Are you traveling to Wisconsin this summer and looking for ideas for things to do with the kids? Or perhaps you live here and are all about the staycation this year? I’m implementing a new feature on my blog: I decided to start a travel category for anyone looking for ideas for family vacations, staycations and anything in between. Check out the Travel Page for photographs, reviews and travel diaries of past vacations and stay tuned for many more!
To kick things off today, I thought I’d take you for a tour of our neck of the woods, focusing on the things you can do outside for free or relatively cheap. These are just a few of the reasons we love living here and the kinds of places we like to show family when they are visiting.
1. Henry Vilas Zoo: 702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI 53715
Open 9:30 am – 5:00 pm | Cost: Free
The first thing you need to know when you get to Madison is that we have a fantastic zoo that is FREE. Henry Vilas Zoo is a 28-acre public zoo in Madison, Wisconsin that is owned by the city of Madison. On June 30, 1904, Col. William F. and Anna M. Vilas gave a large tract of land to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association “for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground.“
The park was named in memory of the Vilas’ son, Henry, who died at a young age due to complications from diabetes. In 1911, the first animal exhibits were created, representing the start of the Henry Vilas Zoo. In what has proved to be a defining and truly visionary move, the Vilas Family stipulated that the park always be admission free. As the zoo developed within the park, it too remained free. [source]
We love this zoo so much that we go several times a year. It’s surrounded by a large park with multiple playgrounds and even a beach (also free!). There is another large playground inside the zoo along with lots of animal exhibits, a outdoor dining area and a gift shop. The residents of Madison are all quite fond of their little zoo and a lot of people know many of the zoo animals by name. In the fall, Madison kids often go trick or treating at the zoo and there are many other annual events like the Zoo Run Run, Yoga at the Zoo and more.
Pro tip: Get there early, parking fills up fast. We tend to arrive shortly before the zoo opens to get a good spot.
2. Olbrich Gardens: 3330 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704
Hours: 8am-8pm | Cost: Outdoor gardens - free; conservatory $2 per person
The Olbrich Gardens are one of my favorite places to take a long nature walk, photographing flowers and leaves and ponds as I stroll along with the kids. They have 16 acres of gardens for your kids to run around in, including a tropical conservatory, a rose garden & a Thai pavilion (everyone’s favorite). One of my favorite things about Olbrich is that there is something new to see every time you go as the seasons change throughout the year.
The outdoor gardens are always free and the indoor conservatory is just $2 a person and free for kids 5 and under – and free on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., except during Olbrich’s Blooming Butterflies. If you are a resident, consider getting a membership which offers valuable discounts, exclusive invitations, free admission, members-only library borrowing privileges, informative quarterly member newsletter, as well as free or reduced admission to nearly 300 gardens, arboreta, and conservatories across the U.S. and Canada. Members also ensure that the Gardens remain free and accessible to more than 250,000 people each year.
Year Round Fun: Olbrich is open even when the weather is less than gorgeous. Take a walk in the indoor conservatory when the weather is dreary or to perk you up in the blah winter months. Going to be here for Christmas? Be sure to check out their Holiday Express train exhibit!
3. Picnic Point: 2002 University bay drive, Madison, WI 53726.
Parking: Park in the University Parking Lot #130. Parking starts at $1 for the first hour. You can pay with credit card, quarters and US Dollar Coints.
If you want to take a nice walk, enjoy a small shady beach and see some amazing views of the Capitol Building and Lake Mendota – consider packing a picnic and heading to Picnic Point, a nearly mile-long peninsula along Lake Mendota’s south shore (check out this great history of Picnic Point). It’s a relatively easy walk but getting to the end of the peninsula feels like an amazing achievement, especially to kids. Once you get to the end, you have a truly amazing view of the lake to enjoy.
For many years the beach, at The Narrows midway down the Point, was a popular place for swimming. Please note: The university does not provide lifeguards at Preserve beach areas and water quality is not monitored. Swim at your own risk. We skip the swimming here, but it’s a gorgeous and relaxing place to stop halfway and let the kids play in the sand and admire the water.
Feeling Romantic? Picnic Point has a long reputation as a romantic getaway. Many visitors talk about marriage proposals inspired by a stroll out to the end of the Point. As further proof of the Point’s romantic magic, on February 9, 1992 the San Francisco Examiner (in a scientific study, no doubt!) did a survey of the ten best places to kiss in the world, and announced that Picnic Point “may just be the kissing-est spot in North America.” It said that for more than a century, “thousands of couples have found themselves in each other’s arms…at the tip of the peninsula, where the kissing tradition was born.” Visitors may wish to plan accordingly. [source]
4. The Ice Age Trails: Location: 1,00 miles throughout Wisconsin. Check out the Dane County Trails for locations in the Madison area.
Whether you are looking for a quick hike or an epic backpacking trip or camping spot, The Ice Age Trail has got you covered. I like to go to one of the local trails near our home for a small hike with the kids and a little nature photography but that’s just the top of the iceberg really (pun intended).
History Lesson: More than 12,000 years ago, an immense flow of glacial ice sculpted a landscape of remarkable beauty across Wisconsin. As the colossal glacier retreated, it left behind a variety of unique landscape features. These Ice Age remnants are now considered among the world’s finest examples of how continental glaciation sculpts our planet.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is a thousand-mile footpath — entirely within Wisconsin — that highlights these Ice Age landscape features while providing access to some of the state’s most beautiful natural areas. [source]
5. Eplegaarden Apple Orchard : 2227 Fitchburg Road, Fitchburg WI
Hours: Varies by season July-Oct | Cost: Depends on how many apples you want.
There are many apple orchards and other pick-your-own farms in Madison and the surrounding towns but one of our favorites is Eplegaarden. They describe themselves as “da apple orchard vit da Norvegian Exposure”, an old fashion farm ver things move slower den any other place in Dane County or maybe even in all of Wisconsin.
When you aren’t picking apples, raspberries or pumpkins, you can also see how tall the kids have grown by photographing them next to the giant Apple with a yardstick, check out their Farm Store, go for a horse drawn hayride or take the kids to their playground. During the Halloween Season you’ll want to take the kids to see the Harold Potterson’s Hallowed Haunts and Harried Hunts for little Wizards and Trolls. They also do folk music under the apple trees on Sundays in September and October.
6. Mallards Baseball Stadium : 2920 N Sherman Ave, Madison, WI 53704
When: May-August | Cost: $8-33 a ticket, depending on where you sit
Take them out to the ballgame without breaking the bank. Check out the game schedule for the Madison Mallards, a collegiate summer baseball team in Madison that plays in the Northwoods League at Warner Park on Madison’s North side.
I love going to a Mallards Game – they have a very family friendly atmosphere, fun merchandise, lots of delicious food, a kid friendly grassy field where you can lay a picnic blanket and skip dealing with stadium seating and there are always fun events going on from the Meriter & Physicians Plus Kids Days to fireworks after many of the games.
A note on parking: There is free parking at Warner Stadium and tailgating is allowed but it fills up fast. There is additional limited additional parking at the Northside Town Center directly across Sherman Ave from the ballpark. NO TAILGATING is allowed in this lot & violators may be towed. Only portions of the lot are available for fan parking during games so make sure you are parked in an approved area for the game. Last tip: Consider arriving early and leaving early if possible to avoid crowds and traffic.
Madisonians – where are your favorite places to take the kids? Share your favorite spots, indoor and out, in the comments section!