Eleven Hikes in Southern Wisconsin to Explore This Summer


Noelle Shen

Parfrey’s Glen, a beautiful hike connected to Devil’s Lake State Park by the Ice Age Trail, includes towering rock formations, waterfalls, and forest scenery sure to impress.

Caroline Blust

With the stress of AP exams over and school almost done, it is time to start thinking about summer! One of the best ways to enjoy a gorgeous summer day is to go on a hike through some of the beautiful trails near Madison. Though the Midwest may not be quite as stunning in the hiking department as some areas (the Rockies and the Tetons are unbeatable), there are still a variety of gorgeous landscapes available to explore, including rocky cliffs, sparkling lakes, and gushing waterfalls. Here is a list of both well-known hikes and hidden gems near the Madison area.

The Ice Age Trail

Several Ice Age Trail segments, denoted by yellow signs, weave through other state and county parks. (Lauren Lamson)

One of the longest and most beautiful trails in Wisconsin is the Ice Age Trail. It traverses almost 1200 miles across Wisconsin, following the path of ancient glaciers as they carved through the land, leaving a wake of boulders and gorges behind them. This trail is maintained by volunteers in chapters across Wisconsin, and thanks to Madison’s amazing chapter, the segments nearby are generally very well maintained. Here are a few of the best sections to explore near the Madison area.

Rib Lake Segment:

The Rib Lake section of the Ice Age Trail is a beautiful 2 mile section that connects to the 10 mile Timm’s Hill Trail, which winds to the peak of the highest point in Wisconsin, at 1,952 feet. This hike is a 3 hour 19 minute drive from Madison, making it a doable weekend excursion or possibly a day trip.

Eagle Segment:

The Eagle segment of the Ice Age Trail is a 5.6 mile hike that winds through large rock outcroppings made of a type of limestone called dolomite. It lies deep in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and it’s about an hour drive from Madison.

Table Bluff Segment:

One beautiful segment that is a little closer to home is the Table Bluff segment. A 4.5 mile out-and-back trail, the Table Bluff segment is a moderately difficult trail with prairie and woods segments and lots of gorgeous wildflowers in summer. It is near Cross Plains, making it an easy hike to complete in one morning or afternoon. 

Blue Spring Lake:

The Blue Spring Lake segment, located in Palmyra (about a one hour drive from Madison), is a challenging hike through thick hilly woods that covers 7.1 miles. It includes a beautiful outlook from Bald Bluff, one of the highest points in the area. Additionally, the segment is near Kettle Moraine State Forest, so the hike could be extended into a camping or backpacking trip through Kettle Moraine.

Kenosha Dunes Trail

This short two mile trail is a fun little hike that is a two hour drive east of Madison. The area is home to around 75 bird species, and the sandy dunes lead to a beautiful beach on the shore of Lake Michigan. The trail connects to South Port Park, which includes more trails and beautiful bike paths.

Governor Dodge State Park

This park is only an hour drive away, and it includes 5,000 acres of beautiful woods and prairies interspersed with caves, lakes and a beautiful waterfall. One of the most popular hikes at Governor Dodge is the Lost Canyon Trail, which goes by Stephen’s Falls. However, there are often crowds of people there, especially on weekends and in the summer. A hidden gem is the Cave Trail, which takes a little hiking to reach but provides a stunning view of Twin Valley Lake and goes by multiple caves to explore. As an added bonus, there are tons of campsites for converting a hike into an overnight trip, and a variety of sandy beaches to jump in the lake after a long hike.

The view from the top of the Cave Trail at Governor Dodge State Park is an unexpected gem, hidden away from the larger attractions such as Stephen’s Falls. (Caroline Blust)

Sugar River State Trail

The Sugar River State Trail stretches 24 miles along an abandoned railroad track, weaving through prairies, farmland, and glacial formations. It crosses the Sugar River 14 times through adorable trestle bridges, giving it a rustic and peaceful feel. The trail can be accessed near New Glarus, which is a little over a half hour drive from Madison.

Moraine Ridge Trail

This trail is one of the more difficult hikes in Wisconsin, covering 7 miles deep in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It includes a tall observation tower for a scenic view, a section of hilly terrain in the woods, and a section of flatter prairie. It’s also a great place to observe wildlife. The hike is less than an hour from Madison.

Gibraltar Rock

This easy loop is a perfect hike for all levels, covering only 1.4 miles. It travels to the top of Gibraltar Rock, which, though only a 298 foot climb, provides a scenic view of the surrounding countryside. This hike is located in Merrimac, which is less than an hour drive from Madison.

Devil’s Lake State Park

The Balanced Rock trail at Devil’s Lake is a very popular hike that is definitely worth the hype, but many people do not realize that Devil’s Lake State Park offers many options besides the Balanced Rock trail. The East Bluff trail, the West Bluff trail, the Tumbled Rocks trail and the CCC trail are all longer hikes that are less packed and still absolutely gorgeous. Additionally, the Ice Age trail connects to Devil’s Lake and leads to some other beautiful places to hike, such as Parfrey’s Glen, which is a popular trail through a thick forest with large rock formations to admire.

Parfrey’s Glen includes a variety of landscapes, including not only towering rocks but also peaceful, well-maintained trails through the forest, making it a perfect hike for a variety of levels. (Aubrie Wade)

Lake Geneva Shore Path

This path is a perfect hike for all seasons and abilities, following the shore of Lake Geneva for 22 miles and passing by a variety of beautiful historic houses. The trail is very wide and paved, making it accessible for a wide range of hiking abilities. Lake Geneva is about an hour and twenty minutes from Madison, making the hike a perfect option for a full day trip. And once the hike has been completed, the nearby town has some fun options for a post-hike outing, including some of the best escape rooms in Wisconsin (at a place called the Lake Geneva Clue Room). 

This article has only brushed the surface of the thousands of miles of extraordinary hiking in Wisconsin. A good hike can be the perfect reset after a hard week, or a great way to spend time with friends and family. As this summer approaches, do not miss out on the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful nature that surrounds us!