Some Say This is America’s Best Biking City East of California…Decide For Yourself!

What does Madison, Wisconsin, have in common with Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Montreal? They are amongst the “Best Places on Earth to Bike,” according to Yahoo Travel. With temperate summer weather, over 200 miles of bike paths, five lakes, and the most parks per capita in the US, it’s easy to see why Madison received a Platinum designation by the League of American Bicyclists and ranks as one of the five best US cities for biking.

We worked with local officials and bike activists to build our guide to biking in Madison, Wisconsin, and have personally ridden the majority of the paths and routes highlighted in this article. Whether you’re a local looking to find new places to ride or a vacation cyclist looking for a destination with world-class food and exceptional experiences, this guide is for you!

Madison By Bike

The Capital City Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Ed Coleman.

Madison By Bike is a Destination Madison initiative to get people out riding and exploring the city. They’ve created four feature rides (with four unique vibes) that showcase the best of Madison. An app-like page lets you collect exclusive discounts and earn prizes as you travel their curated routes.

We made a point to ride every route and make all the check-ins, and it was loads of fun. The discounts at the participating restaurants were legit, and we saw things we never would have noticed without the check-in game (you can even use your accumulated points to donate to Free Bikes 4 Kidz Madison or enter to win an e-bike for yourself!). If you’re new to town, you have to check it out, and we wager even a veteran rider may learn a thing or two from Madison By Bike.

Capital City Trail (4.8 miles One-Way)

Monona Terrace Madison Wi
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Capital City Trail is basically the Cap City Trail from Turville Bay to Starkweather Brewing Company – aka Lakeshore Views to Brews. Consider parking at Olin Park and staying on the Cap City Trail to Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Southwest Commuter Path (3 miles One-Way)

The Historic Madison Train Depoot Madison Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Southwest Commuter Path follows a trail by the same name. The physical trail is on an old railbed designed to be isolated from the neighborhood with a series of underpasses.

Lakeshore Path (2 miles One-Way)

Lakeshore Path Madison Wi
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Lakeshore Path route follows the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path from the Memorial Union Terrace to Picnic Point through the University of Wisconsin campus. This route is only partially paved with a hard-pack surface suitable for most bikes, but it could get muddy in inclement weather. You can’t bike to Picnic Point, but there’s a bike rack and BCycle station right out front. Also, you might consider riding an interior route back on bike lanes of Observatory Drive to form a loop and check in at Allen Centennial Garden and the effigy mounds.

Fitchburg – Cannonball Loop (10.1 miles – Loop)

Capital City Trail Madison By Bike
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Fitchburg-Cannonball Loop might be the most complete ride of the Madison By Bike portfolio. You access via Fitchburg, a near-city trail town on the Capital City Trail, and form a loop via the Cannonball Path Trail and McCaffy/Arboretum Drive. Loop rides have a certain je ne sais quoi compared to out-and-backs, especially when the neighborhood connecting roads are slow and mellow.

Loop Rides in Madison

The Capital City Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Native Americans called Madison Teejop which is how the Hoocąk people refer to the land. Its translated meaning is, “land of the four lakes” (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa). Madison’s city center is built on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. All this water provides beautiful views and motivates city planners to reduce car traffic and parking pressure. It also allows bike paths to naturally form bike loops instead of the hub and spoke design that develops in most river-based cities.

Monona Bay Loop (7.2 mi)

Wingra Creek Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Monona Bay Loop is a short ride that connects the MBB Southwest Commuter Path with the Capital City Trail. There’s a natural connection on the north end through Brittingham Park and a nearly complete connection on the south end via the beautiful Wingara Creek Trail. The neighborhood gap is through the Monroe Street district, which is very bike-friendly.

Lake Wingra Loop (11.1 mi)

Wingra Creek Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Everybody talks about the Monona Lake Loop, but there’s a Lake Wingra Loop, too. Much like its more famous cousin, there’s some debate about maximizing your time on a trail versus staying as close as possible to the lake. There’s a good argument for going all the way through the arboretum and finding a neighborhood connection on the west side. However, we tossed a coin and mapped our ride through the Cannonball Trail to the junction at Velo UnderRound.

Lake Monona Bike Loop (12.4 miles)

Lake Monona Madison
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Lake Monona Bike Loop is a classic Madison bike ride. It follows the Capital City Trail on the west side of the lake and a signed on-road route through the city of Monona. For some reason, there is still debate about “the route.” There are three choices through Atwood – the “official” signed route along the lake, Atwood Ave (meh), or staying on Capital City Trial to Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Capital City Loop (19.4 miles)

Capital City Trail Madison Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Capital City Loop is formed by connecting the southern half of the Capital City Trail with the Cannonball Trail and Southwest Commuter Trail. An excellent loop closure through Brittingham Park would make this ride entirely on-trail. However, we chose to route through some on-road connectors to showcase a way to link the university to downtown and the Southwest Commuter Path.

Lower Yahara River Trail (9 bonus miles)

Lower Yahara river Trail Madison Wi
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Outdoor Magazine determined that the perfect bike ride is 20 miles, which means that the Lake Monona Bicycle Loop is just a little too short. Perhaps that’s why many riders tack on an extra nine miles by riding the Lower Yahara River Trail for a pit stop at the Green Lantern Restaurant. Of course, the beautiful mile long boardwalk along Lake Waubesa isn’t bad either.

Featured Madison Bike Paths

Wingra Creek Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

With so many Madison bike paths, knowing where to start riding can be difficult. The City of Madison’s Bike Madison page has a lot of information, perhaps too much. We will break it down for you. Here’s the skinny.

Glacial Drumlin State Trail (52.8 miles, unpaved)

wisconsin-glacial-drumlin-state-trail-sunset
Photo Credit: Wikimedia.

The Glacial Drumlin State Trail runs between Wisconsin’s two largest urban areas, Madison and Milwaukee. It follows an abandoned rail corridor for 52 miles through farmlands and glacial topography and connects ten small towns from Cottage Grove to Waukesha. It has a crushed stone surface suitable for 32mm tires or wider, except for a short, 1.5-mile, on-road section northeast of Jefferson.

There is a direct connection on the east end of the trail into the Milwaukee bike system, but there’s a gap between Cottage Grove and the Madison bike system at the Cottage Grove terminus. A popular Madison bike ride is to start at Cottage Grove and bike 16 miles to Sandy Beach and back (32-mile round trip).

Sugar River State Trail (22 miles, crushed stone)

Sugar River State Trail Wisconsin via Flickr
Photo Credit: Flickr.

The Sugar River State Trail is a 24-mile crushed gravel path following an abandoned railroad line from New Glarus to Brodhead. The trail has 14 trestle bridges as it crosses the Sugar River and its tributaries.

The Sugar River Trail is approximately 20 miles south of Madison on the Badger Trail, so that’s a beefy ride for casual cyclists. Many people shuttle their bikes down for an out-and-back on the Sugar River Trail or utilize the Badger Trail to form an 11-mile loop from New Glarus.

Badger State Trail (40 miles, 6 miles paved)

Badger State Trail Wisconsin
Photo Credit: Flickr.

The Badger State Trail stretches 40 miles from Madison and the Wisconsin-Illinois border, where it turns into the 17-mile Jane Addams Trail. That’s 57 miles, possibly more if you venture onto the Sugar River State Trail. The trail is paved for the first 6 miles until you reach Purcell Rd. From there, it’s a crushed gravel path. Also, as of 2023, the trail is closed at the Steward Tunnel, with a state-provided Tunnel Road detour shown.

A fabulous Badger State Trail ride is an out-and-back to New Glarus Brewing Company. Be sure to stop in for a tour and perhaps a pint of their only-sold-in-Wisconsin Spotted Cow Ale. That’s a 43-mile out-and-back from the Velo UnderRound.

Military Ridge State Trail (42.1 miles, 3.6 miles paved)

Military Ridge State Trail via Flickr
Photo Credit: Flickr.

Military Ridge State Trail travels from Madison to Dodgeville via an 1855 military route, including stops at Governor Dodge and Blue Mound state parks. The trail is paved for the first 3.6 miles until the Badger Prairie Community Garden in Verona. From there, it’s a crushed stone trail suitable for 32mm tires that passes through agricultural lands, woods, wetlands, and prairies, as well as the trail towns of Verona and Mt Horeb.

A classic ride is a lunch run to Riley Tavern, which is a 21-mile out-and-back from The Velo UnderRound. Ardent riders might want to challenge the climb in Blue Mound State Park on the largest hill in the southern half of the state. The segment from the guardhouse to the top has an average grade of 10% with a maximum of over 20% (yikes!).

Capital City Trail (17 miles, paved)

The Capital City Trail Madison Wisconson
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

The Capital City Trail is the last, but certainly not least, of the featured Madison bike paths. It’s the only 100% paved feature path and connects the Military Ridge State Trail, Badger State Trail, and, eventually, the Glacial Drumlin State Trail.

Madison BCycle

Lakeshore Path and Effegy Path
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Madison BCycle is an awesome app-driven e-bike exchange you unlock with your phone. More than 500 bikes are available across more than 80 stations in Madison and Fitchburg. BCycles are great if you’re visiting from out of town and want to plan a biking weekend in Madison or for locals looking to get back into biking.

Subscription rates are low enough that you might just want to subscribe and let the BCycle crew take care of your maintenance. Destination Madison has a How to BCycle page that says, “In 2022, riders took 327,845 trips on BCycle e-bikes, which offset more than 869,749 pounds of carbon emissions. That’s the equivalent of 1,351,091 miles driven by an average gas-powered car or 106 homes’ electricity use for one year!”

Bicycle Benefits

Lakeshore Path and Effegy Path
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Bicycle Benefits is a bike advocacy program with a simple, three-step plan to get people out riding:

1) Get a sticker ($5 at any participating businesses)
2) Put it on your helmet (you should always wear a helmet while biking)
3) Bike and save (two of my favorite things)

With a city as bike crazy as Madison, you’d imagine there would be many participating businesses. You’d be correct. The Bike Benefits has over 37 pages of participating companies.

Parting Thoughts on Madison Bike Paths

Madison BCycle
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

With an abundance of parks and bike paths, it’s no surprise that Madison is one of the nation’s fittest cities. The 2022 American Fitness Index lists Madison as the second fittest city in the country, which isn’t bad for a state known for cheese and beer!

Read More From Coleman Concierge:

Madison Wisconsin capital
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Here’s a hot take – the Madison, Wisconsin restaurant scene goes way beyond cheese curds. Let’s start with the farm-to-table possibilities when you’re in the middle of the heartland with the nation’s largest producer-only Farmers Market. Throw in some international flair from being one of the ten most educated cities in the US and its proximity to Chicago (America’s third largest city). And finish it off with a good beer and some cheese curds, because – On, Wisconsin!

14 Madison Wisconsin Restaurants So Good You’ll Want to Move There!

Ultimate Guide to Biking the Monon Trail (Plus Interactive Map)

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Biking the Monon Trail takes you 27 miles through tree-lined paths that connect Westfield, Carmel, and Broad Ripple to downtown Indianapolis Indiana. Each stop has a unique persona that welcomes travelers, with segments containing miles of beautiful riding and photo-worthy viewpoints. Read on to discover the highlights of the Monon Trail.

Ultimate Guide to Biking the Monon Trail (Plus Interactive Map)

The Best Biking in Columbus Ohio – 11 Trails You Need to Know

Scioto Trail Columbus Ohio
Photo Credit: Ed Coleman.

Where is the best biking in Columbus, Ohio? With over 100 miles of dedicated bike trails, Columbus is staking its claim as one of the top biking destinations in the Midwest. It isn’t only the greenways but the integration of the entire system with public transportation, local restaurants, events, and attractions that makes cycling in C-Bus outstanding. So clip in, and let’s explore the best biking in Columbus.

The Best Biking in Columbus Ohio – 11 Trails You Need to Know

Concierge Guide to Northeast Florida Bike Trails and Cycling Routes

Lehigh-Trail
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Northeast Florida bike trails could be the nation’s best-kept cycling secret. This Concierge Guide will give you the down-and-dirty details and inspirational insights to get you packing up your bikes and heading to the sunshine state.

Concierge Guide to Northeast Florida Bike Trails and Cycling Routes

 

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