Walking the Geneva Lake Shore Path in Southeast Wisconsin

Ed McManus walks along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Ed McManus walks along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

It had seemed like such a pleasant idea: spend the day strolling around Geneva Lake. Yes, the path encircling the lake was long — some 20-odd miles — but we had the whole day. Plus, we’d have one of the prettiest lakes in Wisconsin on our left to distract us, not to mention dozens of gorgeous, historic homes on our right. What I hadn’t planned on was a blistering hot day. Or a surprisingly strenuous trail.

“Watch out,” says my husband, Ed, breaking my reverie. A low-hanging branch is about to whack me in the face. I push it away, then hop across a cracked, sagging pallet serving as a bridge over the tiny stream crossing our path. Clear of this rough stretch in the trail, I look up and see we’re facing another uphill climb under a relentlessly blazing sun. Sighing, I pull a long drink of water from my CamelBak and soldier on.

The popular Geneva Lake Shore Path’s roots stretch back thousands of years to at least 2500 B.C., when Native Americans padded around the lake, slowly carving a trench into the earth. The path was still visible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when wealthy Chicagoans like the Wrigleys, Schwinns and Maytags discovered the lake and decided to make it their summer playground. Soon immense homes began popping up around Geneva Lake, and now construction workers plodded along the footpath to get from town to their work sites, stamping it more firmly into the ground.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • Lake Geneva is famous as the one-time summer home of Chicago’s elite.
  • The Geneva Lake Shore Path is unique because it’s open to the public, even though it crosses private property.
  • Good for hikers, outdoors lovers and architecture buffs.
The Geneva Lake Shore Path passes many stunning homes. ©Melanie Radzicki

The Geneva Lake Shore Path passes many stunning homes. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Fortunately for those of us sans big bucks, the footpath was legally designated as a public passageway, open to anyone, anytime. So “outsiders” began walking around the lake, gawking at the mansions and Chicago’s elite. Today, many of the original homes remain, along with massive new estates. The path itself seems to have inspired a bit of competition among homeowners, some of whom appear to be trying to create the most unique or impressive stretch of the trail on their property. So you’ll trod across flagstones, brick and wood; cross tiny wrought iron bridges; and be offered trailside amenities such as decorative benches, comic statues and — my personal favorite on this scorching day — a drinking fountain.

 A Tough Road to Follow

Flowers are blooming along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

Flowers are blooming along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

I’m surprised to find the path is so hilly, and after a few hours the constantly changing surfaces under my feet start to wear on me. In general, the path is well-maintained, although as the day wears on, I find it annoying that some rogue property owners have given little care to the path -— like the cracked pallet over the stream. Don’t they know I want an easy passage when I’m coming to stare at their home? Still, Ed and I thoroughly enjoy our walk. The views of homes with names like Pinegate, Sunny Hill and Hazeldore, are impressive. We weave through cool, shady tree stands, walk along a golf course and pass innumerable stunning floral displays.

One of the sights along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

One of the sights along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. ©Melanie Radzicki McManus

“Look, someone’s getting married!” says Ed. I feel a bit guilty, walking on the lawn just a few yards away from someone’s private wedding, but hey, it’s legal.

Near the end of our journey, my spirits begin to flag. I’m tired, and all I can think about is a cold drink, as the water in my CamelBak is almost gone, and warm. Suddenly we enter a magical slice of the trail. A white picket fence lines the path, with funny, encouraging and whimsical sayings painted on it. A guest book is set out for walkers to sign, and a large bell hangs from a tree, with a note saying, “Ring the bell to make miracles happen.”

Smiling, I give the bell’s rope a hard tug before continuing on, knowing a cold drink surely lies just around the bend.

      Practicalities

      • If you’re hiking around the entire lake, carry lots of water and some food. Both are reasonably available the first few miles (going counterclockwise), but not for the bulk of the walk.
      • Wear good walking or hiking shoes. Portions of the path may have broken pavement or require you to cross obstacles like downed logs.
      • If you want to learn about the homes you’re passing, buy a Walk, Talk & Gawk booklet.
      • For a less strenuous adventure, book a Lake Walk Tour with Lake Geneva Cruise Line. First you’ll hike eight miles of the path, then hop on a boat to get back to town. Or you can ride first, then hike back.

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