School & Community Recreation hosts Virtual Outdoor Club on Youtube!

Sam Jones is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.