★ ★ ★ ★

La Crosse River III

Veterans Memorial County Park to La Crosse:
A unique mix of urban and undeveloped – but always bluff-framed and beautiful – this last section of the La Crosse River goes out with a commanding performance before quietly slipping into the mighty maw of the Mississippi River. It is surprisingly meandering in nature, and there are a couple tight squeezes and inconveniences (both of which would be bigger issues for canoes than kayaks). Also, while both the put-in and take-out are hardly ideal, this is still a great trip all around and definitely worth doing sometime.

La Crosse River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: November 1, 2016

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles

2′ per mile

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
La Crosse: ht/ft: 3.24 | cfs: 500

Current Levels:
La Crosse: ht/ft: 2.65 | cfs: 344

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level.

Veterans Memorial Park, just west of West Salem, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.89063, -91.11681
Riverside Park on the Mississippi River, La Crosse, Wisconsin
GPS: 43.81749, -91.25659

Time: Put in at 12:25p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 3h 35m
Miles Paddled: 13.75

Wood ducks, hawks, bald eagles, great blue herons, kingfishers, turtles, muskrat and deer.

Shuttle Information:
10.6 miles by bicycle, most of which is along a dedicated state trail (where fees apply). For a car shuttle – which would not be possible to do via bicycle, since there are highways – it’s 11.6 miles.


Paddling is like anything in life in that one adopts an opinion about something that may be logical but not actually rational, based solely on associations or half-stories. For instance, Illinois. First, the damn tolls and traffic. We all feel that way. Secondly, all those Illinois license plates throughout Wisconsin, whether it’s Lake Geneva, Waupaca, Minocqua or Door County. And then of course there’s the Bears. That’s all entirely logical. But then somehow such seething resentment so biases our brains as to wish for the Cubs to lose the World Series after 108 years. Come on, the Cubs? The Cubbies?!? The lovable losers? The mascot is a cuddly baby bear, for crying out loud (compared to a terribly obnoxious cartoon depiction of a Native American); the team plays in one of the coolest stadiums surrounded by an equally cool neighborhood of any sports franchise anywhere in the country (as opposed to downtown corporate headquarter skyscrapers); and the very story of the Cubs is truly one of the most compelling in all sports.

Sorry Barry.

Anyway, I’d held such a bias against this final section of the La Crosse River for years. I think its sole basis was that it struck me as counterintuitive to drive two hours to paddle a river that runs parallel to the interstate highway only to go through the hurly-burly of development and buildings in town. (Spoiler alert: while some of that is true, whatever ephemeral effects of either prejudice are more than off-set by the stunning beauty of the surrounding bluffs that will frame the background for the majority of this trip.)

But we love this part of the state, and I (Timothy) had one last week of my paddling sabbatical (“sapaddlecal?”) that I wanted to reinvest in the Driftless, where it first began in Minnesota across the big river back in September. This trip on the La Crosse was not as good as the World Series – I’m not sure if such a river anywhere on the planet even exists!* – but it sure was worth the wait, and it definitely earned its keep.

* OK, maybe the Elwha. Maybe.

What we liked:
After a couple riffly meanders around some attractive sandbars, the river sidles up along railroad tracks. Get used to the close association of the La Crosse River and railroad tracks, for you’ll encounter it several times during this trip. It’s always good fun when you’re out paddling and pass along or under a train, whether it’s stationary or choo-choo’ing along. The only real straightaway of this trip follows, where the river and train tracks are parallel for about a mile. At the time of this paddle there was an enormous eagle’s nest in a tree on the left bank. After training my eye a moment, sure enough I saw the two huge birds perched near the nest side by side. It was a very cool sight to take in and begin this trip. (Alas, just downstream from here is a tricky section of downfall in riffles you’ll need to be mindful of – more on that below.)

The straightaway will kink out again, now doing so at the base of a bluff evocatively named Kinney Coulee on river-right. At the water’s edge you’ll pass an attractive rock-lined wall and what appears to be a park (but may be private land; I didn’t get out to scope since it’s so close to the put-in itself). There’s even a sloop on dry dock, a rather surreal image. Depending on the foliage, you may notice impressive exposed rock outcrops on the bluff to the right. (Admittedly, it’s easier to appreciate the sandstone from the interstate as you drive over the river.) The twin interstate bridges come next, preceded by a small riffle. On the right, upstream side of the westbound bridge, there’s a clearly mown path to the water, which has to be a more or less official access.

Below the interstate the landscape opens up intermittently (when not otherwise surrounded by woods) and when it does the vistas of big bluffs in the background become glorious. Additionally, the first of a couple tall sand banks appear – always on river-right – about 30’ tall. This will soon be followed by a more impressive sand-lined bluff on the right, this time about 60’ tall. Usually, such sandy banks/bluffs are essentially uniform and follow a graceful curve. This one, however, makes a unique horseshoe-shape bend, which the river meanders around. It’s a really cool visual effect. If you look for them, you’ll see swallows’ nests hollowed out of the stucco-like sand.

Lush sandbars reappear, often with barely submerged downed trees being slowly swallowed by the river. Some of these downed trees require careful maneuvering around, but they’re welcome obstacles that make paddling engaging. They also require you to focus on the water itself, less so the faraway views of strip malls and chain franchises (which do appear). Another tall sand bank appears shortly before a new access at Holiday Heights Park in Onalaska, off Highway 16, this one totally public and excellent. Right after that you’ll paddle beneath the La Crosse River State Trail bridge, in turn followed by the Highway 16 bridge, then followed again by the state trail bridge (this time in stately wrought iron truss).

From there on the trip changes in character in that development increases. But the scenery itself becomes not one iota less pretty; if anything, the views of the bluffs become even more impressive. But if urban paddling isn’t your cup of tea, you may well want to take-out at Holiday Heights Park or at County Road B (aka Gilette Street). After passing a quarry on the left, then some dense woods, you’ll paddle under two train bridges back to back. Half a mile later you’ll see another sandy landing on the right, at County Road B/Gilette Street.

Below County Road B, the landscape is a lesson in contrasts: on river-left are the endless bluffs, some as tall as 400’-570’, many capped with attractive exposed sandstone; on river-right, however, the environment is pretty flat, whether grassy, sandy, or woodsy bottomlands. I missed the peak of fall foliage by a week or two, but some of the leftover colors were still pretty impressive, especially on the bluffs. One can imagine the unabashed brilliance of these bluff-dominated leaves at their best…

After flowing south primarily, the river will bend to the right and head west in earnest for its destination at the Mississippi. Once again, you’ll paddle under a railroad bridge. And, yup, soon after that you’ll paddle under another bike trail bridge, this one rather elegant and Monet-like in its simplicity spanning bank to bank. Alas, the ugliest of the deadfall entanglements lie just downstream. I tried clearing out a section on the left side but had to abandon the project after it became too much. Instead, I snapped and snipped a couple places in the middle of the deadfall, but it still was a tight squeeze. I didn’t have to portage, but it would’ve been easier if I had!

You’ll paddle beneath the bridge at Highway 35 (aka Western Avenue), where on the upstream side on river-left is a power grid transformer, a giant Menard’s on the right, some of the several interesting juxtapositions between industrial and natural. I for one appreciate such contrasts. Would I drive a couple hours for such juxtapositions? Of course not. But tacking on this industrial adjunct to the more natural first 9 miles in order to paddle all the way to the Mississippi River was wonderful. And if I did live in the La Crosse area, you bet I’d paddle every square inch of this wonderful stream in my backyard.

The final road bridge is Highway 53 (aka 3rd Street). In quick succession you’ll pass the Oktoberfest grounds on your left (downright raucous in drinking season), another sandy spot take-out option (also on the left, below three power lines), one more former railroad-now-trail-converted bridge and finally the Mississippi River.

As you enter the mouth, you’ll see the La Crosse Queen paddleboat docked on the left (well, at least docked at this stage in the season). Turn left, and now you’re on the Mississippi River. The views of the big river upstream are as pretty as those looking downstream. I had the good luck to see a tug boat and barge come upstream, first appearing below the two-toned arc and suspension bridges at Highway 14. The bridges alone make an awesome visual effect, to say nothing of the time-honored tradition of a Mississippi River barge hauling who knows what freight to who knows where.

If you choose to take-out at the previously mentioned sandy spot below the power lines, it’s easy to paddle back upstream. Otherwise, find the least awkward spot along the riprap at Riverside Park and climb onto and then over the rocks onto dry land, for there is no designated launch on the Mississippi River at the park here below the mouth.

A quick word here about Riverside Park. It’s an odd hodgepodge of markers and monuments. It’s only an acre or so large, yet it contains a small pagoda, a public gardens, a pavilion, a 20’ tall Native American statue and an even taller statue of a bald eagle, not to mention being the grounds of the La Crosse Queen paddleboat as well as the La Crosse County Convention & Visitors Center. Throw in a hotel, bike trail, and the Oktoberfest grounds and you have quite the cluster going on!

Finally, I loved the bike shuttle. Essentially you just follow the city trail from Riverside Park to Highway 16, and then access the La Crosse River State Trail from Highway 16 to Veterans Memorial Park. Once on the official state trail, the surroundings are just gorgeous! The paddle-and-pedal combo alone makes this trip worth doing. It’s a beautiful trail that makes for an outstanding shuttle after a great day of paddling!

What we didn’t like:
For being a relatively large river, I was surprised and a little disappointed by the occasional obstructions and jams. There were at least four. The first appears between the put-in and the interstate and is just downstream from a huge eagle’s nest in a tree above the left bank. Two small islands split the river into three channels. I chose the right, as I couldn’t see anything around the bend of the left one, and the middle was totally barricaded by a logjam. It was barely passable even after I sawed off several branches. Here, as elsewhere, as often is the case in such occasions, the current is pretty peppy, making passage through such blockages a little dicey. Canoeists would definitely have more of an ordeal.

The other obstructions all were located below the County Road B access, which perhaps makes sense in that Mike Svob’s designated take-out for this trip is at County Road B. But there are four more miles from County Road B to the mouth of the La Crosse at the Mississippi River, an extremely pleasant section at that and as close to downtown as one can get; so it seems a little incredulous that fellow paddlers aren’t doing this section. Then again, it could have been bad timing. This part of the state was ravished by torrential rains only a month before, so the tree debris could have been from those high waters. I didn’t have to portage, but then again I’m pretty stubborn about such matters. (It’s not for nothing that the astrological sign of this so-called Paddling Matador is Taurus.) I did snap, snip, and saw off everything I reasonably could – one of which has left me with a 4”-long scar on my forearm that I shall likely be bearing as a badge of honor for awhile. But there was one you just had to nimbly nudge your way through. Or portage.

The other matters with this trip are the adequate but hardly ideal accesses at both the put-in and take-out. Veterans Memorial Park is actually a pretty cool place – Barry and I had camped there previously and I revisited it during my designated take-out for the La Crosse River II trip. However, both of those occasions were still in season. On this trip the park itself was closed – well, the campground at least. The only road that leads to the boat launch is in the campground, which was gated off. So I had to park next to the gate, schlep boat and gear to the launch, walk back to the car, find somewhere to park it, then walk back to the launch again. (Well, actually, I ended up doing this three times because I kept forgetting things in the car, which is probably what made it more annoying!) Not a big deal, but kind of a nuisance. If nothing else, it was dumb planning to put the boat launch smack dab in the campground itself, since A) it makes parking kind of odd, since there is none at the launch itself and B) when the campground is closed for the season, it makes the launch even less accessible.

As for the take-out at Riverside Park, you have two options: 1) get out of your boat via the riprap on the Mississippi River, which is what I did, but it’s pretty dodgy and would be difficult for some paddlers; or 2) get out via a sandy spot on river-left beneath three power lines along a bike/pedestrian trail just upstream of the confluence. Either way, you’ll want to leave your vehicle or bicycle along the one-way road along the Mississippi River immediately south of the mouth of the La Crosse River. If you choose #1, just be sure that you can safely get out of your boat along uneven riprap, then schlep it over the riprap to the one-way road. If you opt for #2, bear in mind that you’ll have to schlep your gear a short way from the access to the pareking area off the one-way road. (I hadn’t known of this access beforehand, or I would’ve opted for it, not the riprap.) Because the current on the La Crosse River at this point is next to nothing, it’s easy to paddle into the Mississippi River and bob along the Big Muddy for a bit – the views upstream and downstream are quite impressive and worth the look-see – and then back up the La Crosse to the take-out spot.

Alternatively, you could take out at the large island in the Mississippi River directly west from the mouth of the La Crosse River, where’s a city park called Pettibone Park, but I didn’t do that since I was bike shuttling.

A quick word about the bike shuttle. The city of La Crosse itself is blessed with bike trails. Not only is it at the hub of two official state trails – the Great River and La Crosse River – there are multiple city trails, too. The only trouble is determining which is which and how to access one or another from downtown. It’s pretty ambiguous, frankly. By nothing more than sheer serendipity, I happened to pass a bike shop in my car en route to the put-in. Not only did I receive detailed advice from one of the workers there but he also printed me off an area trails map, both of which were very helpful.

I don’t know where else to put this, so it’s going into the “Didn’t Like” tab, even though it’s more of a philosophical question/criticism. There is an undeniable consensus that there are three rivers here at Riverside Park. What’s the alleged third, you ask? The Black River. It’s not just Mike Svob who states this; local tourism bureaus and businesses alike refer to “three rivers” with casual confidence, as do official maps (including Google and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). Here’s my question: how in the world is the Black River not already part of the Mississippi River by this point?

To be clear, the Black River enters the Mississippi River at the northernmost point of what is called Lake Onalaska, which is just an impoundment created by Lock and Dam #7, north of the city of La Crosse at a small river town called Brice Prairie. The La Crosse River enters the Mississippi River a couple miles south of the southernmost point of Lake Onalaska. Between the two is a huge body of land called French Island. But how one channel around the island is considered the Mississippi River (the western) and the other channel the Black River (the eastern) seems literally disorienting. The Black has already entered the Mississippi by this point, so how can it continue, even in name if not reality, downstream from that point?

I recognize that this is a very wonky thing to bring up, but still. Facts matter. Plus I’ve been on the Black River where it enters the Mississippi River and those elusive backwaters are well north of the city of La Crosse. So how in the world is a side channel around an island in the Mississippi River considered a tributary of the Mississippi River miles downstream from where it’s already entered the Mississippi River? Just saying.

If we did this trip again: 
We’d definitely do this trip again. Thanks to the various put-in/take-out alternatives, one can tailor this trip to personal preferences either by putting in upstream at County Road C (where our La Crosse River II trip began) or taking out at N. Kinney Coulee Road, at Holiday Heights Park, or at County Road B. Furthermore, one can add a couple miles by paddling down the Mississippi River itself for a fun and scenic novelty. Either way, this last section of the La Crosse River makes for a great trip. Especially if you get to watch the Cubs win Game 6 of the World Series later that day! (See how that all just came around full circle?)

Related Information:
La Crosse River I: Sparta to Bangor
La Crosse River II: Highway 108 to Veterans Memorial County Park
Wikipedia: La Crosse River

Photo Gallery:

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