Governor Nelson State Park

Governor Nelson State Park

Our first trip to Governor Nelson State Park came a day after our visit to Cross Plains State Park. To get from one park to the other, you go through Middleton, Wisconsin. In Middleton is the National Mustard Museum (formerly located in Mount Horeb).

National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin

So we just had to stop in there to see what it’s all about. There’s no entry fee, so as soon as they open the doors at 10:00 (seven days per week), you can go in and browse the store on the main level and the museum downstairs.

Both areas, as you might expect, have everything mustard-related that you could imagine. From the classic to the quirky, if it has anything to do with mustard, you’ll find it there.

After a free tasting of some raspberry honey mustard from Terrapin Ridge Farms, I came away with a 14-ounce jar of the same. We also found a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that showed just about every Wisconsin icon (including the National Mustard Museum, of course) you can think of.

Having made our purchases – and following a stop at the local Kwik Trip to pick up some lunch – we headed to Governor Nelson State Park. (Don’t confuse this park with Nelson Dewey State Park, which is on the Mississippi River near Cassville. Nelson Dewey was Wisconsin’s 1st governor. Gaylord Nelson was its 35th – for most of my youth and teenage years.)

On the Shores of Lake Mendota

There are actually two entrances to the park, though only one is well-marked, as you can see above. The other entrance is almost a mile south of the main entry via Borchers Beach Road. If you ever use that entrance, be aware that it is a cul-de-sac that also provides access to several private lakefront properties.

The park is unusual in that way, as those homeowners actually have to go through the state park to enter and leave their properties. And when you, a park visitor, hike the Woodland Trail, you’re almost walking through some of their backyards.

We used the main entrance and drove all the way to the small parking lot at the end of the road near the boat landing. I guess they expect visitors to catch a lot of fish in Lake Mendota because, right across from where we parked is this fish cleaning table under a nice shelter.

Fish cleaning table

We ate our Kwik Trip lunch at a metal picnic table just to the right (per the above picture) of the fish table. Then we went back towards the car and the head of the Woodland Trail.

Oh, there’s also this anchor near the fish table. I have no idea why it’s there.

Anchor in Governor Nelson State Park

On the official trail map (see below), you’ll notice the designer included directional arrows on each trail. For most trails, the arrows suggest that you walk them clockwise, but a few have the arrows pointing in a counterclockwise direction.

I was confused as to the need for these suggestions when I first saw the map. Having now been on the Woodland Trail, I understand why the arrows are there, but I’m still confused about the directionality.

There are numbered signposts along the Woodland Trail (and I assume similar signs on the other trails) that go from low to high (1 to 12 for the Woodland) if you follow the direction of the map’s arrows. However, there is no real reason to do so! The numbered posts are just…numbers. Sometimes there’s something else in the vicinity of the post – like a bench or informational sign – but not always. So why they even bothered to make these posts, I dunno.

Woodland #1
Woodland #2
Woodland #3
Woodland #4
Woodland #6
Woodland #7
Woodland #9
Woodland #10
Woodland #11
Woodland #12

And yes, #5 and #8 do seem to have gone missing.

What You Can and Can’t See on the Woodland Trail

The Woodland Trail is considered the most difficult of the four trails in the park because it has more challenging hills than the others.

The hills are there, but they’re not challenging at all. The one that leads to a scenic overlook is the biggest, but we didn’t even break a sweat climbing it. And come to think of it, that may have been the only real hill on the trail. Joggers seem to love this trail, so it can’t be all that bad.

There are a few burial mounds along this trail. The first you encounter, assuming you’re hiking the trail in the “correct” order, is the Panther Mound.

Panther Mound sign at Governor Nelson

You take a short detour off the main path which leads you to this gritty informational sign that isn’t much easier to read in person than it is in this picture.

Panther Mound info sign

Just as we found at Lizard Mound State Park, mounds don’t show up well in photographs, so I didn’t get a shot of this panther. But there is a cozy little sheltered bench hidden along the panther path.

Hidden bench on the Panther Trail at Governor Nelson

When you exit the sidetrack, you’ll see you’re at marker #4 (see above).

A few steps later and around a bend in the trail are several conical mounds. There’s no separate path to see them. This sign is just showing you where most of them are.

Conical mounds sign

On the other side of the trail is what may be the largest of them. I took this shot of the mound and kept the picture for you because it showed up better than most. The larger tree at the left is growing out of the top of the mound.

Conical mound at Governor Nelson

Further along the trail is a supposed scenic overlook where the Woodland meets the Oak Savannah trail.

Scenic overlook at Governor Nelson

We think it may have been more scenic before the trees matured. Perhaps you could even see the lake from here at one time.

Park creators definitely intended that you (and many others) spend a little time here taking in the scenery.

Multiple benches at scenic overlook

The friends and fellow employees of Bob Conners considered it a nice enough spot to embed this dedication plaque into a rock atop this overlook.

Bob Conners plaque

On the Shores of Lake Mendota, Part Deux

After completing the 12 stages of the Woodland Trail, we walked down near the lake itself. There we found that you can rent kayaks and boards to take out on the water.

Kayak rental for Lake Mendota

We didn’t.

There are various and sundry informational signs in this area for Chief Woldenberg, Governor Nelson, fish found in the lake, and another rock dedication – this one to William Jansen. (Bill was apparently an avid fisherman.)

Chief Woldenberg plaque
Governor Nelson info sign
Fishes of Lake Mendota
Bill Jansen plaque

You can play sand volleyball on the beach and swim in the lake.

Volleyball net on the beach of Governor Nelson State Park on Lake Mendota

As I hinted at above, you can fish in the lake – from this pier, for example.

Fishing pier on Lake Mendota

Near the beach is a playground for kids young and old.

Playground at Governor Nelson

And here is Lake Mendota itself, first looking north from that fishing pier, then looking south.

Northern Lake Mendota
Southern Lake Mendota

Trails in Summer and Winter

We didn’t hike any of the other trails – Redtail Hawk, Morningside, or Oak Savannah – on this trip. The others mainly go through unforested, open prairie (aka savannah) land.

Governor Nelson State Park has some rather specific rules about using these trails in winter. “In the winter, trails are tracked for diagonal skiers and groomed for skate skiers. Hiking is not allowed when snow conditions are favorable to cross-country skiing.”

I’m not sure how, or if, they enforce that special no-hiking rule. It’s probably on you to be nice to the skiers.

One other item of note – there is no hunting or trapping permitted in the park. The DNR even has a special map explaining that all areas of the park are closed to these activities! (See below.)

So, whether you visit in summer or winter, I think you’ll have a good time at Governor Nelson.


Nearest City

Waunakee or Middleton, Wisconsin (5 miles)

Nearest Emergency Facility

Madison, Wisconsin (9 miles)


6:00 AM to 11:00 PM, year-round


Vehicle admission sticker is required

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