La Crosse River – West Salem
Date Paddled: July 31st, 2016
Put-in: Public landing by Hwy 108
Take-out: Veterans Memorial Campground
Distance: 4.2 Miles
Time: 2 hours 58 minutes (2 hours is more typical)
Gradient: ~3.4' per mile
Water Level: La Crosse River @ La Crosse 300 CFS or 2.47
All in all this was a pleasant trip with moderate current, heavily wooded banks, a lot of sand, and, despite being in the city limits of West Salem, relatively few houses.
The highlight of the trip was the 2-3 sets of rapids you will encounter. The first is below the dam but above the put-in, so you’ll have to paddle upstream a bit to check them out. The second set of rapids is a class 2 chute just below the Hwy M bridge where a former dam was (mostly) removed. Very fun, but be careful when running this. The last set is just below Old County Road B, and these are easy class 1 rapids. Beyond this there are multiple riffles which add nice character to the river. Tragically, the best rapids are undoubtedly buried under Neshonoc Lake which flows over steep gradient.
Another highlight was the occasional geological features. Not many, but nice. There is a rock wall just upstream of the put-in, several rock walls are well hidden under thick foliage, and there is a really cool underwater rock shelf (see photos). Maybe a half mile after the class 2 rapids, a small creek empties onto a nice sandbar. If you follow the creek a bit upstream, you’ll have a chance to check out a very nice coulee surrounded by some majestic white pines. Basically, a very scenic but small sandstone box canyon (see photos).
On the flip side, there were several detractions for this leg of the La Crosse. The first unpleasant surprise was how murky the water was. I had previously paddled two upstream sections in which the water clarity was amazing, but here it was muddy with a lot of particulate matter floating on top. There were still some nice clear areas, but these were more the exception than the norm. This might be less of an issue later in the season and after a dry spell with no rain.
The other issue is that the river does have some human pollution. You’ll see tires, beer cans and other forms of garbage. Not frequent, but it is unsightly and the river would benefit from a cleanup. Maybe halfway into the trip, you’ll start to smell “laundry detergent” which will continue for much of the trip. There is an outlet on the east bank which I suspect comes from the local sanitation plant (and amusingly has been dammed by a paddler to create a small frothy pool).
This stretch is popular because of a local livery and because it’s near the city of La Crosse. I counted ~16 cars at the put-in. Chances are you’ll see several paddling groups on the water, but this never felt like a crowded river. The few tubers, however, were noisy and drunk–as usual. You can probably have the river to yourself if you go early in the morning. In general, westerly flowing rivers should be paddled AM instead of PM anyway to avoid direct sunlight which desaturates the scenery.
This is a pleasant and scenic stretch of the river, but nothing exotic. The early parts felt like floodplain forests and the banks were a bit overgrown with weeds. The wooded banks are attractive but a tad repetitive after a while.
While this is the most popular section of the La Crosse based on my experience, and was nice, honestly the three other sections I have done I liked better (granted this is subjective). The section from Fort McCoy to Sparta had the best water clarity. The section through Sparta was and still is my favorite, with great ledges, rapids, wildflowers and clear sandy water. Then lastly, I had paddled a section through downtown La Crosse which didn’t have great water clarity, but had amazing vistas of the surrounding river bluffs. Interestingly enough, this last downstream section was narrower (maybe 50′ wide on average) compared to the West Salem section (maybe 70-100′ wide on average). If you’re new to the La Crosse, I suggest starting in Sparta, but the West Salem stretch is not a bad option if you are looking for a new adventure.
Great put-in just southwest of Hwy 108. This is very popular with fishermen, paddlers, and tubers. The parking is good and doesn’t cost anything. No outhouse is present, but nearby Swarthout Park does have facilities.
I do not think you can put in above the dam as a direct portage doesn’t seem practical.
The most popular take-out for this stretch is located at the south end of Veterans Memorial Campground. The canoe ramp is actually well marked from the water with a little white sign and comes after a small boulder garden. This is a little trickier to find from land, but should be easy if you follow the map. You cannot leave your car at the ramp though, and must leave it 700′ to the north in one of the local parking lots. Despite all this (and the sheer number of campers), this is not a bad access option and outhouses are available.
This would be a pretty easy bike shuttle at 3.1 miles with few hills. Most paddlers, however, prefer to use the local livery located on Hwy 108 by the put-in. You can schedule a shuttle or rental with LaCrosse Canoe Outfitters at 1-608-317-7942.
Hazards and Logjams:
There are no logjams. Well, there are leaning branches and strainers in fast current, but alert paddlers will avoid these easily enough.
This segment has multiple riffles and a few rapids. The only one that is noteworthy is where the former dam was removed just downstream from the Hwy M bridge. This is at least class 2 and you do want to be careful not to hit any rocks going sideways. Portaging this puppy doesn’t seem practical, but if you aim carefully you shouldn’t have a problem finding a safe path through and this is pretty fun.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
Fairly moderate current that falls at a gradient of ~3′ per mile with occasional riffles.
The downstream gauge was at 300 CFS which is pretty typical for summer. This stretch is surprisingly deep relative to the upstream sections and I doubt it ever gets too low to run. For reference, the gauge drops to 250 CFS only a few times a year on average. Above 450 CFS, the river might get too ugly to be enjoyable. A couple times a year the river will get above 1000 CFS.
The highlight was seeing a mink (second week in a row!) on the river at the put-in. Other “Pokémon” discoveries included an eagle, blue heron, many kingfishers, many jumping fish (weird), clams, a turtle, damselflies and many humans.
Alternate La Crosse River Trips:
- Fort McCoy Army Base: This is off limits to paddlers, but otherwise might be interesting.
- Fort McCoy to Sparta: (7.1 miles) Nice trip with very clear water reviewed here.
- Sparta to Hammer Road Bridge: (5.4 miles) A great trip and perhaps the best section on the river reviewed here.
- Hammer Road Bridge to Hwy J: (5 miles) A good prospect.
- Hwy J to 17th Ave: (5 miles) An ok prospect.
- 17th Ave to Neshonoc Lake Dam: (7 miles). Half the trip goes through a slow flowage.
- Neshonoc Lake Dam to Veterans Memorial County Park: (4.2) An ok paddle with some fun ledges and a nice box canyon reviewed here.
- Memorial County Park to Holiday Heights: (7.5 miles) Probably a slow simple paddle.
- Holiday Heights to mouth at Mississippi: (6.8 miles) An ok paddle with nice bluffs that I review here.