On a warm September morning, just weeks after Dane County Parks opened the first phase of the Lower Yahara River Trail, a group of bicyclists paused on the floating boardwalk between Upper Mud Lake and Lake Waubesa.
They had spotted an eagle, which was perched high in a tree adjacent to the pedestrian bridge -- the longest in the state and perhaps the country. It's a sight few could have seen without being on the new trail that is suspended above the shoreline and wetland.
"Over the years, the bridge will allow millions of people to experience the natural beauty in a manner never before experienced," said Bill Lunney, chair of the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment and Dane County Park Commission.
That scenic segment, which in places runs parallel to a railroad, is part of the 2.5-mile-long Lower Yahara River Trail. Click here to watch a video of the trail with aerial views.
The trail winds through the woods and fields of Lake Farm County Park and Capital Springs State Park in the City of Madison and spans the water to connect with McDaniel Park in the Village of McFarland. In future phases, the trail will continue south to Lake Kegonsa State Park and the City of Stoughton.
"It bridges barriers connecting our community," said Darren Marsh, parks director of the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department.
It also links up with the Capital City State Trail, which is part of Dane County's network of trails, creating a safer route for bicycle commuters.
Lunney said he believes the trail "may eventually join the State Capitol, Monona Terrace, and the Overture Center as one of the wonders of Dane County and Madison."
The idea started in 1995 with a request from McFarland to tap into the trail system, and the collaborative planning process for the nearly $8 million project has been in the works for the past decade.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said he's never been involved in a project that "has received so much positive, spontaneous feedback," and he's proud of how it was developed with "respect for the cultural heritage of Native Americans who were here first." Dane County park planner Chris James added that "people have been using this corridor for thousands of years -- for food, transportation, and water."
But the project wasn't without challenges, from environmental to archaeological -- especially since it's located on the National Register of Historic Places
James said the construction crews had to use floating timber mats to build a boardwalk that couldn't penetrate the ground. They also had to be careful not to encroach on the swamp white oak trees, receding shoreline, wetland, and railroad, so they went with a 12-foot-wide composite decking bridge to minimize their footprint while still accommodating the amount of people expected to use the trail.
He explained that the trees they did have to remove to build the trail were repurposed as "fish sticks" along the lake, which create shoreline habitat for fish and other critters like this kingfisher. They also found out last winter that they needed to stabilize the bridge with stone, which has created a habitat of its own, as illustrated by this green heron.
The bridge also features observation decks with bicycle racks and fishing piers.
Along the route you'll also find wayfinding signs that provide directions and distances.
The trail is free to use, whether you're walking, running, skating, riding a bicycle, or using a wheelchair.
"Parks and trails are much more than asphalt and wood. They unite communities," Lunney said. "They are for people to recreate, relax, reflect, while enjoying nature's bounty."
Celebration June 2, 2018
Dane County Parks, United Madison, and the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment are gearing up for a Parks & Trails Unite Festival on June 2, 2018, which will be held along the new Lower Yahara River Trail.
The festival, which coincides with National Trails Day, will feature exhibits for event sponsors and nonprofits, culturally significant activities, live music, food carts, guided nature hikes, evening bike rides, campfire stories, pontoon rides and kayak rentals.
To help celebrate and support Dane County's natural resources, consider sponsoring the event and inviting your friends and family to attend.
Lunney said the proceeds from the event will help volunteers, which are the "backbone" of the park system. Last year over 3,500 volunteers put in over 66,000 hours of work, which equates to over a million dollars of labor.
"We would not have the award-winning parks and trails we have without the support of our volunteers," Lunney said.
The endowment has exceeded $400,000 in less than four years, which has provided small contributions to Dane County Parks' 17 friends groups and volunteer programs. When the endowment reaches half a million dollars, it will launch a grant program "while continuing to grow the endowment to the next milestone," Lunney said.
To learn more about Dane County Park and the Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment, click here.