You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull. Today, we’re biking the lake loop, though probably not the one you’re familiar with.
If you’re listening to this live, it’s Bike Week in Madison. Right now, and all week long, there are events being held to celebrate Dane County’s cycle culture, and promote its growth for the future. Personally, that culture is one of my favorite things about living in Madison. I’ve never been a particularly athletic person, but I’ve always been more comfortable than most on a bike. Consequently, cycling has always been one of my favorite ways to explore my hometown.
Name a trail in Dane County, I’ve probably ridden it at some point. And don’t get me started on BCycle. The folks at Madison’s electric bikeshare are probably so sick of me at this point. What I’m saying is, it takes a lot of willpower to hold back from making this segment all bicycles all the time.
So, for this week only, I’d like to talk about a lake loop. Not the Lake Monona Bike Loop, mind you, but we’ll start there for the sake of comparison. Lake Monona is the second lake of the four in the Yahara River chain, and arguably the most celebrated of them all. Riding bikes in a In a thirteen mile ride around the lake’s shores, you’ll pass iconic Madison landmarks like Monona Terrace, John Nolen Drive, and Olbrich Gardens. The sections that don’t belong on a postcard are at least, for the most part, inviting and safe. The loop winds through a lot of residential neighborhoods, with low traffic, navigable even for families with children.
With all these factors put together, it’s a no-brainer that people have been biking around Lake Monona for a long time. Even in an official capacity, the route has been recognized for decades. As far back as the early eighties, Monona police officers would lead an annual awareness ride around the lake. And the infrastructure for this has only gotten better over the years. The cities of Madison and Monona have put a lot of effort into new pavement, safer intersections, and better signage, all to improve the experience of the thousands of people who ride this route every year.
Still, as good as it’s become, you can only ride the lake loop so many times. I have to admit, I get burned out on it occasionally. A man can only consume so much bait and ice cream every summer. So, when this happens, where else can I turn?
Well, as it happens, Madison actually has at least two lakes. You can’t have a city on an isthmus with just one, it’s kind of our whole thing. Mendota is the first and largest of the Yahara four lakes. It’s just as important to the city of Madison as Lake Monona is, and just as close to downtown. And yet, Mendota has nothing like the Monona Lake Loop. For the rest of this episode, I’d like to speculate why.
Let’s start off with the obvious: Lake Mendota is big. The approximate route a Mendota bike loop would take is 22 miles long. The route is also noticeably more hilly than most of Monona. An experienced cyclist in a time crunch can knock out the Monona Loop in under 90 minutes, but to bike Mendota, you have to set aside an afternoon. Honestly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think many people would welcome the challenge.
That’s assuming, of course, that they could do the ride safely. The news earlier this week has highlighted once again how dangerous it is for bikers to ride in close proximity to cars, and on the north side of lake Mendota, bikes and cars are about as close as can be. For five miles between Middleton and Westport, county trunk M is a cyclist’s only option. The busy, two lane highway has a paved shoulder, but it’s not even marked as a bike lane. There are quiet residential streets that serve the homes around the lake, but unlike the neighborhoods, in Madison and Monona, none of them connect to each other, they all dead-end. I know people who like riding around Mendota, but every one of them hates riding on County M.
A final, less obvious obstacle is likely an increase in bureaucracy. The Monona loop is lucky, in that you can bike around the whole lake, while only passing through two cities. Nothing in government is easy, but coordinating between Madison and Monona really doesn’t sound that bad. Now let’s say somebody wanted to draw up a master plan for the Mendota Lake Loop. By my count, they would have to involve the separate entities of Madison, Maple Bluff, Westport, Waunakee, Bishop’s Bay, Middleton, Shorewood Hills, and the University of Wisconsin. If they really wanted to get ambitious, they would probably need to include the DNR, too. So, maybe we’ll get a complete loop someday, a patchwork of disparate trails, but I’m not holding my breath for anything cohesive, there almost certainly will never be signs.
I hope my pessimism is misplaced, because a complete Lake Mendota loop has a lot of potential. The whole UW lakeshore path, leading into Shorewood Hills, is already perfect. There’s so many little quiet places to stop and admire the beauty of nature. Another of my favorite current Mendota rides starts at Tenney Park, and goes up into Maple Bluff. Not only can you ride past the governor’s mansion, the bluff itself has some of the biggest hills with the fewest cars in all of Madison. Bombing down Farwell Street towards Warner Park is absolutely worth the extra work to get up there. And though Governor Nelson isn’t my favorite state park, putting a bike path through it would liven it up, and go a long way towards solving the County M problem.
If I’ve learned one thing while researching this piece, it’s that we’ve made a lot of progress. Forty years ago, people may have been circling Lake Monona, but bike lanes had yet to be legalized by the Wisconsin legislature. If there’s public interest in a Mendota loop, we’ll make it happen, somehow. Until then, I guess Madison’s existing 100+ miles of bike routes will have to do.
A special thanks goes out this week to everyone who helped me try to track down the date when the Monona Bike Loop officially became a thing. We never found it, so if you think you know, please, email me. This is going to bug me forever! Or, if you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys.