By Barb Krause | Photography by Lauren Harrigan
The shoreline of Geneva Lake can be considered a living history of sorts, landmarked by grand estates, associations and camps that were established after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 by some of Chicago’s biggest “movers and shakers,” with recognizable last names like Wrigley, Wacker, Selfridge, Seipp and Drake. They were mayors and judges, entrepreneurs, radio personalities, railroad developers and bankers. They were also generous donors and trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, as well as founders of Lake Geneva’s Horticultural Hall, the Lake Geneva Public Library, the Water Safety Patrol and many of our lakeside camp foundations. Their grand mansions on Geneva Lake featured pipe organs, Tiffany domes, fountains, chapels, observation towers and even a windmill.
Geneva Lake’s public shore path is an incredible opportunity to stroll into the past. Hikers are able to see firsthand some of the properties and estates built more than 120 years ago that are a testament to this area’s incredible origins. Although many turn-of-the-century mansions are long gone, several dozen historic buildings still stand along the shoreline, relatively unchanged.
The Shore Path encircles the entire lake, meandering very close to the shoreline, with a slight detour onto neighborhood roads at Trinke Estates on the lake’s southeastern shore. The actual surface of the path varies from property to property — materials include grass, stone, brick, gravel, asphalt and wood planks — and the route passes right through what is idiosyncratically known on Geneva Lake as the “front” yards (lake-facing side) of lakefront homes. The public is asked to stay on the path and be respectful of these otherwise private properties.
In the following pages, we will answer some of the most common questions we’ve been asked about this unique Geneva Lake attraction.
HOW LONG IS IT?
Locals agree to disagree about the answer to this question. This year, a few stickers have popped up for sale in local stores touting different mileage. Several staffers of At The Lake walked the entire path again this past summer, breaking it up into three days’ worth of treks and taking care to track the exact starting and stopping mileage. Various mileage trackers and pedometers were used: brands included Apple, Runkeeper, FitBit and Nike. FitBit and Runkeeper aligned the best. We agreed on an official Geneva Lake shore path length of 21.9 miles. When one of our staffers walked it all in one day in 2014 with a Garmin tracker, she clocked 21.6. And when she did it again in 2020, she clocked 21.9. We measured about 21.91 this time around.
It’s easy to break this walk up. There are several public access points, parking areas and restrooms in the city of Lake Geneva, as well as in the villages of Williams Bay and Fontana. There are also public boat launches at the end of Linn Pier Road and Hillside Road on the lake’s south shore, where you can be dropped off or picked up, and use portable toilets (year-round).
Big Foot Beach State Park also offers parking (day pass required) and restrooms (seasonal). Make sure to plan ahead: the longest stretch without restrooms or any public access is from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, or about 7 miles. In a pinch, you could be picked up at Chapin Road, which is about 3.75 miles from Lake Geneva.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT TO SEE?
The estates along the shore have changed quite a bit, even just in the past five years. Many older homes and cottages have been torn down and replaced with new, usually larger ones, built in their place. Since the last printing of At The Lake’s Shore Path Guide in 2016, three historic estates have been razed: the replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; the Healy estate on the west side of Williams Bay; and Swinghurst, a Victorian-era home that was located next to the Geneva Inn. A new home is currently under construction at Pebble Point, and a new finished home has appeared on the Healy property.
The Swinghurst lot is currently vacant. But its new owner, Carolyn Gable, has recreated her “Expect a Miracle” fence along the Shore Path, to the delight of path ‘regulars.’ Gable formerly owned another mansion on Geneva Bay, and her fence with its inspiring quotes was very popular. She sold that estate five years ago, and the new owners painted over the fence. The fence on the former Swinghurst property was finished this summer, complete with a notebook to sign and a bell to ring.
Glen Arden, located on the southeastern shore, was recently rebuilt to look nearly identical to the original from the outside. Once owned by cartoonist Sidney Smith, the original home had a third-story turret room where Smith created his Andy Gump syndicated series. The restoration carefully preserved the turret and it has been reattached to the new structure. (Visit our online archives to read more about this estate in our Summer 2022 issue.)
Historic homes are not the only Shore Path sites to undergo changes: the Lake Geneva Public Library also recently completed a $1.3 million renovation. New stained-glass dividers separate reading areas that overlook the lake. The dividers feature the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Lake Geneva Tulip windows from the old Lake Geneva Hotel (1912-1969), painstakingly recreated by Gilbertson Stained Glass. In 1894, Mary Sturges donated a house and two adjoining lots to the city to be used as a public library. When the library’s collection outgrew the house, James Dresser, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, was hired to design a new library, which was built in 1954. The recent renovation updated the interior and furnishings, added public restrooms just inside the library’s entrance, and repurposed two lakeside rooms into public meeting spaces.
WHERE IS MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY’S HOUSE? AND OPRAH’S?
At The Lake magazine is officially endorsing the unpopular opinion: Matthew McConaughey does not have a house on Geneva Lake. Sorry readers, it just isn’t true.
The Oprah rumor makes more sense, since she has ties to Chicago. But no, she doesn’t have a house here either.
Lake Geneva does, however, have a history of celebrities and famous residents. One such figure in the early days, Sidney Smith, was the first cartoonist to be offered a million-dollar contract. His creation, “The Gumps,” first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1916. The newspaper sent a statue of the strip’s main character, Andy Gump, to Smith’s Lake Geneva estate. The statue was eventually relocated to Lake Geneva’s Flat Iron Park after Smith died in a car crash in 1935.
The estate Casa del Sueño has had its share of celebrity owners. Lee Phillip Bell and Bill Bell, creators of the soap operas “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless” lived there. (The latter show’s fictional town is named after nearby Genoa City.) Today the estate is owned by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
Another celebrity resident is Thomas Lennon, probably best known for his role in “Reno 911!” as Lieutenant Jim Dangle. You may also recognize him as Joey’s identical hand twin in “Friends.” Lennon is very approachable and has been generous with his local appearances, most notably helping to raise funds for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin at the Lake Geneva Walmart last summer.
Lake Geneva continues to be a popular destination for visitors from all over, so you never know who you might run into.
IS GENEVA LAKE’S SHORE PATH THE ONLY PATH LIKE IT IN THE U.S.?
We have yet to find another lakeshore path that encircles an entire lake, and is free of charge and open to the public. Many lakes offer partial walks of their shoreline. Lake Geneva is sometimes called the “Newport of the West,” and there is a similar path in Newport, Rhode Island. The Cliff Walk meanders between the ocean and Newport’s enormous estates (most of them Stone Manor-sized), but only for a 3.5-mile- long segment. And there’s a 2.8-mile walking path around Green Lake near Seattle, but without famous historic estates.
The Geneva Lake Shore Path, with its 21.9 miles of scenic lake views and historical sight-seeing, is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. It’s a locally treasured attraction and something we hope will still be available to our residents and visitors a century from now.
At The Lake publishes the Geneva Lake Shore Path Guide, a pocket-sized guide with information about 101 historical and contemporary points of interest. Order yours here.
Shore Path 101
Enjoy your own experience on the Geneva Lake Shore Path with these helpful tips:
- The path is open to the public, but the yards, grounds and piers of the private homes and organizations along the path are not.
- To get on and off the path, use public access points, like the lakeshore areas in the city of Lake Geneva and the villages of Williams Bay and Fontana. Entering or exiting via lawns, driveways or other private property is trespassing.
- Dogs are allowed on the path but must be leashed and picked up after.
- Bikes and strollers are not permitted. Many sections of the path are not navigable by wheels of any sort.
- The majority of the Shore Path is not accessible to those with mobility issues. For the smoothest terrain, start at the Lake Geneva Public Library and limit your distance to about a half-mile east or west.
- Bring water, sunscreen and bug spray. Cell phone service can be limited in some areas.