Sunday, February 9, 2020

Madison and Beyond: Destinations Before and After the Fling

Lower Yahara River Trail

There are many places to explore in and near Madison if you have extra time before or after the Fling. Madison is centrally located in the south of the state, so many of these destinations are short drives away or easy day trips.

We’ve mentioned the numerous bike paths that loop in and around the city and the county. There are more than 100 miles of shared-use trails throughout Dane County. Some are great for other purposes, too. For example, the Capital City State Trail is a 20-mile, paved trail accessible for bicycles, skaters, strollers, walkers, joggers, and wheelchairs.

The Capital City Trail meets the Lower Yahara River Trail southeast of the city, on the western side of Lake Waubesa, and traverses across the northern edge of the lake. The core of this trail is a mile-long boardwalk/bridge that’s the longest boardwalk in Wisconsin and one of the longest elevated bike/pedestrian structures in the U.S.

Old World Wisconsin Clausing Octagonal Barn

A little further to the east, about an hour’s drive from downtown Madison, you’ll find Old World Wisconsin, an open-air, living history museum, depicting the lives of 19th Century Wisconsin settlers. The 600-acre property features more than 50 immersive spaces that bring the stories of Wisconsin immigrant families to life.

Local residents play the parts of historical figures in period costumes, describing and demonstrating daily life for typical settlers of the time. They demonstrate cooking, cleaning, crafts, chores, and gardening in and around the historical homes, businesses, and farms. A 45-minute tram tour provides an overview of the entire property, or you can hop on and off as often as you like at the tram stops.

Lake Geneva Gardens

Another easy destination to the east of Madison is Lake Geneva, named USA Today’s 2019 #1 Best Small Town for Adventure. From water sports to ziplining to mountain biking and hot-air balloon rides, Lake Geneva is a bustling place.

The town of about 8,000 residents has been a popular resort destination since the American Civil War, when it became known as the “Newport of the West,” a popular year-round resort for wealthy Chicago residents who built homes and estates on the lake and in the hills around the town. Tourism now dominates, and Lake Geneva is known for its scenic beauty, luxurious resorts, and historic mansions. A 23-mile path—open to the public—circles Geneva Lake, passing through the backyards of extravagant mansions once owned by the Wrigleys, Rockefellers, and other famous families. The colorful, well-maintained gardens along this path are impressive.
Mitchell Park Desert Dome

About 45 miles from Lake Geneva, or 75 miles from Madison, lies downtown Milwaukee. Where do we start to cover all the things you can do in this bustling big city along the shores of Lake Michigan? Some of the more famous Milwaukee attractions include Miller Park, home to the Milwaukee Brewers; the Milwaukee Art Museum, one of the largest in the U.S.; the Harley-Davidson Museum; the Pabst Mansion, home of the famed beer family; and many more.

The Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory is a great destination for plant-lovers. The three domes, designed by a Milwaukee architect in the 1950s, include the Show Dome, which transforms with each season; the Desert Dome, featuring plants from the deserts of the American Southwest, Africa, Madagascar, South America, and Mexico; and the Tropical Dome, which includes more than 1,200 species of tropical plants.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin
Photo by Edward Stojakovic

A completely different day trip includes a one-hour jaunt to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to experience Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate and museum. The 600-acre property was developed on land that originally belonged to Wright’s mother’s family. The design of the original building was consistent with the design principles of the Prairie School, emulating the flatness of the plains and the natural limestone outcroppings of Wisconsin’s Driftless Region.

Spend a day or more in Spring Green and you’ll have enough time to visit The House on the Rock, a complex of architecturally distinct rooms, streets, gardens, and shops designed by eccentric architect Alex Jordan Jr. It’s hard to describe this place; suffice it to say the attraction’s description, “An experience you will never forget,” is appropriate. Allow several hours to tour it.

Devil's Lake State Park
A drive to Devil’s Lake State Park, also about an hour from Madison, takes you northwest, through the stunning scenery of the Baraboo Hills. Devil’s Lake, itself, draws 3 million visitors each year to see its 500-foot quartzite cliffs, clear blue lake, and rare plants. The park is home to around 1,500 plant species, including 71 species on the Wisconsin rare vascular plant working list, 7 endangered species, 17 threatened species, and 47 species of special concern.

The bluffs at the state park show evidence of the collision of continents that crumpled the land 1.6 billion years ago into the bluffs we see today. Volcanoes, tropical oceans, and glaciers all left visible mementos of their stays. Devil’s Lake, itself, is spring-fed, and ranges from 40 to 50 feet deep.

Wisconsin Dells Ducks
self [CC BY-SA (]

Just a half-hour drive north from Devil’s Lake, you’ll find Wisconsin Dells, which claims the title of the “Waterpark Capital of the World.” There are at least six waterparks in the area, including those at area resorts, but there’s much more to do in Wisconsin Dells. Wineries, golf courses, museums, live entertainment, ziplining, lumberjack shows, and many more activities can be found in this Midwestern tourist mecca.

A must-do activity while in the Dells is to take a scenic “duck” tour. Originally developed to ferry troops and supplies from ship to shore during World War II, the duck is an amphibious truck. It’s the perfect way to explore the Dells—easily maneuvering with ease through steep trails, deep ravines, and rugged rock formations, and then splashing into the water for a smooth boat ride.

Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchids
The Ridges Sanctuary

If you have more time, a trip to Door County is worth your while. The trip is about three hours from Madison. Often described as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” Door County is the “thumb” of the hand that forms Wisconsin. It’s a peninsula surrounded by Green Bay on its western edge and Lake Michigan along the eastern edge.

Door County offers 300 miles of shoreline, thousands of acres of fruit orchards, plentiful art galleries, endless shopping opportunities, wineries and breweries, five state parks, and 11 historic lighthouses. For plant-lovers, The Ridges Sanctuary is a botanical wonderland. Wisconsin’s most biologically diverse ecosystem, its ridge-swale complex is home to rare plants like trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris), and the yellow lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum).

There’s much more to see, of course, but this gives you a start to exploring highlights of the Badger State. Visit for more suggestions. Stay tuned for more information on attractions in and around Madison, itself.