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Madison’s lakes: a guide

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Summertime on the Terrace. | Photo by @understarslikeours

Table of Contents

We’re starting a new series on Madison’s lakes. Did you know there are actually 5 of themeven though we’re nicknamed the City of Four Lakes? For each installment, we’re taking a deep dive into a specific lake.

Would it be a lakes guide if we didn’t start it off with the biggest? Today we’re talking about:

Lake Mendota

Lake Mendota is a 9,781-acre body of water that creates a part of Madison’s isthmus — that’s 7,000+ football fields. It has an average depth of 42 ft., but its deepest point is 83 ft. The freshwater lake holds roughly 132,086,026,179 gallons of water, features 21.6 miles of shoreline, and has an average freeze date of Dec. 20.

Some notable features along the lakefront:

  • James Madison Park: A nod to Madison’s namesake, the 12-acre park overlooks the lake + houses the Gates of Heaven Synagogue, as well as the Hoover Boat House.
  • Memorial Union Terrace: UW-Madison’s student center + outdoor community space has sat along the lakeshore since 1928. Summertime features concerts, beers, and ice cream from the Daily Scoop. During the colder months, you can find the Winter Carnival here with a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty.
  • UW Lakeshore Nature Preserve: Start at the terrace + walk along 4.3 miles of the shoreline, stopping at Picnic Point along the way to experience the Lakeshore Path. Or venture into the preserve for an escape from city life in the protected space.

Looking to get on the water?

  • Ten boat landing sites along the lakeshore. Remember to purchase your permit before launching any type of watercraft.
  • Seven beaches, including Gov. Nelson State Park.
  • Summer water sports like kayaking, sailing, tubing + windsurfing. Pro tip: UW Hoofers offer rentals + classes at the Terrace
  • Winter sports like ice boating, ice skating, ice hockey + ice fishing for walleye and catfish.
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The iconic UW-Madison prank continues on. | Photo by @harry.fyh

Those not ready to dip their toe in, so to speak, can read up on what has been called “the most studied lake in the world.” 100+ years of research from the UW-Madison Center for Limnology has tracked lake level changes, algal blooms, and salt pollution.

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The canoe was raised from a depth of about 30 ft. | Photo by @wisconsinhistoricalsociety

In late 2021, a dugout canoe — dated to be over 1,200 years old — was pulled out of the lake by the Wisconsin Historical Society. As the oldest known “shipwreck” in the state, the rare find is expected to give insight into those who lived on the land before us.

Now that you have all the info, water you waiting for?

Lake Monona

We’re back with another installment of our lakes guide. In case you missed our first edition about Lake Mendota, you can catch up here.

Focusing on Madison’s second largest body of water — and an important part of the 608’s skyline — Lake Monona was originally named Teepee Lake by the Ho-Chunk. Monona is believed to mean “beautiful,” and we would certainly agree.

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The view from John Nolen Drive | Photo by 608today team

The water’s average depth is 27 ft., with a maximum depth of 74 ft. Holding 28 billion gallons of water, Lake Monona is one-third the surface size of Lake Mendota

Monona has 13 miles of shoreline, 40% of which is open to the public. The lake spends almost 1/3 of the year (~107 days) frozen over.

Life is better on the water

  • Brittingham Boats: Get out on Monona Bay + paddle under John Nolen Drive for picturesque skyline views. Choose from SUPs, kayaks, or canoes for a water adventure. Opens for the season on Sat., May 14.
  • Monona Terrace: The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building offers panoramic views of the lake from its rooftop. Sign up for a tour to learn more about the “dream civic center.”
  • Olin Park: A stop along the Lake Monona Bike Loop, Olin Park has fishing, a beach, and a scenic overlook of the Madison skyline.
  • Olbrich Park: During the summertime, stop by the Biergarten for a drink or start up a game at the gaga ball pit. Rutabaga Paddlesports rentals are also available seasonally.
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Nothing better than lake life. | Photo by 608today team

Upcoming lake events

  • Lake Monona 20K and 5K | Sat., May 7 | 9 a.m. | Winnequah Park, 1041 Nichols Rd., Monona | $35+ | Run around Lake Monona for a 20K or explore Winnequah Park for the 5K.
  • Loop the Lake | Sat., June 18 | 8 a.m.-2 p.m. | Olbrich Park, 3527 Atwood Ave. | $40+ | The Clean Lakes Alliance’s 10th annual 12-mile ride around Lake Monona.

Lake Wingra

We’re taking a deep dive into Madison’s smallest lake — Wingra. Because sometimes the best things come in the smallest packages.

The 336-acre lake nestled in the Dungeon-Monroe neighborhood also borders the UW-Madison Arboretum, Edgewood College, and Henry Vilas Zoo. Named for the Ho-Chunk word for “duck,” the body of water has an average depth of 9 ft + a surface area of one square mile.

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Grab a coffee from Barriques + watch the sunrise over the lake. | Photo by @kenton_a_folwer

Known for spring runs of large muskellunge (Wisconsin’s state fish), the lake serves as a premier spot for fishing. In 2008, Wingra went through a carp removal project to improve water quality. A study was run in 2019 through early 2022 to assess flooding issues in the city’s 22 watersheds, Wingra included.

Features of the lake:

  • Public boat launch: Lake access permits are not required at this launch + no trailer parking is available.
  • Wingra Park and Boat Livery: The city park offers basketball courts, soccer fields, a playground, and plenty of aquatic activities.
  • Wingra Boats: Situated inside the park, patrons can rent canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards to explore the lake. Keep your eye on the calendar for events like SUP Yoga on Fri., July 8, a full moon paddle on Wed., July 13 + pastries from Bloom Bakeshop every Tuesday morning.
  • UW-Madison Arboretum: Bike, walk, or cruise Arboretum Drive from the east entrance or explore the Wingra Oak Savanna trail to see the shoreline from the Monroe Street side. FYI — fishing or docking on the shoreline is prohibited.

Looking to spend your holiday by the water? Book your boat or watch the Children’s Bike Parade to Wingra this morning, followed by a neighborhood social. See you at the lake.