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View of downtown Madison across Lake Monona © Heather Deutsch/Rails-to-Trails ConservancyNear the western trailhead, where cool forests shade the trail © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
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Trail of the Month: May 2008
Wisconsin's Capital City State Trail

In her 11 years with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), Barbara Richey has bicycled and photographed rail-trails all over the country. She's a graphic designer and fist-pumping soccer fan ("Go D.C. United!") who loves trailside landscapes that excite and rivet and change almost as quickly as she can pedal or walk through them. So it takes a real page-, or rather wheel-turner, to win her rail-trail affections.

Barbara discovered one of her latest trail darlings while mapping rail-trails in Wisconsin for the upcoming Midwest guidebook: the paved, 17-mile Capital City Trail from Fitchburg to Madison.

Why the pathway caught Barbara's attention is rather obvious: it sheds its skin with each new neighbhorhood along the route. Indeed riding the trail feels a little like clicking through a rail-trail View-Master® of shady woodlands, fields freckled with sunflowers and red-winged blackbirds, waterfronts, downtown bustle and skylines, quiet neighborhoods and community gardens, backyards and street-sides. "There's plenty," she says, "to satisfy anyone's need for change and diversity along the trail."

If you begin from the southwestern trailhead, the Capital City Trail follows a gently curvy route through and over hills like a snake nosing through the brush. A cooling tree canopy for the first few miles soon retreats into open countryside and marshlands before pausing at Fish Hatchery Road, the trail's only interruption. (To pick it up again after this 0.2-mile hiccup, follow the signs left on Fish Hatchery Road, right on Glacier Valley Road, and then veer left to reconnect with the pathway.)

East of this break begins the 3,000-acre Capital Springs Centennial State Recreation Area, where visitors can wander off the trail to explore the Monona Conservancy Wetlands, a wildlife observation area, and, as the road leading up to it suggests, a fish hatchery.

A few miles later, the Capital City Trail hooks north, heads up through Olin-Turville Park and then glides along Lake Monona. Across the bay you can see the Madison skyline, including the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building, as you hug the shoreline into downtown—squeezed into the crossroads of four glacial lakes.

Eventually the trail passes the lakeside Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and open for tours. Barbara says the convention center is a great place to pull off and pop into the city for a bite to eat. State Street, she raves, is just a few blocks up Broom Street and is brimming with outdoor cafés in the summer

Ever-dynamic in its personalities, the pathway continues north as taller buildings peel away into green, shaded neighborhoods where the trail feels like a cozy extension of front- and backyards. On evenings through this section, you'll run into cyclists pedaling home from work with backpacks, others already changed and out for an evening jog, or family caravans of strollers and pets.

"That's part of what sets the trail apart," Barbara says. "It's not just for the weekenders taking a ride—it's really a part of their lives."

Of course, the locals have plentiful cause to congregate around this pathway. Keep an eye out around Mile 16 for a large trailside painting of a dripping faucet, which marks a community garden—an impossible-to-miss landmark in spring. Parked bicycles and gathering crowds there on warmer summer days, however, might be assembled equally for the ice cream shop directly across from the garden.

For an even more vibrant monument to petals and bloom, press on to the end of the rail-trail. Its final mile passes right by Olbrich Botanical Gardens, with its 16 acres of specialty collections, including rock, wildflower and rose gardens, as well as a Thai Pavilion, all free and open to the public.

And by the end, if you still want to see more of Madison or fan out deeper into Wisconsin, the Capital City Trail makes long-fingered connections. In-town, you can hop on N. Shore Drive to reach the Southwest Commuter Trail, another highly popular route that arcs back across southwest Madison below Lake Mendota. To get farther out into the countryside, the adventuresome can follow a short on-road segment from the western trailhead to reach the 40-mile Military Ridge State Trail. And from the northeast trailhead, the Capital City Trail will one day link with the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail.

An important consideration for out-of-town visitors is that part of the Capital City Trail, as well as other state-run pathways, requires a State Trail Pass for any users 16 years or older ($4 daily; $20 yearly). These fees provide an important share of the operating budget for Wisconsin's state parks, forests and trails. A pass is not required for hikers, however, and there is no fee for using the trail within the City of Madison.

But you can use the pass for all of Wisconsin's state trails, and for as many visits as you'd like. That's good news for the Capital City Trail, because one trip to this chameleon of urban trails will have you crawling back for more.

For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own, please visit


Related Links

City of Madison Bicycle Map

Madison Area Transportation Planning Board


Trail Facts

Name: Capital City State Trail

Trail Web site: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR)

Length: 17 miles

Counties: Dane

Start Point/ End Point: Fitchburg to Madison

Surface type: Asphalt

Uses: Hiking, jogging, bicycling, inline skating, cross-country skiing; the whole trail is wheelchair accessible

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Parking: To reach the Capital Springs Centennial State Recreation Area trailhead from Interstate 90, take the West Beltline (US Hwy. 12/18 to the South Towne Drive Exit (exit 264) and head south. Continue for almost one mile and then turn left on Moorland Road, which turns into Lake Farm Road. Look for trailhead parking on your right. For other access points in downtown Madison, the trail is readily accessible, and you can consult the city's bike map ;to plan the best route for your trip.

Nearby Attractions: On approach to Madison from the western trailhead, you have many choices: follow the signs for Wingra Creek Trail to the arboretum; stroll through Henry Vilas Zoo, free and open year-round; or cool off at Vilas Park's lifeguarded beach on Lake Wingra. Vilas Park is also home to the "Old Woman in a Shoe" slide (please send a photo if you happen to pass by).

If you're looking for a convenient place to stay in Madison that's close to both the Capital City Trail and Southwest Commuter Trail, try the Arbor House, an eco-friendly Bed & Breakfast that loans free bicycles to guests and offers and excellent breakfast. Call 608. 238.2981 for more information or to make reservations.

Also, for Memorial Day, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum is right in the heart of downtown near the trail, and it offers exhibits commemorating state contributions from the Civil War to the Gulf War.

Sunflowers and red-winged blackbirds perk up the landscape on the first third of the trail © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Fellow RTC staffers coast ahead on the trail's early curvy segments © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Nearing the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center on the Lake Monona waterfront © Barbara Richey/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Community garden near the northeastern trailhead © Jane Brookstein/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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