The Locale: Bender Park (Fitzsimmons and Oakwood Cliff Hiking Trails) and Lake Vista Park in Oak Creek, WI.
Reasons to Love: Bender and Lake Vista Parks are my favorite lesser known spots in all of Milwaukee! Its trails give you a great mixture of lake views, prairie walks, and secluded wooded retreats. Every time I go to Bender I discover something new: old foundations and fences from previous use of the land, hidden ponds, and cool wildlife. Plus, if you head off the beaten path, you very rarely come across other people but you’ll usually rustle up a deer or two. Both parks have very accessible trails to enjoy the best views or more rough, single dirt track paths you can explore.
- Fees: Completely free!
- Mileage: up to 4 miles of trails to choose from with several loop options
- Accessibility: The main trail at Lake Vista is paved while the lake shore portion only of Bender is paved.
- Terrain: the trail down to the lake at Lake Vista is steep but paved, at Bender the trails are more mixed. The top trail along the cliffs is flat and fairly hard-packed, but not wheelchair accessible. The wooded trails are more rugged.
- Pet Friendly: Dogs allowed on leash
- Bathrooms: seasonal restrooms at the beach in Bender Park and at the pavilion in Lake Vista.
Maps and Parking: There are a couple great options for visiting these parks! Parking at Lake Vista is only in the two lots when you enter the park. Park here if you want a quick stroll, easy lake access, or to have a picnic. If you want to get in a couple miles or some non-paved trails, I recommend parking at the top lot at Bender, which is a big gravel lot you will see on the left just before you would head down to the Bender Park beach area. The beach area has a nice, big paved lot but for hiking you’d have to climb the huge bluff. There is also free parking on the road at the end of the dead ends of E. Fitzsimmons Road and E. Oakwood Road which aren’t marked on the official map. But these are small and if you aren’t naturally gifted at navigation, it could be more of a challenge to find your way back once you’re in the trails!
Hiking Routes: There are quite a few hiking options at this park! You can put in a couple miles, take on the hills, or meander through the prairies and woods. Below I’ll outline two of my favorite routes, one which is a nice casual stroll that’s easy for beginners and very accessible and another that is a little more adventurous.
Option 1: For a leisurely stroll, start at the gravel lot (the big P at the top middle of the map) and take the trail at the far side (east) to the road. Cross over to the field where there is a nice wide mowed trail that follows the cliff along the lake (the words “Conservation Area” are over this trail on the map). You’ll get amazing views of the lake and be able to watch all the activity down at the boat launch. Stay on the wide, grassy trail within sight of the lake. Eventually, you’ll hit the old remnants of E. Fitzsimmons Road, which is literally crumbling off the cliff. You can turn around here or continue following the grassy trail along the lake to E. Oakwood Road. If you look at the map, you’ll see dark and light green areas. So long as you stay in the light green area, which is open and grassy, there’s no chance of getting lost. You will eventually just turn around and head back the way you came.
Option 2: For the more adventurous route, start the same way but when you go to turn around at E. Oakwood, take the side trails within the dark green zones of the map back. These take you through the woods and there are way more than what is shown on the map! The ones on the map are well kept up and still pretty wide, so you won’t get too turned around. They all eventually will spit you back out into the light green grassy areas and lake views so you can get your bearings. But if you’re like me, you’ll want to explore all the little single-track dirt paths too! Those lead you to the really cool spots where most of the wildlife hides and to a couple secret ponds and prairies! It’s very fun to explore, but be sure to give yourself plenty of time to meander your way back out! And I’d recommend wearing boots or throwaway shoes because it is often a quite muddy on these back tracks.
Trail Condition Alerts: Head over to the Milwaukee County Parks website for potential updates to trail conditions and closures.
Other Recreation Opportunities: Bender Park has a boat launch for all sorts of water activities. Biking is prohibited on the trail at Lake Vista but allowed at Bender heading down to the lake. The parks are both a great place for kite flying, with lots of updrafts off the lake on the cliffs! There are also reserveable picnic areas at both Bender and Lake Vista and a large playground at Lake Vista.
Make a Day of It: One thing I always suggest to anyone visiting this park is to stop at Victor’s Again for some great Mexican food! It is a little bar on 5th Avenue just north of the park and is totally unassuming. Not the kind of place you pass by and think “I could go for a bite” and stop in at on a whim. But do it. Super cheap food made by a kind old grandma who loves to watch the Brewer’s play with you and bring you endless chips. Or, it is always great to bring a lunch along and hang out at one of the amazing shelters in Lake Vista Park. The shelters have beautiful views of the lake and comfy Adirondack chairs to lounge in. Finally, you can bring some poles and go fishing off the WE Energies fishing pier just to the south. Access is not at Bender Park though, you will have to head out of the park and down to E. Elm Street. Google Maps will take you right to it..