La Crosse County Attractions
Amid the enchantment of majestic bluffs, on the eastern bank of the mighty Mississippi, La Crosse County offers spectacular scenery and endless recreational activities for everyone! Ethnic festivals, national historic sites, contrasting seasons, mouth-watering cuisine, comfortable and plentiful lodging, lively entertainment, fresh air, clean water and unspoiled natural wonders all add to the charm of La Crosse County!
Virtually untouched by the Ice Age glaciers, the La Crosse area's jagged bluffs, coulees and river valleys are as they were at the beginning of time. In 1680, French explorers led by Fr. Louis Hennepin were the first Europeans to view the remarkable convergence of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse Rivers here. In the 1700s French fur traders named the area La Crosse after they saw the Winnebago Indians playing a game with long-handled racquets resembling crosses, similar to the game of lacrosse still in play.
In May 1823, the first stern wheel paddle boat passed through this area taking passengers north to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. In 1879 more than 1600 steamboat dockings occurred in La Crosse, the most of any city north of St. Louis at the time. Today steamboats, paddle-wheelers and excursion yachts still ply the waters of the Mississippi carrying passengers from the port of La Crosse for luncheon, dinner or moonlight cruises, three-hour river-viewing excursions, two and three-day overnights or extended trips downriver as far as New Orleans and back. Several times each summer crowds of admirers gather at La Crosse's Riverside Park to welcome and send off the great riverboats, Delta Queen, American Queen and Mississippi Queen as they pause on their way up and down the river.
The La Crosse County bluffs, parks and shores, the Great River Road and the Great River State Bike Trail all offer unexcelled views of the river traffic, paddlewheelers, excursion boats, houseboats, pleasure craft and barges maneuvering their massive cargoes to and from distant marketplaces on the mighty Mississippi.
In the mid-1800's, this bustling port city was the gateway to the West for commercial goods and travelers. In "Life on the Mississippi" published in 1896, former river pilot Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, wrote of his admiration for the area, "La Crosse. Here is a town...with electric lighted streets, and blocks of buildings, which are stately enough and also architecturally fine enough to command respect in any city. It is a choice town." Many of the buildings Mark Twain admired still stand in the La Crosse Commercial Historic District.
In the 1800s, La Crosse was a thriving lumber and trading center populated by a colorful assortment of merchants, manufacturers and adventurers. One of the most colorful figures of the 19th century, William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill, owned property on Barrons Island and resided here from time-to-time. His buffalo hunting and patent medicine business partner, Dr. D. Frank Powell, also known by the Sioux name, White Beaver, served four terms as Mayor of La Crosse and practiced medicine at the Powell Institute in the Healy Block on Main Street. White Beaver's homes and the building where he treated "diseases of women" are open to the public.
In the late 1800s, as the lumber industry dwindled and railroads replaced river transport, the county became a major brewing center, with seven breweries transporting their products as far as Milwaukee and Chicago. National Prohibition closed down the beer brewing industry in 1920, and only one of the county's breweries survives today...the G. Heileman Brewery, where the world's largest six-pack is one of the area's most popular viewing attractions. In Bangor, the Hussa Brewery complex, built between 1860 and 1904 stands as a reminder of the industry's significance to the area. Every year, La Crosse celebrates its German brewing heritage with Oktoberfest, the largest and most popular German Fall Festival in the Midwest.
From Onalaska, the "Sunfish Capitol of the World" to the trout pond at Veterans Memorial Park near West Salem, the waters of La Crosse county yield-up record catches of sunfish, bluegills, perch, walleye, sauger, and catfish. The Mississippi River and its backwaters, the Black River, Lake Onalaska and the La Crosse River offer 100s of species of fish native to the area. Boat and canoe rentals, bait and tackle, guides and maps to area "hot spots" are available at public and private boat landings, campgrounds and parks along the waters throughout the county.
Area parks, ski hills and waterways offer a wide variety of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, hunting, water-skiing, ice-fishing, snowmobiling, cross country and downhill skiing, and wildlife observation, as well as group sports activities including golf, tennis, beach volleyball and outdoor shuffle board courts.
Two state bicycle trails, the Great River Trail and La Crosse River Trail, which join at the trailhead in Onalaska, travel along converted railbeds through two different types of prairies, four different types of forests communities, along majestic bluffs and peaceful streams, where pre-historic burial mounds lie undisturbed nearby, eagles fly and rare vanilla-scented orchids bloom. Area parks, reserves and nature centers offer the opportunity to view hundreds of different native and recent immigrant species of insects, fish, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals in their natural habitats. Many also offer interpretive aids and guides to enhance the experience.
La Crosse area museums and art galleries, theaters and outdoor stages offer cultural abundance, from prehistoric contemporary art and sculpture by outstanding local, regional, national and international artists; and, from critically acclaimed professional classical, pop, rock and ethnic musical groups to local and touring theatrical companies.
From primitive campgrounds to five-star luxury hotels and Victorian-era Bed and Breakfast Mansions, La Crosse County offers lodging accommodations to suit every taste, need and occasion. Diners also enjoy a wide range of atmospheres from simple country, ethnic and even riverboat dining!
An area rich in history and boasting the activities and scenery of the mighty Mississippi River - LaCrosse County is a special place for both visitors and residents alike!
MUSEUMS AND HISTORICAL SITES
Children's Museum of La Crosse
207 Fifth Avenue South, La Crosse, 608-784-2652
Enjoy this new, hands-on museum where the young and young-at-heart can explore, create, discover, learn and exercise their imaginations. Open 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday and noon - 5:00 p.m. Sundays.
429 North 7th St., La Crosse, 608-782-1980
Wander into the life and times of the eccentric lumber baron who built this Italianate, Victorian style home in 1860. View the original furnishings, unique Turkish Nook and eclectic decorative elements from around the world acquired in his travels by the builder, Gideon Hixon. Open daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day, 1:00 - 5:00 p.m.
Mississippi Valley Archeological Center
1725 State St., La Crosse, 608-784-8463
Experience the historic and prehistoric past of the La Crosse area in artifacts dating from the ice age to the present day at this special collection on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus.
Ninth and Main Streets, La Crosse, 608-782-1980
Located in the Public Library building, this museum features changing exhibits that highlight and interpret the rich history of La Crosse. Special hands-on exhibits provide exciting opportunities for young people to learn more about the area's history. Open year round, Tuesday - Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., weekends 1:00 - 5:00 p.m.
410 Veterans Memorial Dr., La Crosse, 608-782-1980
Experience the history of La Crosse in exhibits showing the importance of the Mississippi River through time to this area. Exhibits also include prehistoric artifacts to a large collection of birds and fresh water clams. A video of the history of La Crosse and artifacts of the steamboat "The War Eagle" are on display. Open Memorial Day - Labor Day 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
741 Oak Avenue South, Onalaska, 608-783-3525/608-783-2555
View exhibits that cover thousands of years of area history, from the Ice Age through the logging boom to the present day. Displays include prehistoric implements, tools of the logging and lumber industry, a replica of a settler's log cabin, photographs and paintings of 19th Century Indian life, logging, river transportation from rafts to paddlewheelers, and early railroad days. Open Wednesday - Friday 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. year round; Monday 6:00 - 8:00 p.m. from the third week in October through the month of March.
Upper Mississippi Environmental Science Center
2630 Fanta Reed Rd., La Crosse, 608-781-9570
Enjoy an interactive look at the wildlife and fish of the Upper Mississippi River. The center's hands-on displays include fur and feathers of creatures that make their homes in the river valley along with the shells of native mussels. Live fish common to the river, such as walleye, crappie, bluegill and perch, along with not-so-common shovelnose and lake sturgeon are also on display. Songbirds nesting in the Mississippi River Valley are also can be seen along with an inter-active CD-ROM program to help visitors identify songbirds and hear their calls.
Palmer/Gullickson Octagon House
358 North Leonard St., West Salem
Originally built by Dr. Horace Palmer in the village of Neshonoc in 1856, the house was moved to the new village of West Salem a few years later. Constructed of oak beams with brick lining and sawdust insulation, with a barn attached directly to the house, this unusual building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now maintained by the West Salem Historical Society.
Neshonoc Dam and Powerhouse
Hwy. 108, Town of Hamilton
Built in 1895 by the McMillan Mill and Power Company, this four-story stone building housed the hydroelectric power generators that initially provided electricity to the village of West Salem from sunset to sunrise. By 1919 it provided round-the-clock service to the surrounding rural area and the electric streetlights installed in the village. The current concrete dam replaced the original in 1940. The dam and powerhouse are located on the west side of Highway 108 at the La Crosse River in the town of Hamilton.
Bangor Commercial Historic District
Commercial Street, Bangor
The Bangor Commercial Historic District, which is located on the 1500 block of Commercial Street in the Village of Bangor consists of one city block of turn-of-the-20th-Century commercial buildings. Most of the one and two story vernacular form commercial buildings on this block were constructed between 1899 and 1905 to replace those destroyed in a fire that swept the town in 1899.
Hussa Brewery Complex
Commercial Street, Bangor
On the west end of Bangor's Commercial Street stands the Hussa Brewery Complex, with the original brick brewery building purchased in 1860 by Joseph Hussa, the Hussa home built of brick in 1881 and the Hussa Office, also constructed of brick in 1904. The Hussa Brewery was one of the nation's earliest and most productive regional breweries, shipping its products by rail as far as Chicago until passage of the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the US Constitution forced its conversion to a canning company in 1920.
Norskedalen Heritage Center
County Hwy. PI, 3 miles north of Coon Valley, 608-452-3424
Developed as a history and nature preserve, this 350-acre center commemorates the area's pioneer Norwegian farming heritage in the Bekkum Pioneer Homestead, a pioneer log farm restored to turn-of-the-twentieth century condition; and the Skumsrud Heritage Farm which includes 11 historic buildings, including the 1853 Skumsrud Cabin, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The log structures came from a number of farms in the area. Some are displayed to show their original use and others are adapted to simulate a well-developed local farmstead of about 1900. The group includes a house, chicken coop, stable, granary, corn crib, blacksmith shop, storage shed and barn. Bekkum Homestead tours are given May 1-October 31, with the last tour departing at 3:30pm; the Skumsrud Heritage Farm is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, weekends, Sat.10:00am-4: 00pm, Sun. Noon - 4:00pm.
PARKS AND NATURE CENTERS
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge
Mississippi River, Onalaska, 608-783-8405
With more than three million people annually who come to fish, boat, hike, birdwatch, hunt, sightsee or just relax, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is one of the country's largest and most visited refuges! Established in 1924, the 200,000-acre, 260-mile-long Upper Mississippi refuge features more than 265 bird species, 57 species of mammals, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 100 species of fish. No wonder this refuge is a nature-lovers wonderland! Special attractions along the La Crosse county shore of the river include boat and canoe rentals, the Long Lake and Goose Island canoe trails, with observation points at major pull-offs denoted by interpretive refuge signs. Displays of refuge wildlife are found at the US Fish and Wildlife Service visitors center, located at 555 Lester Ave. in Onalaska. Open Monday - Friday 7:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Midway Railroad Prairie State Natural Area
Between County Highways OT and Z, Onalaska, 608-781-9570
One of La Crosse County's natural treasures, the Midway Prairie offers visitors the chance to see the native plants and grasses of the great prairies that once swept from horizon to horizon across the entire Midwest. The prairie blooms for much of the summer with large daisies such as compass-plant, cup-plant, prairie sunflower and gray-headed coneflower. On or about the Labor Day weekend, the vanilla-scented orchid called Great Plain's Lady's-tresses bloom. Rare species such as the poppy mallow are also found on this prairie. Bicyclists will find the prairie just north of where the Great River Trail crosses Highway Z.
Goose Island Park and Campground
Hwy. 35, South of La Crosse, 608-788-7018
Five miles south of La Crosse just off Hwy. 35, on a wooded island in the Mississippi River, La Crosse County has developed a park and campground that is unsurpassed in Wisconsin. The island offers camping, fishing, nature trails, swimming, canoeing, bird watching and waterfowl hunting. The size and abundance of fish in the backwaters around Goose Island are unequaled in the Midwest and the waterfowl season draws hunters from a three-state area.
This 710 acre park features five park shelters, more than 400 campsites, a 200-acre picnic area, excellent restrooms with ceramic tile showers, electrical hookups, sanitary stations, group camping, swimming beach, store, boat and canoe rentals, bait sales, and boat ramps. A spectacular treat for Goose Island visitors is the view of the sun setting over the Mississippi River with the impressive Minnesota Bluffs rising as a backdrop on the western shore.
Veterans Memorial Park and Campground
N4668 County Road VP, West Salem, 608-786-4011
Bordered on one side by the La Crosse River and on the other by the Sparta-La Crosse Trail, this park offers scenic beauty, tranquillity and recreational opportunities ranging from canoeing and fishing to biking and hiking. For those interested in group sports activities, there are three ball diamonds, a beach volleyball court and the only outdoor shuffleboard courts in the area. Picnickers will find four shelter houses, and an abundance of grills and tables. The campground features more than 100 campsites, excellent bathroom facilities, electricity, sanitary station and concession stand. Veterans Memorial Park is located where the La Crosse River crosses Hwy. 16, approximately nine miles east of La Crosse and one mile west of West Salem.
Hixon Forest Nature Center
2707 Quarry Rd., La Crosse, 608-784-0303
Enjoy meandering the trails through this 720-acre forest preserve and view the interpretive exhibits at the Nature Center. Open Monday - Friday 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., weekends, 1:00 - 4:00 p.m.
SPECIAL THINGS TO DO
Great River & La Crosse River Bike Trails
Onalaska and La Crosse, 800-658-9424
Encounter wildlife, archeological wonders, northern forests, eastern forests, western prairies, rare and endangered plants, birds, mammals and reptiles, river barges, locks and dams on the easy-riding railroad grade bicycle trails of La Crosse County. The 24-mile Great River State Trail travels north along the Mississippi from Onalaska to Perrot State Park and the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge; and, the 26-mile La Crosse River State Trail travels east along the La Crosse River to Sparta, where it connects with the Elroy-Sparta Trail. Now joined by a bridge to the Onalaska trailhead, both trails are readily accessible to bicycle-friendly lodging accommodations. For more information, call 608-534-6409 (Great River Trail) or 608-337-4775 (La Crosse River Trail).
La Crosse, 800-658-9424
Bridgeview Plaza, Wednesday 8:00 a.m. until sold, June - October
County Parking Lot, Saturday 6:00 a.m. until sold, June - October
Enjoy farm fresh produce, jams, jellies, preserves, syrups, and more. In season, gardeners will find a variety of bedding plants, annuals and perennials. Non-gardeners will find fresh cut flowers and vegetables. Amidst the food, fun and flowers, market-goers may also find unusual art and craft items, music and entertaining street performers.
Commercial Historic District Walking Tour
State, Main & Pearl Streets, La Crosse, 608-784-0440
Stroll through the development of commercial American architecture in the downtown La Crosse Commercial Historic District; six blocks of buildings in styles ranging from the simple, two-story brick structures of the 1860s, the Italianate and Romanesque styles popular from the 1880s to the early 1900s, the turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago Commercial style and the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles of the "Roaring twenties", 30's and 40's. Included in the tour is the building where "White Beaver" Dr. Frank Powell, buffalo hunter, patent medicine man and four-time Mayor of the City of La Crosse practiced "women's medicine". Contact Downtown Mainstreet, Inc. 608-784-0440 for an interpretive guide and tour map.
Oktoberfest, La Crosse
For the two weeks of October, the City of La Crosse hosts one of the Midwest's largest and most popular German Fall Festivals -- Oktoberfest. Where there were once six breweries producing beer brewed according to old-world German purity standards, the city celebrates October in traditional German fashion with authentic German entertainment, a "Maple Leaf" parade, national, regional and local country, pop, rock and children's entertainment, carnival, dancing, crafts, sporting events, food and fun. Activities center at Oktoberfest Grounds both North and South side, ending with a beautifully illuminated Torchlight Parade.
Riverside Park, La Crosse, 608-782-6000
For five days, beginning on the last day of June, La Crosse's Riverside Park becomes the fun and entertainment center of the nearby three-state Mississippi River area. The annual Riverfest celebration offers continuous entertainment, children's activities, great food and fireworks the entire family will enjoy.
Mississippi River Cruises
Riverside Docks, La Crosse
Mississippi Explorer Cruises (877) 647-7397
Great River Steamboat Company 608-784-4882
La Crosse Queen Paddlewheeler 608-784-8523
Island Girl Cruiseliner 608-784-0556
Cruise the Mississippi on one of the excursion vessels docked at the historic port of La Crosse. Join Mississippi Explorer Cruises, La Crosse’s only specially designed "backwater" passenger vessel, for a country-road like riverboat cruise into the scenic and wild backwaters of the Mississippi River. Their 2-hour expeditions offer adventurers of all ages an in-depth exploration of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge's ecosystem, navigation, and history. Float back in time on the Julia Belle Swain, one of only six steam-powered paddlewheelers still operating on the Mississippi. A faithful replica of the riverboats that traveled these waters one hundred years ago, with a bright red paddlewheel, brassy calliope and three-tiered "wedding cake" structure, the Julia Belle Swain offers lunch and dinner tours, one and two-day excursions with on-board entertainment, sightseeing and shore-lodging overnights. Take one of the daily three-hour sightseeing cruises, a Sunday Brunch or weekend dinner cruise on the La Crosse Queen; an authentic replica of a 19th century stern-wheeler. Enjoy a sightseeing, lunch, cocktail and dinner, or moonlight cruise in the air-conditioned luxury of the Island Girl, a modern 150-passenger luxury yacht. The river is waiting.
North American Squirrel Association (nasa)
La Crosse, 608-781-3100 (ask for Tony)
Formed in 2003, nasa is a non-profit organization that grew out of a desire to provide physically challenged and elderly members of our community with outdoor opportunities such as hunting and fishing. nasa has purchased a pontoon boat that is freely available for the elderly and physically challenged. Along with the pontoon boat, nasa holds several fishing events and a fall hunting event each year. nasa has also helped support a program with Mt. La Crosse that will allow more children with special needs learn how to ski.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Saint Rose Convent
715 South Ninth Street, La Crosse, 608-784-2288
Saint Rose Convent is the Mother House of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Since August 1, 1878 at least two Franciscan Sisters have maintained a 24-hour prayer vigil for the Church, community and the world. The Chapel of Angels is recognized as one of the most beautiful in the United States.
Riverside Park, La Crosse
Standing guard over the junction of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse Rivers, this impressive 25-foot, 25-ton sculpture by artist Anthony Zimmerhakl reflects on the majestic marriage of these waters. Legend has it that where three rivers join, no natural disaster will befall. Here, to date, this legend has remained true.
Main Street, La Crosse, 800-658-9424
Enjoy an eagle's-eye view of the Mississippi River Valley and three states bordering the great river - Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa - from the 570-ft. summit of Grandad Bluff. Located at the eastern end of Main Street, the bluff offers coin-operated binoculars, a shelter house, picnic areas, and an unexcelled panoramic view of the rivers and cities below. Be sure to bring your camera to film the vista voted "the most scenic view in the state" by Wisconsin Trails readers.