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13 Top-Rated Hiking Trails near Madison, WI

Written by Anietra Hamper
Jul 11, 2019

For people who enjoy the outdoors and trying new hiking trails there are hundreds of miles of them to enjoy near Madison. The Wisconsin capital has five lakes with surrounding trails, 260 parks with hiking and walking trails that run through the city, and several recreation areas, as well as state parks.

One of the nice things about testing new hiking trails near Madison is the variety of scenery that you will experience along the way. You can see the glacial impact on Wisconsin along the Ice Age Trail, take in military history on the historic Military Ridge State Trail, and see plenty of wildlife along the trails that run through nature preserves and wetlands.

Narrowing down the options is tough if you have never been to the Madison area. Plan your adventures with our list of the best hiking trails near Madison, Wisconsin.

1. Lake Monona Loop/Capital City Trail

Canadian geese crossing the trail on Lake Monona

One of the most convenient trails in Madison is the Lake Monona Loop, also called the Capital City Trail. The trail that loops Lake Monona in downtown is a 13.8-mile multi-use path that you can hike in a section or in its entirety.

A good section to start on the trail is along John Nolen Drive. The asphalt trail follows the curvature and elevation changes around the lake. The scenery is stunning as you see the Wisconsin State Capitol on the horizon and watch the windsurfers and anglers on the lake. Take in a view of the Madison skyline from Olin Park, then make your way toward the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace.

You can circle back from here to finish the loop or connect to one of several other trails, like the Capital Springs State Recreation Area, Southwest Commuter Bike Path, Badger State Trail, and Military Ridge Trail.

2. UW Madison Arboretum Trails

UM Madison Arboretum Trail | Photo Copyright: University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum trails are an exciting way to enjoy a challenging hike in the middle of the city. The Arboretum has more than 17 miles of trails that wind through the elaborate and world-renowned ecosystem on the grounds. You will hike through woodlands, wetlands, savannas, and tall grass prairies.

While the Arboretum is used for educational purposes at the university, it is open to the public and one of the best recreational areas for trails in Madison. Along the trail system, you will see the restoration of natural areas and wildlife habitats. You can hike the trails on your own or take a free guided nature walk at a leisurely pace as you learn about the work of the Arboretum and the ecosystems it preserves.

3. Tumbled Rocks Trail

Tumbled Rocks Trail | Photo Copyright: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

If you are looking for a hiking challenge and some spectacular scenery then you should head to Devil's Lake State Park to the Tumbled Rocks Trail. Its name gives an ample description of the terrain. While the trail starts off easily accessible, it becomes more challenging with less stable footing as you go. Proper footwear is advised, and hiking boots are recommended to avoid any potential injuries.

The best option for this trail is to create a loop with your route by hiking between the north and south shore combined with the West Bluff Trail. If you want to access the shoreline of the lake, you will need to climb down boulders. Tumbled Rocks Trail is not for beginning hikers, but intermediate and advanced hikers will enjoy it.

4. Capital City State Trail

Bikers on the Capital City State Trail | Photo Copyright: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Capital City State Trail is a great paved hiking and biking trail in Madison that connects to other trails and takes you past the downtown area and east side. The 17-mile trail goes through downtown and links the Military Ridge State Trail and the Glacial Drumlin State Trail. You can branch off or just do the nine-mile section of the trail that goes through the Capital Springs State Recreation Area.

There is a nice one-mile section along Verona Road that links the Capital City State Trail to the Military Ridge State Trail. It is easy to access sections of the Capital City State Trail from the Dawley Conservancy Park or the Capital Springs Recreation Area.

5. Blue Mound State Park Trails

Blue Mound State Park in the fall

Some of the best hiking trails in all of Wisconsin are at Blue Mound State Park. It is just 25 miles west of Madison but it sits at the highest point in the southern part of the state. There are more than 20 miles of hiking trails in the park, and all of them come with the reward of unforgettable views.

There are three hiking-only trails that you may want to try. The Indian Marker Tree Trail is a half-mile trail that was once used to locate water by Native Americans who inhabited the area. It is named for the century-old oak tree that led them to a natural spring.

The Weeping Rock Hiking Trail is a one-mile trail that follows a spring-fed creek and takes you through a forest. The Flintrock Nature Trail is a 1.3-mile trail that has informative signs explaining the unique geology of the area.

6. Badger State Trail

Badger State Trail | lindaruthless / photo modified

The Badger State Trail is a great trail to tackle several sections at a time since it extends 40 miles between Madison and the border of Illinois. It provides a nice day-hike, with scenery that ranges from hills and farmland to ravines. The trail runs through several small towns, so you can grab a bite to eat and plot your turnaround point before you head out to ensure that you will return to your starting point before dark.

The marquee of this trail is the Stewart Tunnel, which stretches for 1,200-feet and curves. It is recommended that you take a flashlight if you plan to go through the tunnel. The Badger State Trail connects to the Sugar River State Trail, Capital City Trail, and the Military Ridge Trail.

7. UW Madison Lakeshore Path

UW Madison Lakeshore Path | Photo Copyright: Bryn Scriver

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Path is comprised of two separate trail systems that go 4.3 miles along the Lakeshore Preserve: the Howard Temin Path and the Lake Mendota Path. The Howard Temin Path is named for Nobel Prize winner and former oncology professor Howard Temin, who would walk this trail along the shoreline to enjoy peaceful solitude. The trail runs from North Park Street to Oxford Road. The Lake Mendota Path meets with the Howard Temin Path at the Picnic Point location then follows the Lake Mendota shoreline to Wally Bauman Woods.

8. Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Pheasant Branch Conservancy | Photo Copyright: Deb Flanders

Located just 10 minutes away from Madison are the trails at the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. It is actually a wetlands area on the north side of Lake Mendota, which preserves various habitats and wildlife, so the scenery is peaceful.

There are several ways to hike in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy: There is a perimeter loop that is approximately 3.3 miles that takes you past boardwalks, prairies, and small bridges. You can also take a gravel trail, accessed from the Pheasant Branch Road entrance, and hike to an observation deck and freshwater springs. There are several other trails in the conservancy that you can try if you want to spend more time here.

9. Ice Age Trail

Ice Age National Scenic Trail | Photo Copyright: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is fascinating for its hiking opportunities but also for its story. The 1,100-mile trail is one of the most scenic in the state because it showcases Wisconsin's unique glacial features created by the Ice Age. The entire trail is within the state borders and is designated as the only State Scenic Trail in Wisconsin and one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States.

It winds its way from Interstate State Park on the border of Minnesota to Potawatomi State Park on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Hikers can tackle a section of the trail for a day hike or plan a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip to do the entire length. Regardless of what kind of hike you want, the Ice Age Trail requires some pre-planning, so that you understand the lay of the land, the segment options, and the best access.

10. The Sugar River State Trail

Fall colors on the Sugar River State Trail | Photo Copyright: Travel Wisconsin

The Sugar River State Trail is a fun hike in south-central Wisconsin, in part because it follows an abandoned railroad track for 24 miles. As you hike the trail, you will pass 14 train trestle bridges over the Sugar River, farmland, hills, and glacial topography. You can hop on the Sugar River State Trail in New Glarus, which is only 21 miles from Madison. Here, you will see the 1887 railroad depot listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Sugar River State Trail extends to Brodhead, Wisconsin and connects with the Badger State Trail (after the Monticello trailhead). A section of the trail is also part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

11. Military Ridge State Trail

Storm clouds over the Military Ridge State Trail | lindaruthless / photo modified

The Military Ridge State Trail that stretches between Madison and Dodgeville is along a historic military route that dates back to 1855. The 40-mile trail is a nice hike, with several observation areas along the way to view wildlife, prairies, and wetlands, so you can make the hike as casual or aggressive as you like.

If you make it to Ridgeway or start here, you will see an old railroad depot because much of the trail follows the old Chicago and North Western Railroad line. The terrain on this trail is mostly crushed stone, so it is a comfortable surface for walking and hiking.

12. Glacial Drumlin State Trail

Glacial Drumlin State Trail | Photo Copyright: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail is only 30 minutes from Madison but offers a nice hike and some of the best glacial topography views in the state. The trail extends from Cottage Grove and Waukesha. The entire trail passes 10 small communities including Deerfield, Jefferson, Lake Mills, and Wales, so there are plenty of opportunities to stop for a snack, and lots of options to start and stop your route.

The terrain is mostly crushed stone and asphalt, so it is suitable for most skill levels. The Ice Age Trail follows a stretch of the glacial Drumlin State Trail for two miles along the section west of the town of Wales.

13. Lower Yahara River Trail

Lower Yahara River Trail | Photo Copyright: Dane County Parks

The 2.5-mile Lower Yahara River Trail is a nice hiking option if you are looking for a committed trail length versus having to figure out a section along a major trail. This is an off-road trail that goes from Madison to the village of McFarland. It is a rail-trail, so it is mostly an asphalt surface.

Some of the visual highlights of this trail include a bridge that extends along a current-use railroad corridor and several observation areas and rest stops. The trail also encompasses a mile-long boardwalk bridge that is the longest in North America. You can access the trailhead to the Lower Yahara River Trail in Madison at the Lussier Family Heritage Center.

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Outdoors: If you love to hike in Wisconsin then you will enjoy the other outdoor experiences in the state. Try catching the famous Wisconsin musky at one of the top fishing lakes in the state. You can also plan a romantic getaway or an outdoor weekend of kayaking, water sports, and hiking in Door County, which is bordered by Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Visit one of Wisconsin's best beaches or bundle up and enjoy winter sports like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

City Visits: Planning a city escape in Wisconsin is easy with some great metropolitan areas that have everything from sporting events and farm-to-table food experiences to the arts. Spend a weekend in the state capital of Madison, which is a walkable city with boutique shopping on State Street and an always social scene on the University of Wisconsin- Madison campus. Catch a Green Bay Packers NFL game in Green Bay or explore some of the transportation museums in the city. Enjoy a getaway lakeside in Milwaukee or the family-friendly Wisconsin Dells.

Where to Stay: There are a number of luxury resorts throughout Wisconsin. Some of the resorts in Wisconsin Dells and the Lake Geneva resorts will get you away from the cities. If you are planning a city adventure, you will be interested in the top hotels in Madison and top hotels in Milwaukee as you plan your trip.

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