★ ★ ★ ★

La Crosse River I

Sparta to Bangor:
A peppy, super-fun stream that begins around 30’ wide and gradually swells to about 50’. The water here is clear and clean, the bottom sandy and the current quite reputable. In the first five miles of this trip, there are four modest ledges ranging from half a foot to a foot-and-a-half high, none of them technically challenging but each one delightful. From Sparta to Bangor this is a long daytrip, so expect to be on the water for awhile.

La Crosse River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 2, 2014

Class Difficulty: Riffles + Four modest ledges
Skill Level: Intermediate

4′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Sparta: ht/ft: 3.4 | cfs: 164

Current Levels:
Sparta: ht/ft: 3.64 | cfs: 149

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. The La Crosse should be pretty reliable in general. If you’re paddling upstream of West Salem, use the Sparta gauge. You’ll be fine in the vicinity of 3.5’ and 150-170 cfs. We don’t recommend paddling too much below these levels to avoid scraping in downtown Sparta or on the several ledges. Downstream from West Salem and to the Mississippi River, refer to the La Crosse gauge and look for levels in the ballpark of 3.4’ and 450 cfs. This stretch probably can be paddled at lower levels, but we do not precise information on that yet.

Fishermen’s Park, Sparta, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.94223, -90.80265
Highway 162 bridge, Bangor, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.90086, -90.99025

Time: Put in at 1:45p. Out at 7:10p.
Total Time: 5h 25m
Miles Paddled: 16.5

Two snakes, two great blue herons, two sandhill cranes, a turtle, a woodpecker, many frogs, lots of butterflies and we heard a couple deer leap about the banks.

Shuttle Information:
Having two cars and already running a little late, we drove a car shuttle, in spite of the La Crosse River Trail being readily accessible. The car shuttle is 10.8 miles, the bike shuttle 11.2. You will need a state pass to pedal the bike trail ($4/day, $20/year) but it’s totally worth it (the annual pass is good for all trails throughout the state, including cross-country ski trails).

Sparta, is of course, the headquarters of the famous Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail, the very first rails-to-trails bike trail in the nation. From Sparta you can pedal down to Elroy and cross over the upstream portion of the awesome Kickapoo River. From Elroy you can connect to the 400 State Trail, a different bike trail that follows the Baraboo River down to Reedsburg. Or you can go west from Sparta and pedal the La Crosse River Trail into the city of La Crosse, at which point you then can connect to the Great River State Trail up to Trempeauleau past the mouth of the Black and Trempeauleau rivers. Whole lotta great bicycling in this part of the state!


Beginning near the marshes around Fort McCoy, the La Crosse river courses through Coulee Country (the valleys and ravines of west-central Driftless Wisconsin) on its way to the Mississippi River in downtown La Crosse. The La Crosse River watershed is not that large; the river itself is about 60 miles long and has a drainage area of 167 miles. It’s dammed thrice at Angelo, Sparta and most prominently at West Salem, where the backwater creates the rather huge Neshonoc Lake (a pretty flatwater prospect with Driftless hills in the backdrop but you will be sharing the lake with motorboats).

A few historical curiosities before we continue. The word lacrosse, of course, is from a French term meaning “hooked stick” or is derived from a bishop’s crosier, an embellished staff (think fancy shepherd’s crook), which the original lacrosse sticks used by Native Americans playing the game resembled. I hate to burst the bubble but the game of lacrosse did not in fact originate in what is now the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin. That said, its origins are within the St Lawrence Seaway/Great Lakes area of Canada and United States. It was none other than Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) who gave La Crosse its name during an expedition up the Mississippi River in the early 19th Century and observed the natives playing the game.

One more etymological tidbit. The word “coulee” also comes from the French couler, meaning “to flow.” What I find so endearing about this is its poetry. Either the valleys and ravines in the very heart of Driftless Wisconsin were called coulees by the predominantly French and French-Canadians who settled here because of the gazillion streams that flow in between the hills, or, as I like to think, because the endless array of these beautiful bluffs flow one after another as if in an inland sea of waves. Seen from the air, these 300’-500’ high bluffs do look like ripples…

We chose the La Crosse River as a reluctant concession to both the Black and Eau Claire Rivers, where we wanted to paddle but could not due to low water levels. The La Crosse is a great stream in its own right and we’re glad we had at it. I had always kinda ruled it out because I assumed it was too close to the Interstate and thus would not be worth the trek out there. A friend of mine told me otherwise a couple years ago. There are basically two sections good for paddling on the La Crosse. This section, from Sparta to Bangor and then West Salem to the Mississippi River. We chose the former for no precise reason. Having done it, I’m now curious and eager to paddle the second section sometime soon.

We missed the turn for the recommended put-in by Mike Svob at the Highway 16 bridge and we’re glad we did. Instead, we put in at an official park immediately downstream from the dam in Sparta. This gave us not only an additional half-mile of paddling but a very fun half-mile at that, where all of the riffles and also a couple easy drops are located.

That said, there was a pretty decent sized snake at the put-in. A bad omen? Nope. We paid it little mind and all was well. We should note too that Svob suggests the Sparta to Rockland section as one daytrip and states the mileage as 9. According to Google maps, that distance is closer to 10.75, a sizeable discrepancy. We opted to paddle to Bangor, which in retrospect was rather ambitious and it too was a couple miles longer than stated on Svob’s map. In total, this trip is just shy of 17 miles from the dam in Sparta to the Highway 162 bridge in Bangor, a long day of paddling by any standard, particularly when one starts mid-afternoon (and even more surprising considering the swift current – this is closer to 3mph on the 3-4mph paddling rule-of-thumb). But despite its length, it was a great trip just the same.

What we liked:
The current is consistently strong. The gradient begins at 5.5 feet per mile then tapers to 4 feet per mile midway but the river is always moving along. The water was clear as a bell, the bottom attractively sandy. Downtown Sparta was pretty fun to paddle through, particularly all the little riffles and one or two small drops. All in all, there are four ledges in the first five miles of this trip and each was easy but a lot of fun.

After you leave Sparta the surroundings are pretty sparse (dare I say, “spartan”?) and all in all, there’s very little development on this trip. This is not a lazy relax paddle though. The river meanders quite considerably, so even though the current is strong, you’re constantly turning and anticipating the next bend. We encountered only a few spots of downed trees, nothing formidable or requiring a portage. One of the best aspects of this trip is the feeling of being isolated and away. It’s true that you’re never far from I-90, but we never heard the sound of it (however, what you will hear, is covered in what we didn’t like…).

A quick word about where we camped and one fun anecdote. First off, there are no great camping opportunities in the area. There are a couple awesome ones (Perrot and Wildcat Mountain State Parks in particular) but each requires an hour or so drive. So we settled on Veterans Memorial County Park in West Salem, which is on the banks of the La Crosse River some four miles downstream from Neshonoc Lake (where incidentally there is a private campground option).

Veterans Memorial Park is humongous but is actually the smaller of the two La Crosse County campground parks (even though it has 100 or so sites!). It’s mostly an RV campground, with only a handful set aside for tents. Everything is cramped and there is next to no privacy. While we chose the best site we could find (on the water), it was pocked with dog poop all over the place. The firewood was wet and pulpy and there was nowhere to collect sticks for kindling. All of this for $22/night. I won’t mince words: the camping pretty much sucked. Making matters worse, since we were running late and the paddling took a lot longer than we had anticipated, I forgot to buy milk, which I absolutely needed in order to make dinner that night (we won’t give away what Chef Timothy had in mind but it was, no doubt, ambitious).

However… during our paddle, we saw first one and then a second kayak about 40 yards downstream of us just hanging out on the left bank – the first paddlers or anybody we had seen (or were to see) all day on the river. As we approached I recognized with great serendipitous delight that it was none other than my own very good friend Ken and his wife from Madison, who by total coincidence happened to be paddling the same stretch of the La Crosse River as we!

Of all the streams in all the counties in all of Wisconsin… Ken is the guy responsible for introducing me to kayaking in the first place, lo these many (6) years ago. And it was none other than Ken who was the one who recommended the La Crosse River to me a couple years ago, as mentioned earlier. We all laughed about this fabulously fortuitous and random encounter as we four proceeded to paddle together ’til their much more sensible take-out in Rockland. Ken generously offered to drive us back to one of our cars but we (foolishly?) pressed on to Bangor. We all hugged and went on our ways.

Later that night, as Barry and I were setting up camp and splitting shitty wood for the fire in the now nighttime, a car pulled into our site. I was hunched down and blinded by the headlights. Panic seized me for a moment because there was ambiguity about the campsite itself. While numbered with a placard, we couldn’t really decipher whether the site we were on was one individual site or an “easement” of two sites. We took the best location regardless and were prepared to apologize if necessary, rather than seek permission. So when I saw this car I feared it was a camper claiming we were on his site. I braced for an awkward encounter.

But no, it was Ken and his wife who came plied with beer and pizza! I suppose it must not have been terribly difficult finding my car with two kayaks on the roof but it was an impressive enough feat in the darkness of the sprawling RV-land campground. They had already washed up and went out to dinner while we were just returning to the campground and setting up shop. Nonetheless, they had purchased beer before 9pm and brought us leftovers from their meal. Not only was this extremely thoughtful and generous, it was a perfect solution to my problem of having forgotten to buy milk. Sometimes the universe provides like that!

Just the same, we do not recommend Veterans Memorial Park unless you have no other options. It’s not the worst campground whatsoever but it doesn’t make for a great camping experience either, unless friends show up out of the blue with beer and pizza!

What we didn’t like:
The ugly, foreboding noise of a sand processing plant or fracking mine. Located in between the Highway 27 and Hammer Road bridges (and you’ll hear this chomping monstrosity well before you paddle up to it). To be fair, we have no idea if it’s actually a frack sand operation or a silica plant. To my ears, it sounded exactly like the silica plant in Wedron, Illinois, on the Fox River that I paddled last year. But Wisconsin does lead the nation in frack sand mining, western Wisconsin especially. Who knows?

Besides that, the only dislike is that this trip lacked anything spectacular. Nothing truly outstanding stood out or came about (except a surprisingly random encounter with dear friends, of course). Rather, it’s a solid and very pleasant day paddle. But I’d rather something a little sexier for a two-hour drive. After Rockland there are occasional views of the Driftless hills in the background but none all too dramatic. Also, we failed to properly anticipate the meandering nature of the river. Consider this: the shuttle is a straight shot from take-out to put-in that runs parallel to the river, yet is 6 miles shorter than the river itself! This is not a bad thing per se but something to take into consideration before planning your trip.

If we did this trip again:
We both agreed that the Sparta to Rockland section was more fun than the Rockland to Bangor section, so we’d do that one again in a heartbeat. If anyone has information about the La Crosse River upstream of Sparta, we’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, the next trip in this area likely will be from West Salem to downtown La Crosse at the Mississippi.

Related Information:
La Crosse River II: Highway 108 to Veterans Memorial County Park
La Crosse River III: Veterans Memorial County Park to La Crosse
Guide: Paddling Southern Wisconsin
Outfitter: Ellistone Canoe Rentals
Wikipedia: La Crosse River

Miles Paddled Video:

Photo Gallery:

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