Hikes come in all shapes and sizes. From that Colorado 14er to a boardwalk trail through a marsh, hiking can be whatever you make it. Which is why I present a unique form of hiking today: hiking through rich people’s backyards, legally, of course. If this sounds interesting to you, Lake Geneva’s Shore Path is your next hiking destination.
Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva is a popular tourist town that comes alive in the summer. After seeing the lake, the beauty and popularity of the area is apparent. Why this small Wisconsin town is filled with multimillion dollar mansions was less immediately apparent to me. The reason for this is the close proximity to Chicago. Beginning in the 1800’s, wealthy Chicago residents flocked to the lake to build stately homes after the Great Chicago Fire to escape the period of rebuilding. These homes became summer homes and the idea of Lake Geneva as a summer destination was born. So much so that Lake Geneva earned the nickname, “Newport of the West.”
So now we know why Lake Geneva is full of mansions, but why do we get the opportunity to walk on their lawns? Well, to keep history alive and to keep the lake accessible. Dating back to 2500 BCE, Native American groups used the lakeshore path as a way to travel between villages. Later, the lake shore path was used by workmen to travel to their site of work. Today, the lake shore path stays alive thanks to a local ordinance that requires property owners to maintain and keep the portion of the path that runs through their property open.
In all, the lake shore path is just over 20 miles long as it circles the lake. While it is certainly doable to complete in one day, a 20 mile hike isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time and there are a few options to plan a shorter adventure. You could 1) plan an “out and back” hike or 2) leave a second vehicle at your desired end point. We did option number two.
When planning your hike, I recommend using the wonderful map put out by Visit Lake Geneva, which is complete with access points and distances between them. Find it here. We hiked the portion between Linn Road and Fontana, or F to D on the map, 5.6 miles.
If you plan to do the double car method, I recommend getting there early as parking can be very limited around the lake.
Overall the path is well marked and this is intentionally done to ensure proper use of the path. Earlier I said you were hiking through rich people’s backyards, this isn’t entirely true. You’re hiking on the shore path, which runs through rich people’s back yards. Hikers should stick to the path at all times.
Have you ever done a tour of celebrity homes in Hollywood? If you have, you will probably remember the feeling of being a gawker. This is a little like that. It felt weird at first to be looking at and sometimes taking pictures of other people’s homes. After a while, though, I became shameless.
As the name suggests, the shore path hugs the shore of Lake Geneva. This means for almost the entire walk, you have lake views on one side and land views on the other. In addition to admiring big, stately houses, you can also admire docks and boats.
While property owners are required to keep their section of the path maintained and open, there is no standard for what that means. This results in a hodgepodge of different trail types and levels of effort. Here are a few examples:
This portion of the path is rock.
The portion of the path brick and wood. The path gets quite close to homes at times.
This portion is stone. I loved the jungle feel of this section of path.
See what I mean about different levels of effort? The path is maintained here, but this homeowner didn’t go above and beyond like some neighbors. (Which is fine!)
Some sections of the path cross steams and wet areas. Bridges help hikers span the water in these sections.
I don’t know what I expected but I did not expect the change in elevation the path takes. This section was made of small stairs, but some sections contain quite a number of stairs or larger hills.
So many boats!
Okay, now let’s admire some gorgeous homes.
In addition to regular land homes, you can also admire some pretty swanky looking boathouses. You know, homes for the boats to live in!
A very American summer photo (minus the backwards flag, I suppose.)
While the vast majority of the homes are actual lived in places, some are not.
Black Point Estate is a registered Wisconsin Historical site and one of the few mansions on the lake open for public tour. This home was built in 1888 for Chicago Beer Baron, Conrad Seipp. This 20 room Queen Anne style home contains examples of period architecture and furniture. Want to take the tour? As part of the tour admission, guests are shuttled to the home via a 45 minute scenic boat tour. How cool is that?
This photo sums up a lot of the shore path experience: homes and lawn on one side, boats and lake on the other. So pretty.
I HIGHLY recommend the lake shore path if you’re in the area. Whether you like hiking or just going for walks, it’s a unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else. I know I’ll be back, after all, I only saw 1/4 of the homes!