Get into the wild, within the city limits.
By Elle Duncombe-Mills
Let’s face it: We could all use a bit more nature in our lives. There’s just nothing like the sweet smell of wild hydrangea blossoms, or the delicate symphony of a forest’s assorted fauna. With each breath of fresh air comes a sense of rejuvenation-a feeling of balance, tranquility and connectedness. With each crunch of leaves underfoot comes a feeling of aliveness and adventure, one which feeds our soul with youthful energy. Luckily, spending ample time in nature-and getting a much-needed break from the bustle-is easy in Madison.
Of the countless natural gems scattered throughout Wisconsin, some of the best spots happen to be in Madison’s backyard. One such oasis is the UW Arboretum, a stunning 1,260-acre nature preserve located within city limits.
First proposed in 1911 by landscape architect John Nolen, the UW Arboretum was intended as a preserve for nature, wildlife and sacred Native American sites. More than a century later, the land exists as just that: “Our mission here is ecological restoration, which is really about attempting to restore the land back to what it was pre-settlement,” says Communications Coordinator Susan Day. Many Madisonians also know the arboretum as a refuge from the city.
Start a visit at the arboretum’s Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, featuring 2,500 different plant species— all native to Wisconsin—in a 35-acre meadow that’s a breathtaking mosaic of blossoms come summer. As you wander through the assorted flora, look out for swooping songbirds and squirrels playing games in the branches.
Along the northernmost edge of the gardens you’ll notice a change in the natural color palette. Replacing the rainbow hues is a wall of gleaming green foliage known as Wingra Woods. Here you’ll enter a delightfully tranquil setting where sunlight filters through the tall oak canopy and sloping terrain allows for stunning vistas of the surrounding woodland.
On the forest’s northwestern edge, you’ll find a short detour to Big Spring. Heated by warm subterranean air currents, this bubbling water source remains the same temperature year-round and attracts diverse wildlife. With just a bit of patience you’ll likely spot a variety of birds, water creatures and deer.
For more glimpses of wildlife, head south through Lost City Forest until you reach Icke Boardwalk. Here muskrats often build homes in the marsh to prepare for winter.
Here’s something you won’t want to miss: just southwest of Curtis Prairie you’ll find a tunnel providing access to the southern section of the Arboretum. Burrowing underneath the beltline, the passageway leads to Southwest Grady Oak Savanna which offers easy walking and pleasant countryside views.
Further south you’ll encounter the wide-open terrain of Greene Prairie. Paths through these assorted grasses make civilization feel miles away, and the prairie’s subdued earth tones paint a soothing pattern on the horizon.
Here’s an insider tip: Day suggests wandering north to the boardwalk at Gardiner Marsh in the morning or late evening, where you’ll find the vast waters ablaze with light from the rising or setting sun.
Another nearby nature gem on the city’s West Side is Owen Park Conservancy, which provides 3.4 miles of trails leading through vast slopes of prairie and oak savannah habitats. This spot is worth regular visits throughout the year as the landscape changes colors drastically based on which flowers, like goldenrod, coneflowers and bluestem, are blooming.
Cherokee Marsh, on Madison’s northern edge, is a great refuge with a vast and unique wetland habitat that’s fantastic for hiking, paddling and wildlife spotting in the summertime. You’ll want to visit again in the winter, though: The preserve has over 7 miles of trails perfect for skiing and snowshoeing.