Picnic Point, a nearly mile-long peninsula along Lake Mendota’s south shore, is among Madison’s most distinctive features and is probably the most popular destination in the Preserve. Each year thousands of students and Madisonians visit the Point for outings. In a hectic world of university life or city living, it’s nice to know that this natural area is just a short distance from where you live.
Sweeping views, fertile soils, and easy access to marshes and bays rich with wildlife has made the Picnic Point area an attractive destination-for at least 12,000 years. Recent archaeological surveys have uncovered evidence of ancient habitations throughout this part of the Preserve.
Several farms were established on the Point following European-American settlement in the early 19th century. A farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings were built near the northeast corner of what is today Bill’s Woods. The farm house was sited on a small rise with a commanding view of the bay to the southeast.
During the early 1900s, the Picnic Point farm fields were being rented out to tenant farmers and the farm house was occupied by several families not primarily engaged in farming-including Professor William W. Daniells, the first superintendent of the University Farms.
Edward Young, a prosperous Madison lumberman and entrepreneur, purchased the property in 1924 and set about a major renovation of the old farm house. Around this time the barn was removed and a stable for the family’s horses was constructed. The Young family moved into the farm house—which had become a rambling 15-room mansion—in 1927.
Young loved to work on the Point when his busy schedule allowed. He was often found working alongside his hired hands in the large apple orchard he planted, building a network of bridle paths (now our walking paths) or constructing the distinctive stone entrance gateway.
Sadly, the Young residence burned in a spectacular fire in 1935. All that remains from the house today is the brick path that once led up to the house-now barely visible beneath the leaves and undergrowth.
After the fire, the Young family moved into a new home in Shorewood Hills and eventually sold their Picnic Point property to the university in 1941. Interestingly, the property sale between Young and the university included a land swap. The university traded 33.5 acres of Eagle Heights and the lakeshore west of Raymer’s Cove—along with a cash payment of $230,000—for the 129-acre Picnic Point property. It would be several decades later before the university could reacquire this land from the Young family. Today, these parcels—Wally Bauman Woods and Eagle Heights Woods—are integral to the western end of the Preserve.
To learn more about the human history of Picnic Point:
Visit the Native Americans and the Preserve page which includes a list of recent archaeological reports detailing UW-Madison sites.
Read a newspaper article about the disastrous fire that destroyed the Youngs’ farm house. “Fire Razes Young Picnic Pt. Home,” Capital Times, Sept 5, 1935
View a plan for residential building sites on Picnic Point—laid out by the prominent urban planning firm of Hegemann and Peets in 1922. None of these sites was ever developed. The north-to-south road on the left margin of the plat is Lake Mendota Drive. See a large version of the Plat Map of Picnic Point, 1922. Original in Possession of Facilities Planning and Management.
Read a magazine article describing Picnic Point history and recreational opportunities in the early years of university ownership. “Like a Beckoning Finger.” Wisconsin Alumnus. 49.8 (May, 1948): 19
Read about the archaeological research that has identified the locations of ancient Native American sites. “2004 Archaeological Investigations on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Campus, City of Madison, Dane County Wisconsin,” George Christiansen III, Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center, 2005
Read a historical overview of Picnic Point written by Tom Brock, longtime Friend of the Preserve and well-know local historian: Thomas D. Brock, “History of Picnic Point,” FCNA News, 3:2 (Spring 2004), 3-4
Read a magazine article about the history of Picnic Point. “Sacred Ground.” On Wisconsin. Spring 2016, Volume 117, Number 1, p.22-27
Like many places in the Preserve, Picnic Point has been the subject of ecological and historical research. In the early 1970s, the University Bay Project sponsored a number of ecological and landscape history research studies. Graduate students Richard McCabe and Stefanie Carpenter (now S. Brouwer) co-authored the manuscript, a “Niche in Time,” which provides an excellent overview of the biological and cultural attributes of Picnic Point and the surrounding area. The unpublished text is available in the UW Archives at Steenbock Memorial Library.
The opportunity to observe birdlife in the woods and fields of the Point and out across University Bay makes this area a favorite destination for birdwatchers. Roma Lenehan (an avid birder and indefatigable volunteer with the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve) has produced an excellent checklist of bird species that have been observed in the Preserve at Picnic Point and elsewhere. Her Preserve bird overview and bird checklist is on this website, and additional results of her work can be studied on the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve website.
A 6-acre wetland, Picnic Point Marsh, (formerly called the “Beaver Pond”) can be accessed along the north side of the Picnic Point peninsula, just off of the Lake Mendota Lakeshore Path. This area is also a particularly good spot for bird watching.
Learn more about the Natural History of Picnic Point:
Read Richard McCabe’s final report detailing the many research activities undertaken by the University Bay Project, 1972-1976. Report to the Graduate School and The Class of 1922, University of Wisconsin.
Visiting and Recreation
Picnic Point is a wonderful quick getaway from the bustle of campus life. Boating, hiking, and quiet contemplative strolling are popular activities.
Since the earliest years of European settlement in the region, Picnic Point (originally called Gooseberry Point) has been a destination for recreational outings. By 1865, there was even regular ferry service from the Madison isthmus to the Point, where a visitor could enjoy a refreshing alcoholic beverage at a conveniently located dance hall!
Although Picnic Point was owned privately until 1941, students and Madisonians have long treated the property as if it were a public park. Not a few visitors who ventured out to the Point for picnics, camping, and boating trips were chased away by the resident cows.
Although they were technically trespassing, student visitors to Picnic Point in the 1920-30s were generally tolerated by the Young family—the owners of the property at the time. Edward Young did employ a caretaker to keep an eye on things—and run off students who remained after sunset. In this humorous 1937 bird’s-eye view of campus activities (detail below), look closely and you will note a shotgun-wielding caretaker chasing away students who are furiously swimming away from the Point! We doubt this ever really happened…
One last note about “recreational” opportunities: Picnic Point has a long-and well earned reputation as a romantic getaway. Many visitors tell us about marriage proposals inspired by a stroll out to the end of the Point. As further proof of the Point’s romantic magic, on February 9, 1992 the San Francisco Examiner (in a scientific study, no doubt!) did a survey of the ten best places to kiss in the world, and announced that Picnic Point “may just be the kissing-est spot in North America.” It said that for more than a century, “thousands of couples have found themselves in each other’s arms…at the tip of the peninsula, where the kissing tradition was born.” Visitors may wish to plan accordingly.
Learn more about Recreational activities on Picnic Point:
Read a newspaper story about the commercial sailing yacht St. Louis which made regular excursion trips to “Pic Nic Point” in 1865. “A Trip on the St. Louis,” Wisconsin State Journal, August 2, 1865 (.pdf)
Read about one of the top ten places to kiss-in the world! “Romance on the Road: 10 Great Places to Kiss,” Joy Schalben, San Francisco Examiner, Feb. 9, 1992
Getting to Picnic Point is easy: hop on your bike, grab a bus, or jog on over!
Campus bus #80 makes regular stops across from the entry gate of Picnic Point on University Bay Drive.
Take the Lakeshore Path from Oxford Road (west end of path) or Park Street (east end of the path) to the Picnic Point entry. Park your bike at the racks next to Lot 129.
In addition to the main path out to the tip of the Point, there are several easy walking paths throughout this area—both gravel and paved. You may encounter the occasional work vehicle on service drives used by groundskeepers and others conducting research in the Preserve.
Visiting the Point by canoe or sailboat has long been a popular adventure. The Narrows, midway on the peninsula, is a convenient landing and portage spot. Canoes can be rented from Memorial Union’s Outdoor Rentals program.
Text: The unpublished manuscript, A Niche in Time, co-authored by Richard McCabe and Stefanie Carpenter (now S. Brouwer), as well as other material produced by the University Bay Project, provided valuable references and insights used in the preparation of this article. These materials are available for review at the university archives at Steenbock Memorial Library.