Hiking Amongst the Mansions

By Heidi Schulz, Girls Who Hike Wisconsin Ambassador

Here in southern Wisconsin we don’t have any mountains to climb, but we do have a path the encircles an entire lake, Geneva Lake. The length is arguable, with some claiming it to be 21 miles but others saying up to 26 miles. Library Park in the city of Lake Geneva has a plaque which reads “The 26-mile lakeside trail along the shore of Geneva Lake was used by several Indian cultures from 2500 BC and continuing up to 1836 AD. Chief Big Foot’s Potawatomi tribe walked the trail between their villages at present Fontana, Williams Bay and one at Lake Geneva located in this park. Later the trail became the workmen’s path from Lake Geneva to summer states of wealthy Chicago families.”

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 many Chicago natives make there way up to the area. The Maytags, Sears, Schwinn and the Wrigley’s built glorious homes around the lake where they would spend their summer holidays. Some of the old estates remain with their new owners, but many have been torn down with more modern homes taking their place along the lake. The one thing that has remained is the Lake Shore Path. 

The Lake Shore Path today passes through estates owned by the Wrigley’s, Rockefellers, hedge fund billionaires, summer camps, a country club and golf course and many different neighborhoods. Recently a single-family home set a record selling price of over 11 million dollars. 

The trail is 2 foot wide single track footpath that varies from cement, brick, wood, stepping stones, gravel, grassy, hilly and some wooded sections. It’s a trail of unique character where some property owners have places benches to rest or have water out for your dogs. There are signs and colorful artwork to see along the way, a mailbox where you can sign in and leave a message. And plenty of amazing homes that leave you wondering what they look like inside. 

I have spent a lot of time hiking segments of the path and 2 years ago on a rainy, muddy, cold, windy Easter day my daughter and I braved the elements to do the entire path. Lets just say her track coach was not happy about her sore legs the following week! This past winter a small group of us decided we were going to hike segments of the path in preparation of a big hike around the entire path one day this year. 

On January 20 a group of seven of us set out to do the Williams Bay to Fontana segment, it’s reported to be 3.5 miles long. We did and out and back with a stop in Fontana for lunch. The weather was mild and sunny for a January day, the teenagers had a big lead ahead of us and we didn’t even see much of them on the trail. It was a bit slippery and muddy in spots, and one area where a resident needed to replace some boardwalk almost sent two of us off our feet. All in all it was a fun 7 mile hike.

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One week later on January 27, we were again feeling ambitious and decided to get an early start and hike from Big Foot Beach State Park to Williams Bay. This is a 9 mile segment and we were ambitious enough to shuttle cars so we would only have to hike one way. There was five of us that decided to hike this blustery January day. With our early start the temps were quite cold and windy in the beginning and there were some extremely icy spots on the first 2 mile section. Normally we would never venture off the path into residents yards, but this day we were looking at some sheets of ice on the trail, with nowhere to go but down to the lake on the one side, so we did end up having to avoid some of that. This section also has the largest estate on the lake, Stone Manor.

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Stone Manor is the largest estate ever built on Geneva Lake and probably the most talked about. Otto Young, started building this historic home 1899. The original construction plans for the home were humble and a $150,000 budget was set. Like many dream home builders, Otto continued to make additions to the plans and by the time the home was completed and all of the ornate details were in place the cost was close to $2 million. In total, there are seven levels in this historic estate. Otto Young only enjoyed the home for 5 years before his death, but the mansion remained in the family until 1939 when Young’s granddaughter presented the home and about 8 acres of surrounding land to the Episcopal Church to be used as a private school for girls. Unfortunately, the school failed financially after a few years and financial problems have followed ever since. In the early 1960’s the mansion was taken over by Walworth County for back taxes. A tax auction was held and it was bought by a developer for just $75,000 in back taxes. It changed hands a few times over the years and it was most recently purchased and turned into 6 luxury condominiums where presently one person owns 5 of the 6 units in Stone Manor.

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February rolled into March and we were still needing to do the other half of the lake to complete the entire path. March 25 was a crisp but sunny day and four of us set out to finish this 8.5 mile segment. This side of the lake passes through a country club, a wooded area and later has some great views from high atop some hills. We were able to finish this segment in great time and enjoyed lunch together in Fontana before going our separate ways. 

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Heidi is the Ambassador for our Wisconsin chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the Wisconsin chapter by clicking here.