Two nights in Madison, WI–Big Trip #4

We were in Madison in August 2022 as part of Big Trip #4

downtown Madison across Lake Monona
Madison from across Lake Monona

When planning Big Trip #4, we only gave ourselves one night in Madison, and pretty quickly regretted that decision. And then–good news!–we wanted to leave Michigan City a day early, so we ended up with two nights in Madison. It’s a fun college town with top-notch food and drink and a great outdoorsy vibe, and we had a blast there.

Campgrounds

Dane County Parks operates four campgrounds in the greater Madison area, and we chose the closest to downtown, Lake Farm County Park, for our *planned* one-night stay in Madison. Then we bailed on Michigan City a day early and needed to tack another night onto Madison. Lake Farm couldn’t take us, so we booked a spot at Babcock County Park, just a few minutes farther from town. Campsites at both of these campgrounds are power-only.

Lake Farm County Park

view from the Airstream at Lunney Lake Farm Park
the view from the Airstream at Lunney Lake Farm Campground

We loved this campground and would definitely stay there again on our way through the Midwest. Our site was on the edge of the campground, backing up to pretty fields–although it was next to the for-rent shelter, which might be a noisy neighbor if there’s a party running into the night.

Capital City State Trail from Lunney Farm Park
Capital City State Trail trailhead in Lake Farm Park

Two multi-use paths cross through the park: the Capital City State Trail and the Lower Yahara River Trail, popular with runners, cyclists, and bike commuters. Bring your bikes and ride from Lake Farm into downtown on dedicated bike paths!

Bugsy looking at Sandhill Cranes
Bugsy checking out the sandhill cranes

We met some interesting neighbors on our morning walk through the campground: sandhill cranes! They are big, like redheaded mini-emus, with a bizarre squawking honky call. Bugsy wanted nothing to do with them!

Babcock County Park

This campground was less appealing, but fine for a night. It’s smaller than Lake Farm, with nice trees and access to Lake Waubesa. My favorite thing about Babcock is that it was named for the guy who discovered the technique for calculating the percentage of butterfat in milk. So very Wisconsin!

Exploring

walking around UW campus
Camp Randall was a staging ground for Union troops, now home to the UW football stadium

Madison is a big city, with a lot going on: it’s the capital of Wisconsin and a university town. Spread around five lakes, there are lots of water-based activities, and it’s a very bicycle-friendly town, with a reputation for having more bikes than cars. It seemed like there were paths and parks everywhere!

To make the most of our two days there, we focused on exploring two areas: downtown and the university area.

Madison capitol
Wisconsin Capitol

Our first walking tour was of the downtown area, including the capitol and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center.

lakefront student plaza at UW
where the lucky UW students get to hang out

On day 2 we did a walking tour of UW. It’s a nice campus with some pretty buildings, and a welcoming waterfront with a sweet student plaza and soft-surface paths along the lake. Lucky UW kids!

Eating

food at the bar at Mint Mark
super fab dinner at Mint Mark

We’re a month into our trip (I’m writing from Idaho) and one of our favorite meals of Big Trip #4 is still at Mint Mark in Madison. The beertender at Young Blood gave us the recommendation and it was fab. Seasonal Wisconsin food, gins galore, fantastic cocktails, and a biscuit to die for. We were thrilled.

carryout bowls from Green Owl
healthy bowls to go from Green Owl

Our other Madison dinner was carryout bowls and salad from Green Owl–delicious healthy vegetarian bowls and salads. Yes, please.

Drinking

Beer

Take it away, J:

beer and snacks at Young Blood
Young Blood Beer Co snacks and beers

Based on our pre-trip internet research, Young Blood Beer Co. was our first stop in Madison. It’s a near perfect brewery, for us at least: six hazy IPAs and five sours (and one grapefruit Radler) on the tap list, delicious street food (highlighted by the deviled eggs with trout roe and other goodies), a cool scene and helpful beer enthusiasts for employees. The tasting room, in an old strip mall in downtown Madison, looks down through pretty vines and other plants to the basement brewing operation. It’s a bit on the small side, but really artistic and cool. And, the beer was top notch; if you only go to one brewery in Madison, make it Young Blood. Oh yeah, and we subsequently learned that it is named in part after the 1986 hockey movie of the same name starring the great Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe.

beers on the patio at Working Draft
Working Draft patio beers

Our second brewery stop, again based on our pre-trip research, was Working Draft Beer Company, northeast of downtown. While they seem to emphasize German-style beers, they had two hazy IPAs of their own plus a guest sour (from G5 Brewing Company in Beloit, WI) on tap when we visited. We really enjoyed the beers and sitting outside on their spacious patio, but were turned off by the “no dogs allowed” sign. When J asked the bartender why, she replied, “a lot of reasons, but mostly liability.” There’s a lot to recommend about Working Draft, but can you really feel great about a place owned by someone who hates dogs?

beers at Delta Beer Lab
Delta Beer Lab beers

On our second afternoon, after changing campgrounds, we braved the rain and drove to Delta Beer Lab, both because it was just a six minute drive and because the tap list looked decent enough. It was a bit of a confounding experience as we had to wait a full ten minutes to finally get a pour from the incredibly inefficient lone bartender. L liked her blueberry acai gose, served in a 10 ounce beaker. J did not like his NE IPA and wouldn’t recommend the place.

beer on the patio at Starkweather Brewing
Starkweather Brewing patio beer

Finally, on our last night, we visited Starkweather Brewing Company, Madison’s newest brewery, based on the suggestion of one of the folks at Working Draft. On an early Sunday evening, we were the only folks in the place and enjoyed chatting with the amiable co-owner before bringing our beers out to the patio. They have a diverse beer list and we enjoyed the beers enough to buy a crowler of their hazy IPA (only 5.7%) and lemon kettle sour. We also tried and enjoyed their pina colada hazy IPA.

On our next visit, if we are willing to drive 20 minutes north of town to Waunakee, we will check out Octopi Brewing and Untitled Art, which are next to one another and were highly touted by the Youngblood beertender who we owe for leading us to Mint Mark.

Cocktails

cocktail at Botanical Social
cocktail at Botanist Social

Other than the cocktails we enjoyed at Mint Mart, which were top-notch, we had drinks at Botanist Social as we walked around town. The drinks were too sweet for us, but it was kind of a cool spot, and is probably happening late night (which is not our scene).

sunset over the Wisconsin Capitol and Monona Lake
sunset at the Biergarten, with or without official beers

We tried to have a nightcap at the Biergarten at Olbrich Park, but they were inexplicably closed. It’s a cool spot to watch the sunset over Lake Monona, and we enjoyed the show even without a bar-sponsored beverage.

To do

The bartender at Mint Mart recommended the following, and we totally trust his recommendations:

We already mentioned Octopi Brewing and Untitled Art.

What are we missing? We’re looking forward to including Madison on our list of midwestern cross-country stops!

Next up: Duluth, MN!


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