Walking in History’s Footsteps

By Barb Howell | Photography by Holly Leitner

The Geneva Lake Shore Path, especially when the weather begins to warm and the smell of freshly cut grass hangs in the air, has a timeless feel about it. Along the water’s edge, its landmarks, whether a familiar footbridge, limestone walkway or hundred-year-old-oak greet those who pass year after year.

For generations, as springtime emerges, hikers begin to reappear on the path. On one side, Geneva Lake’s crystal clear waters shimmer in the sunshine; on the other, manicured lawns and gardens meet stately mansions and lake homes.

There are those who are in deep thought, hiking to find solitude and peace. Others walk in groups and are in animated conversation as their voices echo across the lake. But all seem to understand one thing: this ancient path is a window to the past. Some stop for a moment to reflect, some perhaps to consider who came before them on this journey around the lake.

It’s believed as early as 2500 BC, the lakeside path was used by Native American tribes. The Potawatomi, who, until 1836, lived along Geneva Lake — then known as Kishwauketoe, traversed the path from their villages near present-day Fontana, Williams Bay and Lake Geneva. The shoreline of Geneva Lake, however, soon began to change after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The grand and historic estates, some of which still stand, were built by some of the most influential Chicago families, and the shore path became the route used by those working at these “summer cottages.”

As remarkable as it seems, early settlers recognized the importance of this age-old trail and persevered to ensure the shoreline would be accessible to all. Over the years, many landowners have chosen to maintain the path through their properties to guarantee hikers have a clear walkway and vistas of unmatched beauty.

The Path’s 21.5 miles takes most eight to 10 hours to walk, but many have favorite segments that don’t require as much commitment of time and energy — Lake Geneva to Chapin Road, Williams Bay to Fontana, Shadow Lane to Big Foot Beach, or places in between. Whatever portion they choose, hikers recognize the rare nature of this public access lakeshore path that is centuries-old, yet discovered anew each spring.

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