You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, is one of Madison’s more interesting satellite communities. Because of its lead mining ties, it’s the oldest continuous white settlement in Dane County, depending on when Blue Mounds started to count as a real town. After Madison became the official center of Wisconsin, Mount Horeb settled into the role of gateway to the territory’s southwest. That role suited the village just fine for nearly a century and a half, until it came time to upgrade and re-route U.S. Highway 151.
The highway connecting Madison to Mineral Point, Platteville, and beyond, which had previously gone straight through town, now bypassed it to the south. This led to a predictable decline in business, and Mount Horeb has since tried, with varied success, all sorts of things to lure people back into town.
If you’ve lived a while in Madison, and have only vaguely heard of the village to its southwest, you’ve probably heard tell of Mount Horeb’s trolls. All along its main street sit wooden carvings of squat fairytale creatures, each unique, but unified through short stature, bulbous noses and big feet. The village has long embraced its Norwegian heritage, but the trollway is a direct response to the change brought by the bypass.
Over the past few decades, Mount Horeb has built an image that leans into its separation from Madison. It’s now charming, and an easy place to get away from life in the city. The thing is, it had those elements in it all along. Before the trolls, before the microbrewery, before the Military Ridge Bike Trail, Mount Horeb already had the best park in Dane County.
Stewart Lake is a county park on the north edge of the village of Mount Horeb. It has existed in some form for the past hundred and ten years, making it the first ever park run by Dane County. The park’s lake namesake is artificial. Moen Creek happens to spring from the ground in a spot where the topography of Wisconsin’s driftless region really gets going. On the north end of Mount Horeb, there are ridges and valleys all over the place. Moen Creek starts in a narrow-ish valley, so it was easy for people in 1912 to construct a dam, and turn it into a six acre lake.
None of the engineering involved was particularly impressive. The lake isn’t huge, and it only gets to twelve feet deep at most. Still, it’s plenty big to swim, paddle, or fish, and its builders picked a beautiful spot to put it.
I think it’s partly the variety that’s appealing. The lake is surrounded on two sides by tall evergreens; cedar, and pines. Outcroppings of sandstone make the lake’s edges feel more natural. Up the valley, the creek flows into the lake through a marsh. And two hundred feet up, on top of the ridge, sits an oak savannah. Miles of trails connect the habitats together; you could walk without covering the same ground for hours.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s listened to my bike episodes, my favorite walk here is a rough loop around the lake’s perimeter. After crossing the earthen dam which keeps the lake in place, you find yourself under a canopy of cedar. A bigger park might construct a boardwalk over this terrain, to smooth the bumps and divots of rocks and giant roots, but not Stewart Lake. The far side of the lake is not for those with weak knees or ankles. In many parts, there is only the suggestion of a trail, formed by the absence of undergrowth plants, rather than the guidance of signposts.
But despite some ambiguity, you are supposed to explore out here. Almost exactly opposite, across the lake from the main parking lot, a small picnic site sits beneath the trees. It’s basically just a table and a trash can, but it’s also an invitation from the park to sit and stay a while. You can watch people as they fish off the dam and paddle around the small cliffs. I don’t think it’s technically allowed, but the rocky base makes this a pretty safe space to start a small fire. There are few better moments than being huddled around a fire, watching the sun set over the pines and the lake, as the first cool breeze of fall sweeps down the valley.
But that’s just one way to enjoy the park, a tiny slice of its hundred and ninety one acres. The first iteration of the Moen Creek dam, all the way back in the nineteenth century, aimed to create a swimming hole for the locals. Now, every summer, people come from miles around for that same purpose. The main parking lot holds about fifty cars, and slopes gently down, through a grassy lawn, to a beach, which is about a fifty foot square. The sand here is as artificial as the rest of the lake, trucked in from parts unknown, but it’s piled deep enough that you wouldn’t notice. And maybe there’s something to defying nature, as Stewart Lake provides a consistently better swimming experience than the natural sandy beaches of Lake Monona.
Most every summer, there comes a point where blue-green algae blooms get out of hand, and it becomes unsafe to swim the shores of Madison’s lakes. For whatever reason, this problem does not seem to plague Stewart Lake, nor a few other outlying bodies of water. When checking the beach water quality website, Stewart Lake is basically never closed to swimming.
In general, this is a good place to bring a family. There’s a modern, all metal and plastic playground, uphill from the beach. Kids also might like the trails through the marsh, as a couple small bridges give a close view of the creek. A large, modern shelter is reservable for events, and the bathrooms are also decent. Nothing to write home about, but I figure it’s worth mentioning.
Away from the main parking lot, over by the dam, there’s a few more parking spots along County Highway JG. These service a handicap-accessible fishing pier, and a small boat ramp. Despite this, I might recommend travelers leave their bait and tackle at home. The county Parks website describes Stewart Lake as offering “a challenge for trout and bass fishing.” Anecdotally, the challenge might be finding any fish in this lake at all.
Thankfully, wildlife viewing is a little better. The park is host to all kinds of birds, frogs… if you’re lucky, you can spot a garter snake in the prairie. Winter offers even more opportunities like this: I once saw a red-tailed hawk sit in the middle of the frozen lake for about ten minutes, just resting, soaking up the December sun.
Stewart lake is a park for all seasons, and now it’s entering a season of renewal. If, after visiting Stewart Lake, you feel inspired to give back to the park, there’s actually a way you can help, coming up soon. This Saturday, September 10th, the county parks department is leading an effort to remove invasive species from the prairie. Work will go from 1 to 3pm, and interested volunteers can meet up at the end of Blue View Drive in Mount Horeb. More information can be found at the Dane County Parks website, and I’ll link it in the online version of this story.
While I’m on the topic of upcoming county parks events, I should probably talk about the upcoming hearing. The Dane County Parks system hasn’t increased its fees in years, but it looks like it might finally be time. Next Wednesday, at 4:45pm, the community is invited to participate in a hearing, discussing all proposed fee changes for 2023. The big items are increases to permits for lake access, dog parks, and mountain biking, as well as the introduction of new military and veteran discounts. Anyone can attend, either in-person, at 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Madison, or over the phone or on Zoom. Like with the Stewart Lake work day, I’ll link more information on this in the digital version, at WORTFM.ORG.
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. 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.
Work Day: Saturday, September 10th From 1pm to 3pm workers will remove invasive species from the remnant prairie.
Increased 2023 Park Fees Hearing: Wednesday, September 14th, 4:45pm