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Exploring La Crosse, Wisconsin—A Hidden Gem in the Midwest

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

The waterfront of La Crosse, Wisconsin

The waterfront of La Crosse, Wisconsin

Where can you get off the beaten path, visit a geographically unique area, a town with historic charm, while still seeing lots of wildlife and a few novelty attractions? Look no further than La Crosse, Wisconsin. All of these bases are covered in this small town on the Mississippi River in the southwestern part of the state.

The Driftless Area—A Unique Geographical Region in the U.S.

You are in the Driftless Area, the part of the state that glaciers did not reach. There are beautiful bluffs and rock formations all along this part of the Mississippi River. To spend some time along the banks of this river that has shaped and played such an important role in U.S. history is a great experience.

It is hard to describe the power and magnificence of the river. It is really something you need to see in-person. It changes and is very different, depending on if you are seeing it in Minneapolis, throughout the heartland of the country, or down in New Orleans. It's one of the great rivers of the world and natural wonders of our planet.

A statue in La Crosse

A statue in La Crosse

Here are some more charming aspects of the area you may come across when visiting.

Black Squirrels!

Black squirrels. You will almost certainly see them at some point throughout the town, especially at Riverside Park. Several of them make their homes in the tall trees throughout this park. The La Crosse area is a kind of squirrel haven. If you love squirrels, this could be your place!

Black squirrels

Black squirrels

Black squirrels

Black squirrels

The World’s Largest Six-Pack

Another wonder you will see nowhere else in the world—the world's largest 6 pack of beer. Only in Wisconsin, long famed for its breweries (especially in Milwaukee), can you find the world's largest cans of beer. They're actually 54-foot storage tanks constructed back in 1969 and painted a year later to resemble cans of Heileman's Old Style Lager. It is definitely in need of a new paint job and some upkeep, but if you like novelty attractions, you are sure to enjoy this.

The world’s largest six-pack

The world’s largest six-pack

Sign giving details of the massive beer cans.

Sign giving details of the massive beer cans.

Natural Beauty

The nature here is a quiet and off-the-beaten-path kind of beauty. Nature lovers and lovers of solitude will be at home here. There is a wonderful network of trails, the marsh trails, which you can explore by walking right from the downtown area.

There is much natural beauty and greenery in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

There is much natural beauty and greenery in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Grandad Bluff

Visit Grandad Bluff, a 600 foot high bluff with an amazing view of the town below. On a clear day, you can see to the border of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

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Migrating Birds

With its location along the Mississippi River, the town is in a prime spot for migrating birds. Songbirds of all kinds, as well as eagles and a variety of hawks and raptors, make homes in this area. When it comes to birds, and the variety of birdsong you can hear on a given day, the area is one of the most alive places I've ever been.

A small red bird dots the vast, green nature.

A small red bird dots the vast, green nature.

The Marsh Trails

During the lockdowns of spring 2020, I felt lucky to be near the marsh trails and to take a daily walk there. It was a good reminder that there were no lockdowns in nature and that life continues on as always. It was balm for my soul after being cooped up inside for most of the day. Egrets and herons can be seen fishing in the marshes. There's a wide variety of wildlife as well—oxes, deer, muskrat, and an occasional beaver.

A path during the barer winter months.

A path during the barer winter months.

Historic Downtown

The downtown boasts a historic charm. There are a few great cafes, restaurants, and bars featuring beers brewed locally. There is a lively nightlife scene in the downtown area as well.

The waterfront of La Crosse

The waterfront of La Crosse

Native American History

Native Americans lived in this area, along the river, for eons. It was named by the French explorers who visited, after watching the Native Americans play a game similar to La Crosse along the banks of the river. That location is now Riverside Park. It's a beautiful, tranquil park with massive trees and sprawling grounds of green grass and flowers.

A statue depicting Native American sports

A statue depicting Native American sports

Visiting the Ducks

One pastime here is to come out to the riverbanks and watch and feed the large group of ducks that can be seen snoozing alongside the river on most days.

Ducks can be spotted snoozing along the river.

Ducks can be spotted snoozing along the river.

Summer Festivals

The town boasts one of the largest Oktoberfests in the Midwest. There is an area with German-style wood buildings right alongside Riverside Park that is used only for this once-a-year occasion. The town also hosts the Riverfest music and food festival and the Midwest Music Fest each summer.

La Crosse

La Crosse

Low Cost of Living

One thing that interested me about La Crosse when doing my research before moving there, was the fact that the town really hadn't grown much in the past 50 years. The population had remained steady at around 50,000. No one seemed to be moving there; it wasn't one of the up-and-coming locations people were seeking out. It seemed off the radar for most people.

Having lived in a big city for a few years, I was ready for a slower and quieter pace of life. And since not many seemed to be moving there (except perhaps for students at the University of Wisconsin, Viterbo, and Western Technical College), there was little development. That has kept housing costs low and the tranquil, relaxed vibe intact.

Low Crime Rate

The crime rate is also generally very low, with the annual murder rate usually in the single digits. Sadly, the majority of the crime is related to meth and other street drugs. Still, it's overall a nice place to live and sustains a good quality of life. You are within a short drive of other small, unique towns in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa that are similarly part of the Driftless Area.

The town is considered part of the Driftless Area.

The town is considered part of the Driftless Area.

Scenic Amtrak Ride

The Amtrak route between La Crosse and St. Paul follows the river, and takes you through a beautiful part of the country, tucked away and out of sight of most roads. Another neat small college town, Winona, Minnesota, is only about 15 minutes to the north.

The scenic Amtrack ride between La Crosse and St. Paul.

The scenic Amtrack ride between La Crosse and St. Paul.

The La Crosse River State Trail

This is a scenic 21.5 mile trail that connects with the Elroy-Sparta Trail and is built along the tracks of the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern railroad. This trail takes you through woods, prairie, and farmlands. You can ride your bike (or rent one) right out of town.

Historic Charm

The town has a lot of charm. There are historic brick and stone buildings in the downtown area. The residential neighborhoods have many unique ramshackle houses with large front and back yards and tall trees. The houses have an older feel and are not dominated by new apartment developments—at least in the central neighborhood and the historic downtown.

There is a movie theater right in downtown, which during the football season on Sundays, shows the Packers game on the big screen. There’s also a great grocery store downtown, the Peoples Food Co-op, and a Farmer’s Market Friday evenings/Saturday mornings from May–October in Cameron Park.

Historic brick and stone buildings in the downtown area.

Historic brick and stone buildings in the downtown area.

If you want to get off the beaten path and discover some hidden gems in Wisconsin, then you must visit La Crosse at some point. The relaxed vibe, access to nature and wildlife, and a sense that you are in America's heartland make this a great place to spend a few days, a few months, or even years.

It is out of the way, off the radar, and away from the flight paths between Chicago and Minneapolis...and that is exactly its uniqueness and charm. Time slows down there; you can forget about the rushed vibe of the larger, crowded (and expensive) places and move to the more natural rhythms of life.

A sunny day in La Crosse

A sunny day in La Crosse

Colorful History

There is a colorful history, when river traffic and steamboats were the lifeblood of many small towns on the Mississippi. You can take a ghost tour of the downtown to hear stories of the city's past, and the different haunted buildings. You can also take a ride on a paddle-wheeler out on the Mississippi. A fun and educational tour usually offered in the summer months.

While the vibe among the people seems a little insular, and introverted, I also didn't get the full experience. I moved there at the end of 2019, and stayed there until July 2020. Most of the city was locked down and closed up during that entire time.

La Crosse is a unique town and has a lot going for it. Not too many seem to notice, and that’s a good thing. If you like small towns, and are looking to get off the beaten path a little, you are sure to enjoy your time exploring the town and throughout the entire Driftless Area.

A Suggestion for an Awesome Day

My suggestion: start your day by grabbing a pastry from the People’s Food Co-op, then head to Jule’s Coffee House on Pearl Street. Then take a walk to Riverside Park and look for black squirrels! After this adventure, rent a bike or go for a hike on the marsh trails. Keep your eyes peeled, as you are sure to see a lot of birds and all kinds of wildlife.

Enjoy you time in La Crosse!

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