It contains one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's best-known natural spots, especially for couples: Picnic Point.
But the point is just one small — albeit beautiful — part of the university's 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve, stretching for more than 4 miles on Lake Mendota's southern shore. Miles of trails — including the popular Lakeshore Path that follows the lake through nearly the entire preserve — wind through this urban oasis, which consists of woods, marshes, prairies, gardens and plenty of spots for taking in terrific views of the lake.
Until about a decade ago, the preserve as a whole was little known, even in the Madison area. A loose collection of land parcels owned by the university, it had endured decades of neglect and was overgrown with invasive species like garlic mustard and buckthorn. More than once it had been proposed as a spot for classrooms and office buildings.
But in 2004 the university gave the natural area its new name and two years later released a master plan to restore and sustain it.
Today, the preserve is not just a destination for nature lovers but also serves as an outdoor classroom for the university, with students and professors engaged in research and learning in the various ecosystems along the shore.
What you'll need: Hiking essentials: sturdy shoes, water, sunscreen and bug spray.
Although the trails are fairly easy to navigate with some signs to help along the way, you may want to print a map from the preserve's website. And, of course, a picnic for the point.
Route: If you've never done it, a hike to Picnic Point is a must. Park in the lot off University Bay Drive at the base of the peninsula and make the easy less-than-a-mile trek to the end. There are fire pits (reservable through the Wisconsin Union) and photo ops along the way, but the point provides a fantastic nearly 360-degree view of Lake Mendota, the Capitol and the university.
After hiking the point, retrace your steps and follow the path's first fork to the west. Hike through Caretaker's Woods to the edge of the Biocore Prairie, an 11-acre tallgrass prairie that university students began restoring in 1997.
Make your way around the edge of the prairie back to the woods and follow the signs to Frautschi Point for another great view of the lake and an outdoor fireplace. These trails are less crowded than Picnic Point and the eastern part of Lakeshore Path — which is especially popular for joggers — offering a chance for some solitude.
From Frautschi, follow the trail along the lake past Tent Colony Woods. From 1912 to 1962, up to 300 graduate students — some with spouses and children — lived here in temporary housing (typically canvas-walled tents constructed on wooden platforms) during the summer.
West of the woods, make your way down the wooden steps at Raymer's Cove for an up-close view of the sandstone cliffs where Raymer's Ravine meets the water. The cliffs are reminiscent of the Apostle Islands' well-known sea caves, but on a much smaller scale.
At Raymer's you can continue hiking west through more woods, or circle back to your car.
If you parked at the base of Picnic Point, you can continue following the Lakeshore Path (or drive along Observatory Drive) toward Observatory Hill for another fantastic view, this time of nearly the entire preserve. Don't miss the two effigy mounds here, one in the shape of a bird and the other a two-tailed water spirit. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Difficulty level: Easy to moderate. Most of the trails are wide and level; some are even paved. Trails along the lake in the western part of the preserve, however, can become narrow and steep in spots along the lake.
Go now because: Picnic Point and the Lakeshore Path are popular year-round, but are less crowded on weekdays and during the summer, which is also a great time for seeing vegetation in full bloom.
While you're there: Follow Lakeshore Path or Observatory Drive back to the heart of campus at Memorial Union and enjoy a scoop of Babcock ice cream or share a pitcher of beer on the Terrace. 800 Langdon St., union.wisc.edu.
Just south of campus lies one of the best deals in town: the Henry Vilas Zoo. Admission and parking are free at this fabulous zoo, which features everything from lions and giraffes to kangaroos and bison. 702 S. Randall Ave., (608) 266-4732, vilaszoo.org.
Visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens to see 16 acres of outdoor gardens plus the indoor tropical Bolz Conservatory. The outdoor Thai Garden features an authentic Thai pavilion, which was a gift from the Thai government and is one of only four located outside Thailand. 3330 Atwood Ave., (608) 246-4550, olbrich.org.
How much it will set you back: Nothing. The preserve is free to explore, and parking is free on weekends at a few lots along University Bay Drive.
Getting there: The Lakeshore Nature Preserve is on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, about an hour-and-a-half drive west of Milwaukee via I-94.
More info: The university maintains a fantastic website with a great interactive map and in-depth explanations of the various areas within the preserve. See lakeshorepreserve.wisc.edu or call (608) 265-9275.
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