Lake Geneva shoreline walk: free, 21 miles

The path is clear but ever-changing.

Being aware means being alert.

Some surprises remain mysteries.

What sounds like fortune-cookie prophecy are a few observations from walking seven miles between Lake Geneva and Williams Bay at the best time of year, before the air’s nip turns biting.

Surrounding Geneva Lake in Walworth County are millions of dollars of mansions that are occupied only seasonally or occasionally, but anybody can stroll all or a part of the lake’s 21-mile perimeter for an inkling of the good life. There is no cost, outside of tired muscles.

The shoreline path, like the architecture it shadows, is far from uniform. Pavement morphs from brick to jagged concrete, recycled rubber, stone mosaics, dirt and gravel. Stairs and twists lead to ledges, for sale signs, bonfire pits, private beaches, an unstaffed lemonade stand and more.

Nearly off shore is a flapping Chicago Bears flag, one reminder that this is not business as usual in Wisconsin. The route also passes church camps, a treehouse, century-old private retreats and modern manors designed to look old.

The footpath veers over little bridges of stone, wood, iron and even plumbing pipes. For view only is the occasional cable car that transports people and watercraft from steep land to water.

Giant, creaking willows and elms tip precariously toward shore. On the bark of a sturdy maple is an odd and old fungus that looks like an elegant wood carving.

During this in-between time, the bridging of seasons, it’s hard to decide which is more vibrant: the changing leaves of autumn or the still-surviving clusters of begonias, marigolds and hydrangeas. I expect the thick brilliance of hearty mums and cockscombs, but not patches of roselike bushes, near-purple impatiens and potted red geraniums aligned on piers.

After early-morning fog lifts, a water skier in wetsuit whizzes by. More stoic are pairs of fishermen, patiently awaiting the day’s catch of panfish, bass or walleye. Geese and ducks dunk for their breakfast, butts wiggling above water. Flocks fluster and scatter with the arrival of a walker’s shadow.

Gophers and blue jays appear. So do the occasional inquisitive dog and fake owl, each standing watch of property. Signs remind walkers about shoreline path rules: Don’t deviate, dawdle or grab souvenirs. The path is public, but the property is private.

What is lacking are mile markers, to pace the pacing, and clues about who lives here. Rarely are properties identified, and few homeowners materialize at this time of year, even as noon nears.

Guidebooks reveal the historic nature of some buildings – long-ago getaways for Chicago’s Wrigleys, Swifts, Harrises and more – but little reveals contemporary ownership. So what passersby are left with are impressions.

The message is clear when a land owner tightly fences out their part of the walking path, or erects a “private property” notice, but how should the commoner interpret a “go jump in the lake” sign – as an invitation, joke or plea to vamoose? Other occupants situate Adirondack chairs or stone benches near the path, almost as an invitation to rest.

Meant for lingering is a haven of wildflowers, complete with little plaques to identify plants, and a yard brightened by several modern sculptures.

Three words – “best day ever” – are an easy-to-miss personal tribute that is set in stone along the way. The 90-year-old man who presumably uttered those words likely knew the charms of Geneva Lake extended well beyond the glow of summer.

The shoreline path and its many surprises help keep it that way, for everybody.

The Geneva Lake walking path is marked clearly, and local businesses sell pocket guides that describe points of interest. Choices include “Geneva Lake Shore Path Guide” by NEI-Turner Media, $7, atthelakemagazine.com, and “Walk, Talk & Gawk: the Original Map and Guide of the Geneva Lake Shore Path” by Pat Groh and Chris Hawver, $9, walktalkgawk.com.

Here are distances and average walk times: Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, 7 miles, 3 hours; Williams Bay to Fontana, 3.5 miles, 1.5 hours; Fontana to Linn Pier, 5.5 miles, 2 hours; Linn Pier to Big Foot State Park, 3.3 miles, 1.2 hours; Big Foot State Park to Lake Geneva, 2.5 miles, 1 hour.

The time it takes depends upon weather and stride. Use a restroom before beginning a shoreline walk. The steepest stretches of terrain are between Fontana and Big Foot State Park.

Want advice about how long of a hike remains? Ask a local: They are the ones who don’t carry backpacks, water bottles or cameras.

No ground shuttle transports shoreline walkers, so that means walking all 21 miles, backtracking on your path, parking cars at the start and end points of a hike, or arranging a boat ride back to the starting point.

On Sundays this month, “Feet, Seat and Eat” is an option on Lake Geneva Cruiselines. Walk from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, then catch a brunch cruise back to your starting point. The cost is $50. Reservations and being on time are mandatory. Start walking at 8 or 8:30 a.m.; pickup time is 11:45 a.m.

Your reward for walking seven miles is a Champagne brunch of six entrees (including eggs benedict, fruit-topped blintzes and sirloin tips during my ride) and many delicious little desserts. Cruise narration includes Native American lore, lake trivia and Chicago history lessons.

That means learning why Duck Island is only accessible via golf cart, the noble mission of the Lake Geneva Fresh Air Association and how nautical traffic is controlled in Fontana’s harbor.

For more: cruiselakegeneva.com, 262-248-6206. The company also picks up walkers at other times and days this month. Tours continue into November if weather permits, then resume in spring.

If you walk fast and get to Williams Bay early, chill with coffee and a muffin at Tickled Pink, or a full meal at Daddy Maxwell’s Diner.

For more about tourism in the Lake Geneva area: lakegenevawi.com, 800-345-1020.

Events include Oktoberfest, Oct. 6-7, family-oriented events at various Lake Geneva locations; Beer and Spirits Festival, Oct. 27, Grand Geneva Resort; and Holiday Open House, Nov. 10-11, various events and locations.

Answers to the trio of teasers: Duck Island inhabitants must park at Lake Geneva Country Club, then use a golf cart to cross the fairways and get to the island. The Fresh Air Association operates Holiday Home Camp, established in 1887 as a camp for disadvantaged children. The Fontana Harbor has a traffic light posted in the water, to control navigation under a one-way bridge.