Travel Destinations

Monday, February 3, 2014

Traveling to the Winter Wonderland of Madison, Wisconsin

Snowshoeing the University of Wisconsin Arboretum
Enjoying our winter travel destination of Madison, Wisconsin.
I encountered an interesting phenomenon while planning our winter travels to Madison, Wisconsin.  If someone had never been to Wisconsin, they asked, “Why in the world are you going there, and in the winter of all times?”  But if they knew of or had been to Madison, there was no question about why we chose Madison.  Because to know Madison is to love Madison. 

If you have been following along with this blog, then you know why we chose Madison, Wisconsin as a 2014 travel destination.  We were to meet my friend Steve, a displaced native Wisconsinite, and his wife Stephanie in person for the very first time.  I also wanted to take this opportunity, as a born and bred San Diegan, to experience a real winter. 

This winter has been abnormally cold for Madison.  A few of the locals we met even apologized to us for the extreme cold.  But even with temperatures reaching as low as six degrees Fahrenheit during the day and hitting the negative numbers at night, with proper planning and packing we were able to experience all of our outdoor winter activities and enjoy Madison’s beauty in comfort.  While I could probably never live fulltime in a city that is covered in snow for at least six months out of the year, it was delightful to be able to play in this winter wonderland for a few days.   

Video of some of our Madison activities.  

Snowshoeing through the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum

I have always wanted to go snowshoeing, so when we began discussing a trip to Madison and winter activities, snowshoeing was one of the first ideas we discussed.  A bonus was none of us had ever been. 

Longenecker Horticultural Gardens University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
The University of Wisconsin's Arboretum is the perfect place for snowshoeing.
Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin.  The University of Wisconsin campus is spread out throughout the city and includes a 1,200 acre Arboretum with a collection of different ecosystems for study.  During the warmer months the series of trails throughout the Arboretum provide many walking and biking opportunities.  During the winter some of these trails are turned into cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.  My favorite snowshoeing trail through the UW-Madison Arboretum meandered through the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, crossing vast spaces blanketed in thick white snow, and then crossed into the Wingra Woods, where we followed running streams and the path narrowed through tall trees that creaked while we walked.  While there were tracks visible in the snow from skis and boots, we had the trail to ourselves and all we could hear other than the trees creaking was the sound of our snowshoes (or Wisconsin flip flops as Rome dubbed them) crunching in the snow.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
With views like this I could have continued snowshoeing all day.
There are a number of places throughout the area in addition to the Arboretum for snowshoeing.  Steve had suggested the Arboretum and that was seconded by one of the gentlemen at Fontana’s Sporting Goods, where we rented snowshoes.  He said that if there was just one place we would be snowshoeing, then the Arboretum was the place to go.  Snowshoes can also be rented at Rutabaga and REI, but Fontana’s is conveniently located downtown and was only a few blocks away from our hotel. 

Snowshoeing in Wisconsin Flip Flops
Sporting my Wisconsin flip flops.

Ice Skating in Tenney Park

I used to love roller skating as a kid, and even ice skated (unskillfully) a few times at my local ice skating rink, but it had been at least 15 years since I had laced up some skates, so I was half excited and half petrified at the prospect of going ice skating on a real life frozen pond.  There are quite a few locations in Madison for ice skating, but Tenney Park is one of the two places that rents skates, meaning there is a mix of ice skating veterans and novices.  

Frozen Tenney Park Lagoon madison Wisconsin
Frozen Tenney Park Lagoon, perfect for a morning of ice skating.
Once I got over my initial fear and found my frozen pond legs, I coasted and wobbled across the slick ice.  Ice skating on the Tenney Park Lagoon was such a different experience than skating at a rink.  Surprisingly the ice is very smooth even with the visible cracks and slight unevenness.  I didn’t fall once!  The same cannot be said of Rome as he tried out his newfound hockey skills with hockey stick in hand.  Not only is it beautiful to be outside on a frozen lagoon that bends along, is banked by snow, and is crossed by small bridges, it was fascinating to examine the frozen water itself, as there were some parts that were so clear you could see leaves suspended beneath the surface in the frozen black waters, trails of frozen air bubbles, and fissures plunging downward from surface cracks, giving the appearance of frozen marble. 

Ice Skating Tenney Park Lagoon Madison Wisconsin
It's just crazy to think there's a body of water under that frozen ice.
There was quite a mix of skaters at Tenney Park.  There were hockey enthusiasts making use of the open nets scattered along the pond, men and women out for a little exercise and conversation with their friends, and parents teaching their little kids how to skate, some using contraptions that look like walkers to keep them upright.  We even saw one couple skating and pushing their baby in a stroller across the ice and another skater with her booted dog.  Just past one of the bridges where the pond was not set up for skating there were men ice fishing and we were lucky enough to witness one catch a descent sized largemouth bass. 

Ice Fishing at Tenney Park Madison Wisconsin
This ice fisherman was kind enough to display his catch of the day.
Tenney Park has a very large warming shelter where hockey or figure skates and hockey sticks can be rented by the hour and hockey pucks can be purchased.  There is also a nice fireplace for warming up after a skating session as well as snacks and beverages, including hot chocolate, for purchase. 

Attending a Wisconsin Badgers Hockey Game

The college culture is huge in Madison.  While I knew that in much of the United States college sports are an integral part of day-to-day life, especially in the Midwest, I had never experienced this myself.  Madison is crazy for its Badgers and their mascot Bucky Badger makes an appearance everywhere.  During the warmer months Madisonians tailgate along the sides of the streets surrounding the outdoor stadium and streets are shutdown on game day.  

Kohl Center University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Kohl Center, home to the UW-Madison Badgers.
We attended the University of Wisconsin versus Ohio State hockey game on a Friday night and sat in what I am told are the best seats in the house, front row, third level, center court, with a full view of the ice and the band and student section.  The game is not the only entertainment.  The band plays in a designated area in the bleachers and the students, who all sit in one area, partake in an endless number of rituals that include chants, songs, and dances that are sometimes joined by the rest of the arena.  I am told that some diehard fans who no longer live in the state listen to the games on the radio and participate in some of the rituals from their couch.  Another tradition is that if the Badgers score five goals in one game, all ticket holders get a free scoop of frozen custard at Culver’s.  Not only did the Badgers win the game we attended, they scored five goals. 

Bucky University of Wisconsin-Madison Hockey
Just hanging out with Bucky and the goalie.

Having Breakfast at the Winter Farmers’ Market

Madison has a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday morning.  During the summer the market is held in Capitol Square.  As the weather starts to cool it moves to Monana Terrace, the convention center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  During the winter it moves again into a senior center downtown.  The Dane County Farmers’ Market opens at 8:00 a.m. and breakfast is served starting at 8:30 a.m. until they run out of food.  Breakfasts are made with local ingredients being featured at the market.  Our breakfast included a green vegetable frittata, a healthy hunk of fresh feta cheese, some pickled vegetables, lamb sausage, and bread.  

Dane County Farmers' Market Breakfast Madison Wisconsin
Dane County Farmers' Market breakfast.
Vendors sell everything from eggs, mushrooms, and vegetables to jams, chocolates, and cheese.  Some even provide samples.  The Dane County Farmers’ Market has been running since 1972 and the Winter Farmers’ Market has been going for 11 years, though some of the locals don’t even know it continues through the winter.  The market has one important rule, all products must be Wisconsin grown. 

Savory Accents Dane County Farmers' Market Madison Wisconsin
Joan Ballweg of Savory Accents.
Their spicy toffee is the perfect mixture of sweet, spice and crunch.
Visiting Madison, Wisconsin in the winter was more fun than I even imagined.  Sure it helped that we met up with new friends and had barrels of laughs over local brews.  But being a city girl from sunny Southern California helped me really appreciate the beauty of a small town in Middle America with real weather.  A place where the people are friendly, the scenery is beautiful, and the activities are bone-chilling yet exhilarating.  And only in a place like this will people scream, “Hey, you’re in the band!” when someone wearing a UW Drumline jacket walks by, and then proceed to walk along the snow bordered sidewalk arm-in-arm with said previously unknown celebrity band member.  It really is a beautiful thing. 

Thank you to Visit Madison for helping us plan some of our activities and setting up interviews. Their website is a great tool for planning a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, and they also publish an informative visitors guide and map. 

Travel the World: Madison Wisconsin is a fun winter travel destination, offering snow shoeing, outdoor ice skating, hockey, and an indoor farmer's market.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.