Last February, my husband and I were driving around downtown Madison, WI, in search of something fun to do on a chilly winter day. We decided to go grab a hot chocolate and sit by the ice rink at The Edgewater to catch some perfect, sunny views of the lake. As we made our way down the stairs, we suddenly realized that there was a festival going on…right on Lake Mendota! I put two and two together that we had stumbled upon the Frozen Assets Festival, so we took to the ice to enjoy the activities, taking pictures with Bucky, watching an ice-hockey game, and marveling at giant kites soaring in the sky.
As summertime devotee, I was genuinely surprised at how much fun we had that day, even though it was hovering just around 10 degrees. It goes to show that Madison knows how to have some fun in the chilly depths of winter, and the frozen lakes are the perfect locations to do just that.
Read on for activities you and your family can do on the frozen lakes, along with hotels and warming eats that rest right along the edges of each lake.
How to Get On, Walk On and Stay Near the Frozen Lakes
Walk on out
Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are both idyllic frozen-over locales for partaking in some wintertime diversions. The lakes are usually completely frozen over by early January, allowing for plenty of activities that can be accessed through entrance points like the Olin Park boat launch, Olbrich Park, Esther Beach Park and Morrison Park for Lake Monona.
For Lake Mendota, easily park and step out onto the frozen lake via the Warner Park Boat Launch and Warner Park Beach, Beach Park in Maple Bluff, Mendota Park Boat Launch, Capital Avenue Street End Park, Merrill Springs Park, Memorial Union Terrace, Raymer’s Cove and Morrison Park.
Make an entire vacation out of these frozen delights by booking a stay at a hotel that’s directly on the water, making it easy to walk out the door and head to the ice.
Hotels & BnBs with Easy Lake Access
- The Edgewater - As the name implies, the Edgewater is a hotel that’s on the edge of the waters of Lake Mendota, with views that overlook the lake along with an ice-skating rink with accompanying warming house. In addition to accommodations, the Edgewater offers delicious gourmet eats at The Statehouse, with lakeside views that can’t be beat. A short walk from the Edgewater is the Wisconsin Union on Lake Mendota. Try this spot for laid-back eateries, including the historic Der Rathskeller for tasty pub grub and cozy ambiance.
- The Livingston Inn - For another Mendota lake-edge experience that’ll be sure to make your stay a quaint one, grab a cozy room at this historic BnB.
- Hilton Madison Monona Terrace - This gorgeous space peers over Lake Monona and is connected to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic design, the lake-front Monona Terrace. After trekking from the terrace, try Sardine for culinary delights with French flair. Or, if you’re looking for a casual meal, especially after a long day of ice hiking, go to German tavern Essen Haus for a pint of lager, right across from Lake Monona.
- Hotel Ruby Marie - For a bed and breakfast experience that’s mere steps from Lake Monona’s shores and the famed Lake Loop path, stay at Hotel Ruby Marie, which originally opened in 1873 and brims with Victorian charm.
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Madison, Hotel Monona, and Sheraton Madison - Don’t forget these stays, which are within walking distance of Lake Monona and Olin Park, with a quick jaunt down the Monona Lake Loop bike path.
- AmericInn by Wyndham Madison South and Avid Hotel - Based in Monona, these stays give you easy access to the Yahara River, which flows through and into Lake Monona. While you’re out exploring the frozen Yahara River, you’ll find countless adventures along the way. Like the riverside Monona Ice Rink complete with skate rentals, where you can also stop for a meal at the tasty Buck and Honey’s.
Icy Activities on the Frozen Lakes
Snow offers lots of things to do throughout winter, but we think ice is a whole new way to make the most of the season! With the crisp wind blowing against your face and an icy landscape set against a bright blue sky, it’s simply exhilarating to hike across the lake, pull together a pick-up ice hockey game, or even do some fat-tire biking.
To get that adrenaline pumping, hike from edge-to-edge of either lake or rent a fat tire bike (conveniently, Machinery Row Bicycles is on Lake Monona and offers fat-tire rentals). Or do as Joni Mitchell did in 1976 on Lake Mendota and do some ice skating. As an activity that family members of all ages can do, you can rent through Madison Parks and take to the lake or stay inland if you prefer a skate on the frozen lagoon at Tenney Park.
For a peaceful frozen-lake experience, there are always breathtaking views to appreciate while walking the ice, from the skyline to the Monona Terrace. Or you can watch the lake’s famous ice boats — just one of the many activities going on, on the lakes -- with wind-propelled sails that can make them go up to 100 miles per hour. (If the conditions for smooth ice are just right, of course!)
Events On the Frozen Lakes
Frozen Assets Festival
There are two must-visit events to catch on Madison’s frozen lakes. The first is the aforementioned Frozen Assets Festival (Feb. 4–5, 2023), put on by the Clean Lakes Alliance. Right in front of The Edgewater and on frozen Lake Mendota, you and your family will enjoy free activities, including a viewing of Madison’s most famous ice boat, the Mary B., watch colorful kites overhead, take part in snowshoeing, see figure-skating demonstrations, and you can even sign up for the Frozen Assets 5K, America’s only 5K run/walk race on a frozen lake.
Then there’s the Winter Carnival put on by the Memorial Union February 6-11, 2023.
The carnival has free snowshoe rentals, mini golfing on the ice, complimentary hot chocolate, a fishing derby, and perhaps one of the most well-known wintertime monuments here in Madison—“Lady Liberty,” a Statue of Liberty emerging from Lake Mendota that you can view during the carnival. In 1979, it was originally started as a student prank, but today, it’s an impressive art installation you won’t see anywhere else.
Safety First! (Fashion second)
When it comes to safety while traversing the frozen lakes, keep in mind that while the lakes are typically frozen in early January, local officials warn that to accommodate something as heavy as a vehicle, people should wait a couple of weeks after the first freezing. Generally, a minimum thickness of four or five inches is required for walking, and it can help if you wear ice traction on your shoes to provide a bit of extra grip. Otherwise, the layer of snow provides traction as well.
Where to shop for outdoor apparel
Speaking of layers, don’t forget to relish in winter fashion and pick up all your winter gear needs at local outdoor wear retailers nearby such as Fontana Sports Specialities and Fjallraven (near State Street), Rutabaga Outdoor Adventures (near the Yahara River) and Hive of Madison, located on the shopping hub of Monroe Street.
To enjoy Madison winters to their very fullest, head out to the frozen lakes for a one-of-a-kind seasonal experience you’ll never forget.