I was nominated to write this post because, “Julie likes to run a hundred miles (or something),”


Fair enough.

I DO like to run and yes, when I can, a trail is my first choice. Many of our family vacations involve nature hikes of varying lengths and difficulties (my kids usually like it). But since I’m not normally traveling the globe, I must feed my love of nature here at home. Luckily, we happen to live in Madison, a place that holds countless options; many of which are within a walk, run, or short drive from my house. Whether I am out on a run with my friends, or taking my kids on a nature hike to burn off their endless energy, I have many options. To keep it fair, I did a very scientific poll on Facebook, asking my fellow runners about their favorite trails and compared them with my own experiences.

So, in no particular order are the favorites:

Pheasant Branch

If you live near Middleton, Pheasant Branch is the perfect place with much to offer. In the wintertime you can take your kids, friends and husbands snowshoeing.


For the rest of the year, there are many options for hiking, biking and exploring with your kids. From woods, to prairies, to crossing streams with or without a bridge (be prepared to get dirty). There’s lots to fill up an afternoon. And many of the trails are jogging stroller friendly.

Playing in the natural spring


And when you have a chance to leave your kids behind, there are miles to run within the loops there and trails leading to and from the conservancy.

Devil’s Lake

Less than an hour from Madison is a truly beautiful location for hiking, camping, swimming, rock climbing and challenging trail running. With or without kids, you should pack a lunch and plan to stay here at least for the day. Because of the hilly nature of some of the trails, make sure you talk to a ranger about which route is best for you if you have your kids with you. Let’s just say our last hike was a bit too much for certain members of the family (I’m ambitious to a fault).
Devil's Lake


Indian Lake County Park

About 15 minutes from Middleton, Indian Lake is located off of Highway 19, 2 miles West of Highway 12 . My friends and I will meet to run the hilly but varied 3 mile loop #1 (how many loops today?) when we can. With it’s varied surfaces through the woods and grassy running through prairies, there is something for everyone. Take your dog along to the exercise area or take your kids up to the top of the hill to see a historic chapel built in 1857, and marvel at the view from the top. Want a quick nature fix? This is the place for you.

Indian Lake

Blue Mound State Park

This park is known by my fellow runners and bikers as hilly (and that is an understatement). Worth the half an hour or so drive from my house, I go there to get my most challenging trail running in. Connected to Military Ridge State Trail, finding enough places to run will not be an issue. Like Indian Lake, the trails here can vary from grassy prairies to rocky, hilly single track trails through the woods. Bring your suit along during the summer so that you can cool off at their pool after your run.

Picture taken by fellow runner, Curtis Hall

Military Ridge Trail

While I get plenty of running on this trail (more on this later), it is also an ideal location for taking our family on a bike ride that is flat without worries about cars. For an easy, mostly stress-free family bike ride, park by Alice Good Specialty Coffee in Verona, pick a direction and bike for awhile until you get the sense that everyone is starting to get tired. Turn back with a promise of an ice cream or shaved ice at Icki Sticki. Bring a first aid kit in case there is a wipe-out (speaking from experience – bad mom moment). And yes, when the kids get tired, I do promise ice cream at the end. Don’t judge.

Selfie taken by my highschooler. No, he’s not the one who wiped out on this ride.

I also run Military Ridge when I have a heavy mile week but don’t want to run too many hills. The trail is more forgiving with the crushed limestone surface and, without the rocks and roots, it’s not as challenging as a typical trail run. There is plenty to see with a variety of scenery and wildlife which help make the miles go by quickly.

Riley trail head of Military Ridge Trail with my friends. Head one way and to go into Verona. Head the other way to go into Mount Horeb. Or run back and forth for a while until you get tired.

Lakeshore Path

Want a more “urban” run? My favorite is Lakeshore path. I like to start by Memorial Union, run to Picnic Point and back for a total of 5 miles or so. If you can, finish up with a beer or Babcock ice cream on the Terrace (when it opens up again). The epitome of Madison living. Perfection.


Want to take the kids out to Picnic Point? I usually park near UW Hospital to make the hike more manageable and go into the woods, exploring the different trails throughout the peninsula. No matter which way you go, Lakeshore path offers gorgeous wooded and lake shore views of our capital, the Union, and our beloved city.

Pope Farm Conservancy

Located at 7440 W. Old Sauk Rd. on Madison’s West side, this place gets a lot of attention in August when their famous sunflowers bloom.

But with seven miles of trails, there is plenty to see the rest of the year. Whether you go there on your own, or bring your kids, this place is worth visiting. Be warned, just like most of Wisconsin, it can make for a hilly run.

The Arboretum

Within the Madison running community, the “Arb Loop” is a staple. This loop offers a 6.1 mile run that has everything from woods to marshes to beautiful lake views.  At least once a year my friends and I will meet at Mickies Dairy Bar and run to Henry Vilas to start the loop. Nothing better than finishing off a run with a breakfast from Mickies (yes I like to eat).

Whenever I bring the kids, I like to park at the visitors center for the bathrooms and for a variety of shorter hikes. Every time I go I am amazed that this place is located in the heart of our city.

image from

Honorable Mentions:

Here are the remaining recommendations from my Facebook friends. While I personally do not have much experience with these locations, my running friends are valuable resources that must be trusted:

  • Capital City Trail and Badger State Trail: These trails start in the city but go for miles and miles. Badger State Trail can take you all the way to the Illinois border! This trail is bike friendly as well so more options to take your family (or yourself) on a bike ride without worry of traffic.
  • Governor Nelson State Park
  • Ice Age Trail: To say this trail is everywhere is an understatement. If you live near a section of this trail, I hope you take advantage of it daily. If not, find a section closest to your house and explore it today!
  • Donald Park
Julie is a mom of five boys and one girl. She is a runner, biker, yoga instructor and socializer. That about sums it up. Believe it or not, she really does enjoy the soccer, cross country, swim team, track, dance classes, basketball, and theater her kids are involved in as long as she has another mom (or dad) to talk to during these events. Julie is starting a new adventure going back to school to get her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy at Edgewood College.


  1. You sound like a wonderful Mom!! Thank you for sharing this informative blog! My husband and twin daughters age six are relocating to Madison from Maryland in August and have not found a house yet or an executive rental! I’m hoping the housing market in our piece range opens up a bit more! (500-900k)

  2. Julie,
    Which place is the photo with the long wooden bridge path? First photo on very top and photo on the cover,
    Thank you!

  3. We are moving to Madison in a month—I like to run before my kids wake up. Is there anywhere within or near the beltway that you would feel comfortable running at like 6am alone? Especially an area that is well lit? Thank you for your post! I look forward to running and biking on these trails!

  4. This is exactly what I was looking for this summer! Thank you so much :o) I printed it off and am going to use it as our reference guide for places to go – there are so many!

  5. Can I suggest Glacial Drumlin from Cottage Grove for the East Siders- flat, crushed rock good for family bike rides (you can get to Waukesha easily) or quiet, flat long runs.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here