Hiking Through History: The Geneva Lake Walking Path

Sometimes a concrete sidewalk, sometimes limestone, sometimes just dirt and grass, the 21-mile Geneva Lake walking path offers vistas of century-old mansions along the shoreline of one of the great blue lakes of the world.

While the Geneva Lake walking path has been compared to the Cliff Walk in Newport, R.I., it’s best to forget the comparisons and enjoy it simply for what it is: a remarkable opportunity for the public to have up-close access to a stunning lake of great natural beauty and some of the most lovely mansions in the Midwest.

Created by Native Americans, the path can be walked in its entirety in a day, or eight hours if you’re a power walker. For us mere mortals, though, circumnavigating Geneva Lake will take 10 to 14 hours, and it’s not just a walk in the park, but a hike that’s filled with ups and downs and varied terrain. (Note: The North Side of the lake is more populated, while the South Side is less developed and offers access to Big Foot Beach State Park).

If you want to sample the path without committing to a full 21 miles, a good choice is to start with the 6.5-mile length between downtown Lake Geneva and Williams Bay. The sidewalk promenade that runs along the lake in downtown Lake Geneva becomes the walking path as you follow it along.

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With the Lake Geneva-Williams Bay trek, you’ll get to see the lake’s oldest mansions, which were built on the North Side to take advantage of the natural cooling effects of the prevailing southwest winds. And the homes aren’t the only fabulous parts of your tour—the landscaping can be just as spectacular. Some of the original homeowners retained a staff of gardeners and hired professional landscape designers such as Olaf Benson, a landscape architect for the City of Chicago, Jens Jensen, who designed Humboldt Park, and the Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture.

Before you get started, plan how you’ll get home. For the 6.5-mile hike, you’ve got two good options. You can drive a car to Williams Bay and park it, then ride back to your starting point (works if you have two cars at your disposal). Or, you can plan to call the Lake Geneva Cruise Line after arriving in Williams Bay and ask their water taxi pick you up. (You can also wait for the regular cruise boat to come by, but call first so they know you want to be picked up).

You’ll also want to pick up a copy of a lakefront path guide. Some good ones include:

Lake Geneva: The History and the Mystery, a booklet that guides readers on a three-mile walk along the prestigious north shore of the path, including histories of the opulent estates of the rich and famous that line the shores, and a scavenger hunt to keep you and your companions entertained along the way.

Touring the Geneva Lake Shore Path is a map and guide that includes six separate walks, ranging from 1.5 to 6.3 miles. It’s indispensible for its gorgeous photography and lists of points of interest, history, distance, path conditions and public access information.

Walk, Gawk and Talk features individual sheets narrating segments of the walk. These publications can be found at the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce, 201 Wrigley Dr., 262-248-4416.

The rules? No bikes are allowed; this path is strictly for walking. Strollers are not encouraged, due to the varied terrain, so you’ll want to leave the little ones at home for this hike. Keep moving; you’re not allowed to spread out a blanket on someone’s lawn and eat a picnic. But, if there is a bench installed near the path, as some homeowners have done, you are welcome to use it. The only amenities (restrooms, restaurants) are in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana, and near Linn Pier on the South Side. In other words, use the bathroom right before you leave, and carry snacks and water.

At the end of your hike, take a load off at Harpoon Willies in Williams Bay (10 E. Geneva St.; 262-245-6906), where you can grab a Geneva Street Burger, topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, grilled onions and Harpoon sauce ($8.25) and enjoy the view from the screened-in porch, located directly across from the lake.

If You Go: The first and only of the lake’s mansions to be open for public tours is Black Point. Three years ago, after it was gifted by a descendent of the original owner, Chicago beer magnate William Seipp, the State of Wisconsin began offering tours twice daily. Black Point is one of the finest surviving examples of great summer homes in the Midwest, and it’s filled with a spectacular collection of Victorian furniture, original to the home. With 620 feet of Geneva Lake shoreline, eight acres, 13 bedrooms and only one full bath, this Queen Anne-style home is something to behold. You arrive for the tour the same way the original owners would arrive at home‚ by boat.

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