You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
A while back, I did an episode about loop bike paths. We compared the very popular Lake Monona Bike Loop with Lake Mendota, and its lack of a comparable circuit. I thought at the time that that episode would be current for at least the rest of 2022, but just a couple weeks later, a major development made the local news. It turns out, I’m not the only one with a bike loop on the brain, and a trail was already under construction on Mendota’s north side. So this time, I’m going to get it right. I’m taking a ride all the way around all the Yahara lakes. I’ll talk about where you can bike around each of them, detail what’s being done to make them more bikeable, and rank where they are currently, in terms of loopability. Without further ado, let’s get riding.
We’ll discuss the four lakes today in order of the Yahara’s flow. This puts Mendota first. Last time we talked about Madison’s largest lake, I discussed the difficulties of biking around its north side. As things stood in early summer of 2022, you could get most of the way around Lake Mendota, using nothing but bike lanes, paths, and slow residential streets. But there was about a five mille stretch along the north side of the lake, where a cyclist’s only option was to ride along County Highway M, a fast road with a narrow shoulder. This is still the case in some areas, but now a big chunk of M can be safely bypassed.
The North Mendota Trail provides a paved route through Governor Nelson State Park, linking North Shore Bay Drive to the Farm neighborhood of Bishop’s Bay. North Shore Bay Drive, in turn, connects to a boardwalk, which provides a safe ride along County M, up to a traffic light, where riders can Cross and head north up a path into Waunakee. On the other end, The Farm, and its adjacent development, the Prairie, do not yet connect to any other residential roads. Similarly, the North Mendota Trail dead-ends at the edge of the neighborhood. But, a million dollar grant has already been approved to extend the trail from there, all the way to Mendota County Park, at Middleton’s eastern edge.
This is huge for the bikeability of the north-side suburbs. Waunakee is not contiguous with Middleton, but within another year, cyclists should be able to safely bike between the two. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean a Mendota lake loop is any more of a reality. Even after the North Mendota Trail is complete, that will still leave a mile or two of County M, between the east end of the boardwalk, and Wisconsin Highway 113. The remaining section is, at least, straight. So there’s less chance that a car will drift into the shoulder, and hit a cyclist. But that cyclist will still be riding on the shoulder of a fast road, and not even one marked as a bike lane. There’s no plan for it in future phases of the trail, but just an additional mile of boardwalk would get riders to Willow Road, where they could then ride on residential streets the rest of the way into Madison. Whether we ever get that extension is up to the county, and the Town of Westport. A lake Mendota Loop has a lot of potential, but as it currently stands, I can only recommend it for the most confident cyclists. Two out of five stars.
Working our way down the Yahara, I’d like to talk for a minute about Monona. The Lake Monona loop has been the gold standard of Madison bike routes for decades, but there has been a small development over this summer that I’d like to address. People familiar with the Monona loop know that it detours away from the lake on the north side of the City of Monona, in order to keep cyclists off busy Monona Drive. Lake loop purists can then rejoin the lakefront at Olbrich park, but some people might stay on the Capitol City Trail, and take a more inland isthmus route. Those people got a quality of life upgrade in the summer of 2022, as the section of trail along Atwood Avenue was partially redone. Specifically, where the trail crosses streets, the pavement was raised so that cars have a bit of a speed bump, and bikes stay at the same level.
As someone who usually rides a bike with no suspension, this is an awesome improvement. It makes crossing the streets so smooth, almost like the rider is on rails, rather than a bicycle. I hope that this becomes the new standard, that this is how bike trail crossings will be implemented everywhere. Monona was already a nearly-perfect lake loop, but this certainly doesn’t hurt. Five out of five stars.
Continuing on, Waubesa is, in my opinion, where the race for Madison’s next big lake loop gets interesting. One would think that Mendota would be the obvious choice for the next fully-loopable lake, but there’s that troublesome mile up in Westport, and Waubesa is making some big strides. Perhaps the flashiest bike infrastructure project of the past decade is the first segment of the Lower Yahara Trail, and the mile-long boardwalk that connects Lake Farm Park to the city of McFarland. This is the longest boardwalk made exclusively for non-motorized vehicles anywhere in the U.S, and it directly connects McFarland to the Capitol City Trail. Upon entering McFarland, a cyclist can ride south from McDaniel Park, through neighborhoods along the lake’s shore. This leads to Babcock County Park, along the south end of the city. From Babcock, you can ride past more lakefront houses, through a dirt path to Lake Waubesa Bible Camp, then on to more houses still. The developed lakefront of Waubesa means that it’s possible and safe to bike all the way from Lake Farm Park on the lake’s north end, to Jordan Drive, on the lake’s south shore.
Unfortunately, this is where you encounter the Waubesa Loop’s biggest obstacle. The Waubesa Wetland Wildlife Area is an important space for conservation, and I give it points for a fun, alliterative name, but it’s impossible to bike through. It’s a massive area of marsh and streams, with no current footpaths through. It would take another record-breaking, mile-long boardwalk just to traverse, and that’s if the DNR is willing to disturb the ecosystem for the sake of cyclists. The only current way to bike from the south side of Lake Waubesa to the west side is to go miles out of the way, all on country roads that make no accommodation for bikes. If you can make it over or around the marsh, you’ll find yourself once again on residential streets. These continue up most of the lake’s west side, but end in a cul-de-sac, about half a mile south of Lake Farm Park. There actually is a plan for a trail here. It’s still just in the planning stage, but it’s a relatively simple matter of paving a path over a field. As a whole loop, Waubesa is currently one out of five stars. I can’t recommend anyone bike the detour around the wetland. But when the Waucheeta Connector Trail is complete, the rest of the loop will be really compelling, about ten miles of trails and neighborhoods, safe for all ages and abilities. The Lower Yahara boardwalk is a great achievement, and I can only hope that it will be replicated someday, on the south side of the lake.
The Lower Yahara Trail continues beyond the boardwalk. Though it now stops in McFarland, its future has major implications for recreation along the last lake in the Yahara Chain. Kegonsa is already a pretty good candidate for a lake loop. Though it doesn’t quite touch any city, it’s surrounded by lake houses, and therefore relatively safe roads to bike along. The main exception to this is on the lake’s north and east side, where the houses give way to park land. At present, there’s no road connecting the otherwise nearby Fish Camp County Park, and Lake Kegonsa State Park. Cars traveling between the two have to take a ten minute detour, around the wetlands of Door Creek. It’s over these same swamps that bikes will soon have a shortcut. The next planned phase of the Lower Yahara trail will start at Fish Camp, constructing a boardwalk over Door Creek, and then continuing on new pavement through Lake Kegonsa State Park, and LaFollette County Park. With that, Kegonsa will become a continuous safe loop for bikes, except for a tiny interruption on its west side.
In the town of Dunn, U.S. Highway 51 cuts just a little too close to the lake, and cuts off Colladay Point Drive. It wouldn’t take much to fix this, just a few hundred feet of path between Colladay Point Drive and County Highway AB. Honestly, you should be able to bike over people’s driveways and grass without issue until this is fixed, but this prevents me from giving a Kegonsa Loop a full recommendation. But still, once the Lower Yahara trail is complete, Kegonsa might be the second best lake to loop, an easy four out of five stars.
I’ll check back in with this topic again next year. In the meantime f 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. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.