By David Wheeler
Whether you’re planning an upcoming visit to Madison, or you’ve lived here your entire life, there is plenty to do to suit any personality or budget. Madison, with moderate temperatures and gorgeous scenery, is home to the best places to explore the great outdoors. Whether you’re a cycler, hiker, or runner at heart, this city has it all.
If you’re a cyclist, you must spend a day biking on the Badger State Trail. If you ride it long enough, the trail can take you all the way to Illinois, carrying you along under a dense tree canopy with scattered moss and limestone. This gorgeous passage brings you through tunnels, crumbling rock cliffs, and even rolling pasture. Stop along the way in the towns of Monticello, Monroe, or Belleville to enjoy some of the region’s famous beer and cheese.
This park offers a scenic, unique alternative to some of the city’s more crowded trails. Only twenty or so miles from the downtown area of Madison, this park provides multiple hiking trails. The Cactus Bluff and Ferry Bluff trails are steep, but stunning. Along the trail, keep an eye out for native species that are not often found in this part of Wisconsin - such as prickly pear cactus and threatened black rat snakes.
This free zoo is located inside Vilas Park. Open continuously throughout the week, this zoo is home to a unique carousel and animals from around the world. Bring the whole family for a more laid back outdoor adventure, and be sure to visit the zoo’s most famous residents - its African lions, South American alpacas, and its family of regal polar bears.
These gardens, one of Madison’s most famous attractions, is an oasis right in the middle of the city. Visitors can stroll through verdant gardens, each of which is marked by a specific theme. The gardens are open every day of the week, offering special areas like a tropical conservatory, a wildflower garden, a rock garden, and even a unique sunken garden. For the price of admission- it’s free- this spot can’t be passed up.
Operated under the dominion of the University of Wisconsin- Madison, this arboretum is often considered the “birthplace of ecological restoration.” This teaching and research facility works to educate the public and involve the community in conservation and related research. With 1,200 acres to explore, this area offers protected springs, savannahs, woodlands, prairies, and wetlands. There are multiple native plant gardens and over 20 miles of walking trails with the added bonus of free admission, this top-rated college garden is a must-visit spot.
Lake Mendota is one of Madison’s larger lakes, offering beautiful, unblemished shorelines and a great spot to enjoy the outdoors. There are multiple beaches and well-kept parks, as well as outstanding opportunities for boating and fishing. Take a casual stroll along the shore, enjoy a picnic, or lay in a hammock as the sun goes down - you won’t regret it.
This nature center was established in the spirit of naturalist legend Aldo Leopold. The site offers adult workshops, as well as special events like a maple syrup festival in the spring. The facility is home to a diversity of outdoor areas to explore, including savannah, wetlands, prairies, and woodlands. Visitors can explore local flora and fauna and learn more about sustainability and climate change in the center’s multiple venues.
Tenney Park is a great spot to watch the boats come in, and to enjoy a picnic or a casual art show. This open space offers multiple events as well as a small beach, a pier, and an ice skating rink. Home to countless weddings, this park is a great place to grab a breath of fresh air without having to hike for miles into the woods.
David Wheeler is a landscape design writer and nature enthusiast. He is an avid traveler and loves to spend his time hiking and strolling through magnificent gardens, learning about rare and native flowers across the world.