Park Binge: Meadow Ridge Park
Exploring the marshes and the 'burbs, all in one strange package.
In Park Binge, Tone Madison will highlight some of Madison's finest patches of public space. Got a favorite park we should include? Let us know.
When researching where Park Binge should go next, I thought it best to explore the outer edge of the city by finding a park full of beautiful landscapes and outdoor scenery. While Meadow Ridge Park, located just south of Cherokee Marsh, offers these things, it is hard to shake its abundance of obstructions. This park is tightly confined on almost every side by private property, making for lots of abrupt jump cuts from nature to suburban development. The major exception is along its northern edge, bordering Cherokee Marsh.
Meadow Ridge's physical park amenities, such as a playground and basketball court, are inches away from a pristine subdivision. Upon arriving at this section of the park, it's instantly clear that the park offers more than just these playful constructs. A special Conversation Park section comes outfitted with winding trails, open land, and native plants and animal management. Some of these trails lead through a hilly, wooded enclave heading northwest out of the residential area. These trails bleed into the Mendota Unit of the Cherokee Marsh, which is a small percentage of this massive, damp section of land on the north side of Madison.
Some of the trails lead through the open clearing and curve around fields of tall grass, weeds, and wildflowers of many varieties. I was even able to spot a group of four deer who saw me first and galloped through the clearings. The recent spate of flooding in Dane County has left this area pretty damp. Nearby is a small pond, but when following the loose trails through the open clearing, a visitor will experience a recurring theme of this park: Trying to get closer to the water only gets you closer to someone's backyard. Try turning around and taking a different route to get to this small body of water, and you will most definitely be met with another backyard. Upon this discovery, I found myself heading to the more wooded and hilly trails of the park.
Following the trail through the Cherokee Marsh is another way to try and wrap your head around the angles and division of Meadow Ridge Park. A user-submitted photo on Google Maps clearly shows access to Lake Mendota. As the Mendota Unit of the marsh meets this body of water, one finds multiple dead ends trying to access the lake. As I trudged deeper into the marsh trail, the possibility of reaching Lake Mendota dwindled as walking off the trail and into murky swamp water, something I do not recommend, was not on my to-do list. Hoping that the end of the trail would provide access to the lake, I headed on, but the end of the Cherokee Marsh trail spits you out in a secluded suburb with multiple lakefront houses.
When I asked a resident if there was public lake access, they said no—this area of the lake is only private docks. Feeling defeated, I head back to my car and hoped to find another route. While I ended up driving in a circle (again), I ran into another resident who let me know that public boat and fishing access was just 40 yards up. I followed the directions and was greeted with an odd sight. An opening, likely 10 feet wide and almost 100 feet long, sporting signs that said both "Private Lands Ahead" and "Public Fishing Grounds," was tucked between two massive lakefront homes, private docks and all. Due to the flooding, the access to the lake was a lot closer to the opening than normal, and I decided to not venture too far forward. The opening was hardly wide enough to fit a boat through and, like most of the lakefront access in Madison, the damage of flooding will likely take some time to restore it to its normal state. Once my shoes started to take on water, I headed back to the car.
As I circled this suburb, park, and "public fishing," I couldn't shake the thought of public access. How is it that so much of one lakefront can be privately owned? As I was equipped with my phone, a camera, a loose directional knowledge, and a few ounces of wanderlust, I became increasingly frustrated with the incomplete nature of access this park offers. Maybe our record-breaking flooding was part of that problem. Some of the trail led off into murky water, and we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy the lakefront for now as the future grows dreary. The frustrations of Meadow Ridge Park could have something to do with the ongoing battle between private boat owners in the city and people wanting to preserve and actually enjoy access to the water. Regardless of the cause, I believe that anyone with the desire to visit a public park should be able to explore the land to the fullest, and not be met with persistent land blocks.