Wild turkeys and tame tigers: A (mostly free) day out in Madison

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Normally when we go to Madison, Wisconsin, we head right downtown where hang out on State Street, the Union Terrace, or at the Children’s Museum. But on this visit, the boys had requested a nature walk (Tommy) and a zoo visit (Teddy). Surprisingly enough, we were able to accommodate both of them and have a great time in the bargain.

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We started our day at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Along for the hike were Matt’s sister Becky, brother Mark, and nephew Barry. We arrived at the Visitor’s Center shortly after it opened at 9:30 and were given excellent suggestions and a map by the friendly volunteer working behind the counter. The arboretum has more than20 miles of trails (many of which are open for cross country skiing in the winter) and we had our choice of a variety of different ecosystems to explore. We decided to head where there was shade, as it was already a hot day, and walked into the Gallistel Woods, a large oak forest that has been underplanted with sugar maple, basswood, and beech. It was buggy but pleasant under the canopy of trees. While Teddy hunted for worms and bugs, Tommy regaled his uncle with the plot lines of every Scooby Doo cartoon he’s ever seen. On the return trip, we also walked out onto a boardwalk through a wetland where we hunted frogs and admired the wild iris. We also saw several wild turkeys wandering around (although “wild” seems a misnomer, since they let us walk right up to them). Although at one point we hike up slight slope, which was actually an 800-year-old Native American burial mound, the trail was generally flat and easy for both of the boys.

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I know we’ll be returning to this beautiful place as there are many other things to see at the arboretum, including a native plant garden, which is really a series of eleven gardens representing different plant communities of southern Wisconsin; a children’s garden; a demonstration garden; and varous forests, wetlands, and savannas. Many of the trails are open for cross country skiing in the winter. You can also go on a guided tour.

After a yummy lunch at a nearby restaurant called Pasqual’s (more about that in a separate post later) where Becky’s husband and stepdaughter joined us, we headed to the Henry Vilas Zoo.

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This is a wonderful zoo to visit with young children because, as you can tell from the photos, the enclosures are set up to give visitors a great view of the animals. Although it was quite hot and humid, the shade from the many trees made it as pleasant as was possible. We saw lions, tigers, and a polar bear (who was wisely avoiding the sun and peeked out at us from inside his cool cave). The boys also fed some goats and gawked at an ostrich who was chewing on her fence like she was trying to make a break for it.

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The zoo’s newest feature is the Children’s Zoo, which contains a huge play structure, train, and the Conservation Carousel (which of course my boys had to ride).

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This zoo is clean and nicely landscaped and best of all, admission is completely free. If you don’t feel like paying 75 cents for goat feed, a dollar to ride the carousel, or 51 cents for a souvenir penny, you can get out of there without spending a nickel. And it’s in the middle of a lovely park, right on the shores of Lake Wingra (the arboretum is on the opposing shore, which is why these two outings make for a great day trip).

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Since there was no fee for the arboretum, we could have gone on this entire outing for the cost of the gas it took us to get there.

Full disclosure on this post: Matt planned this entire successful outing. I wouldn’t want him to think that I wasn’t giving him credit!

Reader Responses

5 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Wow, what a zoo. One of the more interactive zoos I’ve seen and a great experience for the children.

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