Yahara Chain of Lakes, Wisconsin, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - Midwest - Wisconsin - Southern Savanna Region -

Also known as:  Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, Lake Wingra, Lake Kegonsa, Lake Waubesa

When ice leaves the Wisconsin Southern Savannah Region, nature lovers head to Dane County and the Yahara Chain of Lakes. This lovely chain of lakes bisects the capital city of Madison and provides many miles of connected waterways, nature trails, parks, beaches and picnic grounds. Originating from a boggy expanse created by the last period of glaciation, the chain officially begins at Cherokee Lake north of Lake Mendota.

Cherokee Lake is small, with only about 57 surface acres, and is a wide spot in the Yahara River created by human intervention. Around 1850, a dam was built across the outlet of Lake Mendota which raised water levels over five feet, flooding the marshes. In 1960 developers attempted to create dry land from the adjoining marsh areas along the river. Bogs have a tendency to float, however, and soon the developed land broke lose and floated away. The resulting wider spot in the river became Cherokee Lake. The lake and surrounding wetlands are favorites for canoeing, kayaking, birding and nature observation. The shoreline holds parks, including a dog park, and several canoe launching locations. Dane County and conservation groups are attempting to stabilize shoreline bog areas to prevent further wetland loss.

Immediately downstream and forming the northern border of the City of Madison, Lake Mendota covers 9,824 acres. The 22-mile shoreline encompasses farmlands, residential suburban homes and a number of parks. The north shoreline holds Governor Nelson State Park, with a sand swimming beach, several boat launches and over 18 miles of hiking and cross country skiing trails. The big lake, convenient to city lakelubbers, holds rowing clubs, marinas, multiple boat launches, restaurants and watersports facilities. Mendota County Park provides a campground. Sailboat racing has taken place on Lake Mendota since 1839, with races being held by the local yacht club every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday during the boating season. A boat lock is available for a fee at the Tenney Dam above the Yahara River channel to Lake Monona. The stream has been channelized and deepened to accommodate larger boats. The only lighthouse on the Yahara Chain of Lakes is located near the locks, its strobe light used only during storms. Popular with fishermen, Lake Mendota holds walleye, northern pike, muskie, largemouth bass, crappie and smallmouth bass.

Lake Monona is surrounded by the City of Madison and is the most popular recreational lake in the city. With 3,274 acres, Lake Monona was a resort lake in the 1800s, supporting many cottages and resort hotels. About 40% of the shoreline is public lands, and the lake is a favorite for water skiing, jet skiing, tubing, windsurfing and boating. The fishing here is fine, with largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, muskie, bluegill smallmouth bass. A few lake sturgeon still inhabit the lake. Several parks, marinas and watersports businesses share the 13-mile shoreline. The University of Wisconsin-Madison main campus is located on the narrow isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with beautiful Olbrich Botanical Gardens located at Olbrich Park on the east end of the lake. Several large hotels are located along the shore and are a favored spot for conferences, while the parks often host festivals and marathons. On the west end of the lake, small Wingra Creek brings water from Lake Wingra. The channel is not passable by boat all the way to Lake Wingra, but a parkway trail along the channel is a favorite among cyclists and hikers.

Compared to other lakes in the Yahara Chain of Lakes, Lake Wingra is rather small at 321 acres. Although the lake adds its flow to Lake Monona, it is not actually a part of the waterway, but is an immensely enjoyable side-trip for any visitor to Madison. There are no fast boats here; no gasoline motors are allowed. There is also no private development along the shoreline. The lakeshore is encompassed by parkland and the grounds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. A swimming beach, boat rentals and miles of nature trails offer a welcome respite from the busy city just on the other side of the trees. Fishing is excellent, with bluegill, panfish, crappie, northern pike, walleye, largemouth bass and muskie in good numbers. A favored tradition in early spring is to gather at the low dam to Wingra Creek to watch migrating muskies leap the dam on their way upstream to Lake Wingra to spawn.

Heading downstream on the Yahara Chain of Lakes, one leaves the City of Madison behind and enters small Mud Lake, a 233-acre wide spot in the river. Upper Mud Lake is a great place for bird watching and is surrounded by wetlands which offer spawning habitat for large numbers of fish. Mud Lake flows directly into Lake Waubesa, a 2,050-acre lake forming the western edge of the town of McFarland. Lake Waubesa has several parks, with Babcock Park and Lake Farms Centennial Park both offering camping facilities. Lake Waubesa was once home to a great many Native Americans; a 1914 survey listed 188 mounds, including effigy mounds, conical mounds, linear mounds and burial sites around Lake Waubesa, many of which have since been destroyed. A public pier is located at McFarland in McDaniel Park. The park is the home of the Waubesa Sailing Club, two pebble beaches and picnic areas. Public slips are available for small sailboats. The lake supports a nice warmwater fishery with muskie, northern pike, bass, walleye and panfish. A short side trip to a day of boating in the area is the short hike to Indian Mound Park near the McFarland Water Tower. Here, a bear-shaped effigy burial mound can be viewed. A mowed path extends from the State-owned Jaegers Canoe Landing. The Babcock Park Lock and Dam control water levels on Lake Monona and Lake Waubesa.

South of Lake Waubesa, the Yahara River travels through Lower Mud Lake, with 193 acres, to Lake Kegonsa. Third-largest in the chain, Lake Kegonsa covers 3,140 acres and is the most residential of the lakes; there is little public land here. LaFollette Dam at the outlet controls water levels. Lake Kegonsa State Park receives plenty of visitors. The LaFollette County Park near the dam provides boat launching facilities as does the Fish Camp Launch at the inlet to the lake. The warmwater fishery features bass, perch, walleye, largemouth bass and bluegills. A private facility rents small boats near the inlet. The lake is popular for water skiing, boating and sailing. A few of the old resort camps are still in business and provide lodgings along the water. Other lodgings are available along the chain suitable for nearly any budget, including the campground at Lake Kegonsa State Park. The entire Yahara Chain of Lakes is available to provide plenty of water-based fun to the entire family. And you absolutely must bring the fishing gear!

Things to do at Yahara Chain of Lakes

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Jet Skiing
  • Water Skiing
  • Tubing
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Cross-Country Skiing
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • State Park

Fish species found at Yahara Chain of Lakes

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Bluegill
  • Crappie
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Muskellunge
  • Northern Pike
  • Perch
  • Pike
  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Sturgeon
  • Sunfish
  • Walleye

Yahara Chain of Lakes Photo Gallery

Yahara Chain of Lakes Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed

Water Level Control: Dane County Land & Water Resources Dept.

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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