How to Enjoy Madison’s Waterways

By Kevin Revolinski | Photography by Focal Flame Photography

Whether you’re looking to swim, float, paddle or just take in a beautiful summer view, the city offers plentiful places on the water to do just that.


With three lakes inside the city proper and a couple more down the chain, Madison has a surprising number of modest beaches. Each of those listed here has swim ropes and, with the exception of the state park, lifeguards on duty.

Tenney Park is where the Yahara River flows out of Lake Mendota. The sandy beach here is shallow and backed by a sand volleyball pit and playground. Parking is quite close and the park’s lagoon is photogenic and popular for fishing.

Vilas Park’s beach is right outside Henry Vilas Zoo on Lake Wingra facing the Arboretum across the water. Restrooms are available when the lifeguard is on duty and parking is just steps from the sand.

Warner Park Beach is a small stretch of sand on a cove near the park’s boat landing on Lake Mendota, with views out toward Governor’s Island. It has drinking water and restrooms but is separated from the larger park area by a railroad corridor and Woodward Drive.

B.B. Clarke Beach is a sweet little spot on Lake Monona, located in the Marquette neighborhood. A floating weed barrier keeps the swimming area clear and a diving float and playground provide extra fun. Restrooms only open when the lifeguard is on duty, and parking is on the street.

Governor Nelson State Park has a very wide stretch of sandy beach next to its picnic area, offering good facilities and a separate, pet-friendly area. The park also has miles of hiking trails and a boat launch.

Sun Worshippers

James Madison Park, located downtown, has a lakeside walkway and a small swimming beach plus basketball and volleyball courts. But the park’s wide stretch of shadeless grass is most popular for picnics, frisbees and sunbathing.

Madison sunsets are phenomenal. Tenney Park is a great place to watch them, as is the oft-overlooked Burrows Park just down the street. The Memorial Union Terrace is the most popular sweet spot, with the benefit of refreshments and entertainment. Also serving up good food and drink for sunsets — and accessible by boat — is The Edgewater hotel’s waterside Boathouse Bar & Grill. Early risers should head to Olin Park for the sunrise over Lake Monona.

Lake Wingra is a small, shallow, no-wake lake, surrounded by the Arboretum and Vilas Park, making it ideal for paddling. It’s a great spot for full-moon evening paddles as well.

Picnic Point is a famous hiking destination with a view back toward the Capitol, and you can also paddle here from the launch at University Bay. Continue around the point for more forested shoreline and some sandstone cliffs. Be careful of boat wakes.

Wingra Creek, from where Lake Wingra empties over the spillway, is flat-water the entire two miles to where it flows into Lake Monona near Olin Park’s boat landing. You’ll see abundant birdlife through this green corridor.

The Yahara River crosses the isthmus and you can put in below the dam/lock at Tenney Park and pass under 10 bridges to get to Lake Monona. You will have mild current to paddle against to return to the put-in. A longer trip would be continuing east a mile along Lake Monona to get to Olbrich Park, where you can paddle up Starkweather Creek a bit into Olbrich Gardens to see the Thai pavilion from the water.

Cherokee Marsh South has a small boat launch where you can get out on the widened Yahara River above Lake Mendota for lots of waterfowl and a cattail marsh. It’s flat-water here and you can paddle farther upstream where it gets narrower.

Easy daily rentals are available at Wingra, Brittingham and Olbrich parks as well as Outdoor UW at the Memorial Union and Marshall Park at Mendota’s western end near Middleton. Rutabaga Paddlesports is your best bet if you’re buying.

Cruisin’ the Lakes

Betty Lou Cruises, moored on the north side of Lake Mendota near Mariner’s Inn, offers a schedule of public cruises, including special trips such as a beer and pizza cruise, but also does private events.

Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR) offers cheap drop- in pontoon boat tours for both Lakes Monona and Mendota, departing from the Tenney Park Boat House on the Yahara River, Olbrich Park Pier, Warner Park Pier and Goodspeed Pier near the Memorial Union. Mendota tours from Tenney Park even pass through the lock.

We’ve seen the pedal version, but Paddle Pub Madison offers two-hour cruises on Lake Monona aboard a 16-person, pedal-powered pontoon boat, both for private groups and scheduled public “mixers.” It’s BYOB and you can even bring your own tunes for the onboard Bluetooth sound system.

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