Thursday, June 13, 2019

A guide to visiting Lake Kegonsa State Park

Lake Kegonsa State Park is a hidden gem worth traveling to. 

Wisconsin's greater Madison area is home to a splendid group of state park properties scattered across Dane county and beyond. Within an hour of the capital are the big ones like Devil's Lake, Blue Mound, and Governor Dodge. Then there are the hidden gems like Natural Bridge, Governor Nelson, and a real underrated park to escape to called Lake Kegonsa, located on the shores of a 3,209-acre lake carved away by glaciers.

The backstory
10,000 years ago, Lake Kegonsa State Park sat in what was once a river valley that was drastically shaped at the tail end of the Ice Age when glaciers stretched their frozen surfaces over parts of central Wisconsin. When the glaciers began to disappear and retreat to the north, meltwaters deposited stone, sand, and gravel everywhere, including within the boundaries of the state park. Giant boulders and rock essentially sealed off the valley. Kegonsa, Ho-Chunk for "Lake of Many Fishes," is one of the four Madison lakes (along with Mendota, Monona, and Waubesa) that are connected by the Yahara River.

The low-down on camping at Lake Kegonsa State Park
The Family Campground at Lake Kegonsa has 96 sites in a traditional loop layout. Most are nestled in the woods in the northern part of the park, 84 sites are reservable, and 29 are ready for electric hookups. While there are pit toilets and water fill-ups scattered throughout, a modern, clean bathroom building with showers is located just before entering the campground, as is a vending machine. Firewood can be purchased from the shed near the shower building.

Fantastic non-electric sites worth making a reservation for include 81-83, which are farther back into the brush and private, 11, 12, 25, 30, 65 96, 72, and 78. Most of the electric sites have a nice buffer of trees or brush between them, with sites 7E and 9E (both under an awesome branch oak), and 33E being the best of the plug-in bunch. Sites 56E and 66E are accessible sites. There's a dump station along the main camp road as you approach the Group Camp area. Sites 86E-93 in the detached loop are grassy with little shade and close to the road so you will likely hear road noise. A selling point for these sites, however, is their quick proximity to the path leading down to the beach. Surrounded by cedars, site 88 is right next to the trail that leads to the beach. Avoid sites 69 and 71, both of which are both hilly and not level. Sites 17, 62, 64, 21, 29, 53, and 10 offer little to none privacy and are very open.

Located south in the park, distant from the main Family Campground and closer to the Upper Picnic Area is the tent-only Group Camp, with six sites (labeled A-F) with room for 20 at each Those staying in the Group Camp have easy access to the baseball diamond, volleyball court, horseshoes, a picnic shelter, and their own pit toilet. To make your trip more convenient, should you arrive at the park after-hours, get a voucher for daily or annual pass through the self-serve admissions kiosk that takes credit cards. In the morning, take that receipt to the park office to receive the actual window decal itself.

How you should explore Lake Kegonsa State Park While not as grand in size compared to other parks, Lake Kegonsa definitely delivers on hiking, with five miles of quiet, scenic trails through a diverse collection of terrain. Start off on the White Oak Nature Trail, an excellent discovery trail with 13 interpretive signs. Pick up a guidebook at the first station (or view it here on your phone) and begin your 1.2-mile adventure down into a haven of tall, dramatic white oaks with a carpet of plants below. The trees along this trail are very striking and you'll even pass by a couple groups of documented Indian Mounds. Don't be shy to venture into the dark pine plantation at Sign 9, it appears almost randomly and is worth the side trip. The trail itself is mostly flat apart from a gradual climb at the end near Sign 12.

Out of the woods, the Prairie Trail loops 1.3 miles through some of the park's large acreage of the restored prairie (on both sides of the main park road), planted only 25 years ago and maintained each year. The flat gravel trail skirts around the edges of the prairie past a few prominent aspen trees. The trail heads south and curves around near the group camping area.

Continuing to travel east on that trail you'll eventually see a sign reading "Trail to Beach" which can be followed to intersect with the Bluebird Trail. While not a strenuous trail, the .3 mi grassy Bluebird Trail is a quick circle worth checking out for the thick beech trees, a grove of aspen, occasional white cedar, and some otherworldly birch trees that look almost fictitious.

Beyond the large lot near the beach area, find a somewhat secluded boardwalk that takes you out into a cattail marsh with a glass-like stream running through it. You're bound to see waterfowl and the tranquility you'll be inundated with is wonderful. Bring those binoculars and that thick Sibley Guide to Birds book. Cross the bridge near the Pet Swim Area to catch the primitive Oak Knoll Trail which starts off thick in the woods close to the wetland. Keep in mind, this .4-mile trail may be quite muddy after rain. Press through the brush past a family of intriguing oaks until a clearing emerges with west views of the wetlands. The trail then bends north and heads south towards a hidden picnic spot just north of a small parking lot, with two hefty oaks as your chaperones above as you grill out. Further south, the Williams Knoll is a remote picnic area hidden in the woods at the top of the hill south of the Pet Parking Lot.

Lake Kegonsa is a water recreation hot spot, with plenty of healthy fishing happening in nearly every corner of the lake. The lake itself is mostly mucky out in the center where the maximum depth stretches to only about 32 feet, with gravel and sandy shallow areas nearer to shore. Try your luck for a Northern Pike or a Small Mouth bass. 

While there's not really a designated swimming area, you can surely relax on a small, sandy beach with changing areas, a vending machine, and flush toilets nearby, or have a picnic under a canopy of shady oaks near the adjacent playground. Nearby and a little east of the main beach is a pet swim and pet picnic area as well. Throughout Lake Kegonsa State Park are horseshoe pits, sandy volleyball courts, and a baseball diamond near the Group Camping area. Sporting equipment can be rented for free ($5 refundable deposit) from the park office.

Have a kayak or canoe? Lock it up near the park's boat launch on a designated rack to save time running to and from your campsite. The boat launch area itself has plenty of parking for trailers with two slips for launching and is close to off-shore fishing spots, a small pier, and plenty of shaded picnic areas. There's also a larger fishing pier near the main picnic area and beach. Don't have a watercraft? Canoes, kayaks, and more can be rented from local vendors throughout the lake including Crown Point Resort.

Departing close to dusk (like pictured above when the sun finally came out) and paddling south towards the eastern, house-less side of the lake and slowly drifting along the quiet shoreline in clear shallow water is a solid way to end a day. While it may seem like a possibility, due to fallen debris, the wetland east of the boardwalk is inaccessible for watercraft. Be very cautious if you decide to paddle through the Dane Co. Locks east on the Yahara River as there are small rapids and a swift current.

Lake Kegonsa is open year-round with plenty of winter activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing with groomed trails, and even a steep sledding hill by the Upper Picnic Area. So get there and enjoy this under-the-radar park. Spend a weekend or a day having a blast, hopefully under some bluer skies!


Updated 6/28/20