Unexpected Adventures in Lake Geneva
Summer after summer, Chicagoans make the 90-mile trip north, booking up resorts, historic B&Bs and campgrounds in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. And for the more fortunate—the wealthiest of the wealthy—a picturesque mansion is the three-month home. The only caveat of shoreline homeownership in Lake Geneva is that, by law, residents must maintain the portion of narrow footpath that literally passes through their backyards. It’s called the Lake Shore Path, and it’s closer for Milwaukeeans than you might think.
The body of water that makes up Geneva Lake stretches about 7 miles long and 2 miles across, but the trail tracing the outskirts covers much more. Between 22 and 26 miles (depending on whom you ask) of mixed terrain leads enthusiastic observers on a historic journey sprinkled with whimsical surprises.
While some property owners simply maintain a manicured path, others really get into the spirit, leaving guest books, quirky messages and even “hysterical” landmarks to keep hikers amused. Stone paths, boardwalks, small footbridges, steps, sidewalks, sand and sometimes, just grass, connect each segment of the trail.
Choose Your Adventure
Hiking the entire path can be done in a day—in less than nine hours even—but the completion of one or more portions is certainly worthy of a champagne toast. If you can relate, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a boat tour that includes a 7- or 10-mile hike from Lake Geneva to the dock in either Williams Bay or Fontana on the west end. If you’re traveling on a Sunday, book the Feet, Seat and Eat tour. You start in Lake Geneva at 8:30 a.m. and walk to Williams Bay. At 11:45 a.m., you come aboard the Grand Belle of Geneva and your brunch begins. This is also your ride back to where you parked. (Yes, there’s bubbly on the boat.)
Other hikers prefer to walk half the distance, choosing to take two cars, parking one in Fontana or Williams Bay and the other in Lake Geneva. Or there’s my favorite option. Book a hotel in Lake Geneva, park the car near Williams Bay (on the west end), fill an overnight backpack and hit the path from the car for a counterclockwise 14-mile trek to the hotel. The next morning, grab breakfast in Lake Geneva before taking an 8ish-mile hike back to the car. See the sidebar for options.
Hiking Through History
A trip to Lake Geneva’s Visitor Center (201 Wrigley Drive) reminds vacationers why this area, a mere 50 miles from Milwaukee, is populated with our neighbors to the south. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and with a little help from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad’s line to Lake Geneva (it opened just a few years before the fire), many Chicago residents fled here to literally beat the heat. Enjoying the beauty and recreation so much, some decided to stay, building enormous estates along the shoreline.
Fortunately for everyday gawkers, a Native American treaty signed in 1833 guarantees public access to the Lake Shore Path, which incidentally was not always predominantly maintained by Chicagoans. Several Native American tribes, including Wisconsin’s Potawatomi, inhabited surrounding areas of the lake in the early 19th century, calling it Big Foot’s Lake. In 1836, however, Chief Big Foot took a final look at the water before being forced to leave the area. Today, a statue of this moment commemorates the Chief—look for it along the path between Williams Bay and Fontana—it’s one of dozens of historical nuggets to be seen.
The Lake Shore Path is divided into seven segments, each with access points for entering or leaving the trail. The longest stretches are approximately 3.5 miles, the shortest around 2. On a decent day, it’s easy to see how one could stare off into the lake for 20-plus miles of trekking, but unless you have major life decisions to ponder, consider picking up a printed Shore Path guide, if not for the gossip, do it for the history. Several different guides are available at local shops in Lake Geneva.
Without a pocket guide, you might miss knowing the summer cottage where Harry Caray stayed, the home built by Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employer, the grounds where the beginnings of the YWCA took place, the estate purchased by the waitress-turned-millionaire who laces her fence with inspirational quotes and the venue where Louis Armstrong made a history-changing request. Of course, without knowing any of the hidden facts, soaking in the glistening lake vistas, listening for the distant call of a migrating loon, wondering what it’s like to be a gazillionaire and pretending your feet don’t hurt, is all part of Lake Geneva’s healthy charm.