When you take in the breathtaking bluffs and the scenic Mississippi River valley of La Crosse, Wis., you feel you have traveled across the country. Instead, the historic river city of about 51,500 is less than a three-hour drive from Minneapolis. With rugged bluffs to hike, a river to enjoy and a historic downtown district to explore, La Crosse has plenty to offer whether you’re seeking an outdoor adventure, a quiet getaway or a shopping weekend.
Located in the Driftless Region of western Wisconsin, an area that escaped being flattened by Ice Age glaciers, the city of La Crosse began as a trading post in 1842 where three rivers — the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse — joined. The trading post grew into a settlement of 2,000 residents and was incorporated in 1856.
Soon, the small city supported thriving railroad, lumber, brewing and milling industries and was one of the busiest steamboat ports on the Upper Mississippi. Today, La Crosse supports three colleges and thriving technical and medical industries. Riverboats take passengers on scenic cruises and the tourism industry brings in 1 million visitors per year.
WHAT TO DO
• Discover the rivers: Start your visit in Riverside Park, where the three rivers join and the La Crosse Area Visitors Center is conveniently located (410 Veterans Memorial Dr., 1-800-658-9424).
Tour the Riverside Museum to learn about the importance of steamboats to La Crosse’s early history (adults $2, children $1, families $5) and meander through the Riverside International Friendship Gardens (www.riversidegardens.org).
Float back in time on the La Crosse Queen, a modern-day riverboat replica (sightseeing and other cruises through Oct. 27, Riverside Park at the end of State Street, 1-608-784-2893, www.lacrossequeen.com).
If exploring the backwaters of the mighty Mississippi interests you, take a wildlife cruise aboard the Mississippi Explorer riverboat (South end of Riverside Park, 1-877-647-7397, www.MississippiEx plorer.com).
• Explore historic downtown: Hop aboard a trolley for a guided tour of La Crosse’s historic downtown (departing Visitors Center, 10:30 a.m., Thu.-Sat. through Oct. 11, 1-800-658-9424).
Then meander the streets and discover the many museums, art galleries and shops. Well worth a visit is Pearl Street Books with more than 55,000 new, used and rare books (323 Pearl St., 1-608-782-3424). Touch of Class is a favorite ladies boutique (312 Main St., 1-608-784-2640, www.touchofclasslacrosse.com) and you can find everything you need for outdoor adventures at Three Rivers Outdoors (400 Main St., 1-608-793-1470, www.threeriversout doors.com).
Stop in for something sweet to eat at the Pearl Ice Cream Parlor & Confectionery, an authentic 1930s soda fountain and candy store (207 Pearl St., 1-608-782-6655).
• Take in grand views: Don’t miss the view of La Crosse and the Mississippi River Valley from the 590-foot-high overlook at Grandad Bluff (3020 Grandad Bluff Rd.).
For another perspective, hike the trails around town or along the bluffs in Hixon Forest.
Pick up a trail map at Myrick Hixon EcoPark or download one from www.mhecopark.org (EcoPark Center hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., noon-4 p.m. Sun, 789 Myrick Park Dr., 1-608-784-0303).
Just up the road from Grandad Bluff, the Human Powered Trails are a favorite of hikers and mountain bikers (From Grandad Bluff take a left on Hwy. FA, park next to the National Weather Service Station, www.humanpoweredtrails.com).
WHERE TO EAT
Bodega Brew Pub has more than 400 types of bottled beer to choose from and good food, to boot (122 4th St. S., 1-608-782-0677, www.bodegabrewpub.com).
Jules’ Coffee House is a local favorite for coffee, baked goods and light fare (327 Pearl St., 1-608-796-1200).
For any meal of the day and famous Talame Buns, visit Fayze’s Restaurant & Bakery (135 S. 4th St., 1-608-784-9548, www.fayzes.com).
Enjoy a glass of wine and a river view at 4 Sisters Wine Bar and Tapas Restaurant (100 Harborview Plaza, 1-608-782-8213, www.4sisterslacrosse.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The Bentley-Wheeler Bed & Breakfast offers getaway stay options in their main house and guest house. Guests love the walking-distance proximity to downtown and breakfast baskets filled with warm scones and fresh fruit (from $135, 938 and 950 Cass St., 1-608-520-0536, www.bentley-wheeler.com).
La Crosse has many other lodging options in and around downtown. For a listing, click on “Places to Stay” on the www.explorelacrosse.com website.
IF YOU GO
For more information contact the La Crosse Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-800-658-9424, www.explorelacrosse.com).
For information specific to La Crosse’s historic downtown, contact Downtown Mainstreet Inc. (1-608-784-0440, www.lacrossedowntown.com).
Myrna CG Mibus is a freelance writer based in Webster, Minn.