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The Capital City State Trail contributes to the impression that you’re never far from a bike path in the Madison area. The paved trail meanders for 17 miles from the suburb of Fitchburg in the southwest, through downtown Madison, to the eastern neighborhoods. It demonstrates why this area always ranks among the top bicycle-friendly communities.
Less than half the trail is on former rail lines: the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad along western Lake Monona, and the Chicago and North Western Railway in the east. Most of the trail comprises a collection of paths (the Nine Springs E-Way, the John Nolen Lakeshore Path, and the Isthmus and East Side Bike Paths) that were renamed into a single trail.
Beginning in Fitchburg, you’ll take a tunnel beneath US 18/US 151 (Verona Road) and, in less than a mile, arrive at a “bike trail interchange” where you’ll cross the Southwest Commuter Path (heads north to Madison), the Badger State Trail (heads south to Illinois), and the Cannonball Path (connects with Military Ridge State Trail). You’ll pass through a forest and enter a prairie planted by Fitchburg’s Dawley Conservancy, where you’ll find restrooms, parking, and a bike-repair station.
You’ll alternate in and out of wooded park settings for the next 2 miles to a pedestrian crossing over Fish Hatchery Road and a trail interruption at Glacier Valley Road (turn right on this street, and look for the trail on the left in 0.4 mile). For roughly the next 6 miles, you’ll pass through the 2,500-acre Capital Springs State Park and Recreation Area, which features marshes, creeks, and lakes across a rolling golden terrain sparsely dotted with trees. You can learn about local American Indian culture and pioneer settlement patterns at the Lussier Family Heritage Center at mile 8.3, next to a campground. You can also pick up the Lower Yahara River Trail here and head east to cross a floating bridge over Lake Waubesa.
Look for Olin Park at mile 12 for breathtaking views of downtown Madison across Lake Monona. The Wingra Creek Bike Path on the left goes 2.2 miles to Henry Vilas Zoo, beaches at Vilas Park, and, farther on, a shady ride through the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. Continuing north, the Capital City State Trail runs alongside John Nolen Drive on a causeway that crosses the lake with exceptional views of the State Capitol dome.
The trail hugs the shoreline for a few blocks, and you’ll pass the visually striking Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Farther on, the trail travels through historical Madison neighborhoods, including Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara at mile 16, where the trail is flanked by community garden plots, bungalow-style homes, and shops. Here you can pick up a bite to eat or a cup of joe.
The trail takes a southeasterly tack where you’ll pass Olbrich Botanical Gardens, with 16 acres of plants, paths, and a tropical paradise in the conservatory. You’ll also see a Thai pavilion easily recognizable from the trail.
The trail ends 1.4 miles past the gardens, but there are plans to connect with the 53-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail (Trail 41), which begins about 6 miles away in Cottage Grove.
NOTE: A State Trail Pass ($25 annually/$5 daily) is required for bicyclists and in-line skaters ages 16 and older for the 9 miles between Verona Road and Nob Hill Road near Industrial Drive. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks /trailpass.html. Regular commuters can get a fee-waiver sticker by filling out a form supplied by the Dane County Department of Land & Water Resources/Parks Division; download a printable form at parks-lwrd.countyofdane.com/documents/pdf /capitalstatetrail-380-162.pdf.
Parking near the western endpoint is available at Dawley Conservancy in Fitchburg. To reach the Fitchburg trailhead from the intersection of US 18/US 151/Verona Road and County Road PD/McKee Road, take McKee Road east. Go 0.9 mile to S. Seminole Hwy., turn left, and then go 0.4 mile and turn left into the parking lot for Dawley Conservancy. Take the short path in back of the parking lot north for 0.1 mile to the Capital City State Trail. Left goes to the western endpoint in 1 mile, while right goes to Madison.
To reach the parking near the eastern endpoint in Madison from SR 30/Aberg Ave., take the Fair Oaks Ave. exit, heading south. Go 0.5 mile, and turn left at Milwaukee St.; then, in 0.3 mile, turn right onto Walter St. Go 0.6 mile to parking for Olbrich Playfields on the right (Johns St. is on the left). To get on the trail, head back to Walter St., and walk north (left) about 500 feet to the street, crossing for Capital City State Trail. Right goes 1 mile to the endpoint at Cottage Grove Road, and left goes toward downtown Madison.
I ride this trail regularly. While it is a very nice trail that takes you out of the city, the blacktop is starting to show it's age. There are cracks in many places. Some go across the path and others go down the path making it a bit of a rough ride. The good news is that they are scheduled to start replacing the trail later this year.
Have ridden this trail several times. It is a great way to get around Mad-town, and it's a thrill speeding along the bike expressway outside Monona Terrance, facing Lake Monona. But the section down in Fitchburg, wending for the most part through unshaded country before it connects with the Military Ridge Trail, can give you sunstroke on a hot, sunny day.
This trail is great to ride. The surface is smooth and well repaired. The trail is not your typical straight as a arrow rail trail which makes any ride more interesting. It has a nice mix of shade and sun without the tree tunnel so many trails have. There are some pretty good climbs on it. I would give it solid "A". It could be better marked in places. The part thats goes along the lake is really pretty. Mononah Terrace is a nice place to visit and take pictures.
This trail along with the other Madison area trails and bike lane system constitutes by far the best recreational facility in the area. On a nice weekend day thousands of people use these corridors to bike, jog, roller, blade, etc. There are quiet wooded stretches, open marsh areas and a great deal of wildlife particularly in mornings and evenings. In addition to nice recreational opportunities, these corridors provide good commuting routes for quite a few people who would like to leave their cars at home. The only real downside to this is that The Capital City Trail was handed over to the State of Wisconsin which resulted in it in being administered by the DNR as part of Wisconsin's State Trail System. This means that one is required to have a permit to bike or roller blade on it. This alone wouldn't be so bad except that it subjects the users to being stopped to prove they have a right to be there by DNR employees. This ranges from inconvenient to annoying to extremely unpleasant.
Thanks for featuring our wonderful Capital City Trail.
"On a recent business trip to Wisconsin, I stayed at the Arbor House Bed and Breakfast. They have free bicycle rental for guests, so when I had an extra hour, I hit the trail. It was great -- a nice, smooth ride; well-marked, and interesting scenery.
One of the things I absolutely love about rail trails is the feeling of being able to see a city from the perspective of the backyards (a behind-the-scenes view of what the city is like). I passed gorgeous gardens, a pumpkin patch, rode over a highway, through an industrial area, past a woodsy area with stunning fall foliage, and even got to see the what appeared to be housing projects in a poorer side of town. Taking in a city at 15 miles an hour is a perfect pace, and the view from rail trails is entertainingly diverse.
This trail connects to several others, including a 40 mile one.
I highly recommend this rail trial, and wish there were more like it.
"Madison's SW Bike Path is used by 1000's of people daily. From infant to elderly, it is a vital part of a vibrant community. It is a link to college sporting events, practice route for running squads and has upped the value of all houses along it. Rails to trails are the best use of public funds that I know! "
"Okay, I love Madison, so my review is likely biased (I don't live there). Still, this is a well marked and scenic trail, which takes you through scenic woods, marshlands, urban parks, neighborhoods, and industrial wastelands. It is certainly not a boring ride. Also, it is longer than 3 miles."
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