Since 2002, Madison, Wisconsin, has been an Ironman Triathlon site. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I’m going to have to ask for your forbearance right up front on this one, because I’m going to do a little bragging here. Not too long ago, my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, was named one of the Top 100 Adventure Towns in the nation by National Geographic Magazine. We don’t have any mountains here, or ocean shorelines, or glaciers, or volcanoes or waterfalls. I guess that’s why I’m all the more proud of my little burg for making the list. Because, well, let’s face it: with less raw material to work with, we probably had to work harder than peak-filled Boulder, Colorado, or anyplace in mountainous Montana. We did it on heart alone.

The National Geographic Society says one of the criteria used when choosing the top 100 U.S. towns for adventure was that each had to “offer something for everyone, whether you love hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking, climbing, snowboarding or a little bit of everything.” Which makes me wonder: to qualify as a bona fide “adventure,” must an experience involve some sort of challenging physical activity?

Activity on the isthmus

In many cases, it does. Some of the world’s greatest adventures have bodily risk as a major component: climbing Mount Everest, for instance, or dog sledding to the South Pole or running the Colorado River’s rapids.

In spring, Madisonians like to watch muskies swim up to a small dam to spawn. ©John T. Andrews

While Madison doesn’t sit at the foot of a mountain—in fact, the tallest peak in Wisconsin is Timm’s Hill, at a whopping 1,921 feet—on the shore of an ocean or alongside a major river, the city is the only state capitol in the country located on an isthmus. Squeezed between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona on a narrow strip of land, we do have lots of water activities for adventurous souls. On those two lakes and three others in the city, you can canoe and kayak ($40 for a half-day rental), go sailboating ($70 for a half-day rental), windsurf ($40 for a half-day rental) or take out a paddleboat ($20 for an hour rental).

And just as Madison is often rumored for having the most bookstores per capita as well as the most computers per capita, it’s thought that we just may have more bikes here than cars. In a January 2010 report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s [Gaylord] Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, it was stated “Wisconsin’s extensive network of bicycle trails and scenic country roads helped the state be named No. 2 in the nation for bicycling in 2009 by the League of American Bicyclists.” Madison, in particular, was one of only 10 gold‐level, bicycle‐friendly communities designated by the league.

My kind of (adventure) town

So if opportunity for physical activity is what the National Geographic Society was looking for in its search for “adventure towns,” I can understand why Madison placed on the list.

We have the only sala in the continental United States, a gift from the people of Thailand to the people of Madison. ©John T. Andrews

But my criteria for choosing Madison as a great town for having adventures would be for other reasons. For example, there’s a small dam near St. Mary’s Hospital that muskellunge (our beloved “muskies”) swim up to each spring for spawning. In their wisdom, city visionaries had a little platform built near the dam so folks could watch the muskies jump it every March and April. In Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens, you can go on an international adventure anytime you want. We have one of only four salas located outside of Thailand and the only one in the continental United States (the others are in Germany, Norway and Hawaii). The pavilion was a gift from the people of Thailand to the people of Madison, and it bears the royal seal of the Thai Crown. There are 2,000-year-old turtle and bird effigy mounds on Observatory Hill on the university’s campus; and on any given day, I can walk on over to see the skeleton of a Wisconsin mastodon.

In short, Madison is an adventure town for outdoor enthusiasts that packs a lot into its 69 square miles: 260 parks, 13 beaches, five lakes and hundreds of miles of bike trails within and surrounding the city. According to National Geographic’s write-up, “to put that epic playground into perspective, Madison has one acre of parkland for every 39 residents. The national average? About one acre per 125 residents.”

So while I agree with National Geographic’s selection, I’d have to say it’s for different reasons I’d call my home ground an “adventure town.” But none of them would have to do with training for the Wisconsin Ironman (we were named an official Ironman competition site in 2002) or kayaking five lakes. My reasons for calling my home a place for adventure involve things like watching muskies and walking up to mastodons.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,