La Crosse River – Onalaska
Date Paddled: August 15th, 2015
Put-in: Holiday Heights Landing
Take-out: Riverside Park (the mouth)
Distance: 6.76 miles
Time: 3 hours 10 minutes (2.5 hours would be more typical)
Gradient: 2.1' per mile (guestimate)
Water Level: La Crosse River @ La Crosse 335 CFS or 2.75'
This is the last stretch of the La Crosse River before it empties into the Mississippi. Much of this flows through the La Crosse metro area which you largely wouldn’t know from the lack of houses along the banks, but would definitely know based on the amount of street noise you’ll hear (it is much quieter in the second half of the trip though). This river segment is somewhat unlike its upstream siblings as the mouth portion is significantly deeper, somewhat more turbid and the current is slower (no noteworthy rapids, although there are some fast spots in the first half).
To be honest, this is mostly a mediocre trip. But not bad because there are no log jams, a few small sandbars, a mostly sandy substrate and no heavy development despite this being in the city.
The best thing about this river segment are the distant bluffs rising high above the Mississippi valley. The first and last third of the paddle are through generic hardwood floodplain forest (not bad, not exotic). But the middle third of this trip goes through an open wetgrass area called the La Crosse River Marsh which affords fantastic views of the La Crosse bluffs. You’ll want to periodically check behind you as the most scenic vistas you will actually be paddling away from. This could be a terrific fall color paddle. The most famous bluff, Grandad Bluff, you won’t be able to see from the water, but you do want to explore it after the trip. From its overlook, you have an exceptional view of the La Crosse Metro area, the La Crosse River valley, the Mississippi and the many trains.
I lost count of the number of trains I either heard rumble by or were parked on the tracks. So kind of a unique experience for a paddle. Also unique was the number of bridges. Pedestrian, bike, road and rail…there were lots and many were photogenic.
Ironically, the best part of this trip was when we got off the La Crosse River and onto the Mississippi. Normally paddlers take out at Riverside Park, just a little prior to the mouth, but we thankfully missed this and instead disembarked on the Mississippi banks. The scene at the mouth is quite something. You have the Black River coming in from the north, the Mississippi coming in from the northwest (backdropped by terrific bluffs), a massive highway bridge to the south, a massive railroad bridge spinning on its support to let a barge through, a train going over this very railroad bridge, a historical replica steamboat giving rides, the typical flurry of recreational boaters you see on the Mississippi and, oh, a local bike-a-thon going through park. Very energetic and cool scene to experience even if you disembark on the La Crosse River.
Riverside Park itself is worth exploring after the trip. It has a number of statues (some classy, some cheap), but also a nice garden area and a nearby visitor center for tourists.
So three stars in summary. Pros: epic bluffs, lots of trains, bridges, thick wooded banks, good current, lack of muck and the Mississippi at the end. Cons: highway noise, billboards, highline wires and a lack of anything too exotic.
There is a brand new boat launch in Onalaska called “Holiday Heights Landing.” Great (and under-utilized) parking and launch ramp, but no nearby outhouse.
The main take-out is a nice sandy access area just prior to the mouth proper (just after the last bike bridge). Plenty of nearby parking, but there is a section reserved for the paddle boat customers with tow-away warnings if you park there. You’ll see the signs…just park south of the warning signs and you’ll be fine. There are nice facilities nearby (this is all part of Riverside Park).
Being oblivious we totally missed this take-out and paddled out of the mouth for our big Mississippi adventure (more on this later). We then pulled our boats out on the west side of Riverside Park (Mississippi side) over the rocks to our waiting car (good parking here too). The first landing is better, but you should explore some on the Mississippi.
There are a number of rental and livery options in the area. Call in advance to ensure that they service this section of the river.
- La Crosse Canoe Outfitters – 608-317-7942
- City of Onalaska Parks & Rec Department – 608-781-9560
- Schafer’s Boats & Bait – 608-781-3100
- University of Wisconsin La Crosse Rec Sports – 608-785-8860
- Perrot State Park – 608-534-6409
- Goose Island Campground – 608-788-7018
- Black River Express – 608-488-7017
For biker shuttlers, this is a treat. Only 4.9 relatively flat miles on almost entirely dedicated bike trails.
Hazards and Log Jams:
None. No log jams and while sometimes the current clips along, it is all plenty manageable.
River Depth, Navigability and Current:
River was run at 335 CFS (per a local gauge), which is relatively low but still plenty deep (much of it 5-6′). I doubt this stretch ever gets too low to run. What’s too high? I don’t know, but guestimate anything over 500 CFS would be too high for pleasant paddling.
Not much. Map turtle, many painted turtles, green heron, blue heron, wood duck and dragonflies (interesting general absence of insects).
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.
Note, while the Mississippi is normally “too big” to paddle, there are back channels you can explore. Here is a list of some of the more popular water trails on the river.