If you haven’t biked in the Midwest, you’re missing out, especially when it comes to western Wisconsin. Sitting on the edge of the Driftless region along the mighty Mississippi River, the deep, glacier-carved valleys ("coulees") and high bluffs make for spectacular scenery. Cyclists have been taking advantage of the incredible views and pleasant riding conditions for ages. Not only is it absolutely gorgeous here, but the La Crosse area in particular is home to a truly bike-friendly culture.
James Longhurst, local bicycle advocate and author of Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, describes the bike community in La Crosse as something special. "Even if I don't want to join one of the group or club rides, I know that if I head out of town for a ride on a sunny day, I'm sure to meet somebody I know out on one of the regular climbs or routes," he says. “I sometimes talk to more people when I go out for a ride alone than if I go with a group.”
Here, we’ve put together a list of eight bike rides and events that showcase the best of the region—and are sure to inspire you to visit La Crosse time and again. And if you run into James out there, tell him we said hello.
1. Wisconsin Great River Road
Distance: 250 miles point-to-point
The Great River Road runs almost 3,000 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It travels along the mighty Mississippi River through 10 states. The Wisconsin section of the Great River Road covers 250 miles and passes through 33 river towns, including La Crosse, which is the biggest town on the route. With tall bluffs overlooking the river, it’s also one of the most scenic sections of this road in the state.
For the most part, the Great River Road follows Highway 35, and La Crosse is located roughly in the middle, so you can ride north or south on the route for a few miles or for a longer, bikepacking trip. A good place to get on the road to go south is near Southern Bluffs Elementary School, or find parking in downtown and ride west until you hit Highway 35 to go north. Stop by Explore La Crosse to learn about the history and importance of the river in the area. Regardless of which direction you travel on the Great River Road, there are plenty of parks and nature preserves to stop for a break, as well as many historical spots and quaint towns to visit along the way.
2. Grandad Bluff Loop
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate
Distance: 23 miles
The mostly-intermediate Grandad Bluff Loop, is a short loop with one easy and one hard climb, and is a favorite for locals who want to get in a quick after-work training ride. Since it’s so short, there aren’t any convenience store stops on this self-supported route, but La Crosse has frequent drive-ins and roadside taverns along the way.
Start by heading northeast of La Crosse with an easy hill before a fast descent into Barre Mills. Continue on to the intersection of County FO, and start a slow climb up. After a mile of gradual climbing, you’ll hit The Wall: the final steep stretch to the top of the ridge. After riding along the ridge, take a spur to the overlook at the end of Grandad Bluff—after all, isn’t that what you put in all the work for? The incredible view of the town and the Mississippi River Valley is worth the trip. (Some even call is the "most scenic view in the state.") After taking in the beautiful scenery, be alert and use caution on your ride back down—it’s a technical and busy road, with a couple of blind curves. Bliss Road turns into Main Street back into La Crosse, where you can grab a bite to eat or a cold pint in downtown before heading back to your car.
3. La Crosse River State Trail
Distance: 21.5 miles
The La Crosse River State Trail is a good one for road cyclists or mountain bikers, with a flat and level packed-limestone surface. Following the La Crosse River, the trail passes by (and over) former prairies, farmland, streams, wetlands, and hardwood forests. While the trail was created from segments of the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, part of it runs alongside a railroad that is still active.
The La Crosse River State Trail links up the 24-mile Great River State Trail in the west with the Elroy Sparta Trailin the east. The Great River State Trail is one of the most popular bike paths in the area, leading almost 70,000 visitors a year along 18 different waterways and through wildlife refuges. If you like to spot water birds, this is a fantastic route to to try. The Elroy Sparta Trail debuted in 1965 as America’s first Rails-to-Trails project, and the 32.5-mile route remains a favorite Wisconsin biking destination today.
The trail is part of a 101-mile interconnected trail network, so there are plenty of options if you are looking for an even longer adventure.
4. Bike Fest
Distance: 30-100 miles (as well as shorter rides around town)
Visit over Labor Day weekend and get in on Bike Fest, an annual celebration of cycling in La Crosse that highlights the amazing cycling community. It all starts in the heart of downtown in Cameron Park, and is free to the public.
Sponsored by several local organization, the self-supported, self-guided rides are the best way to see the area and make a few new riding friends. There are several suggested routes, with turn-by-turn directions, as well as rides that are suitable for families and kids. They even have ride leaders take off from the park throughout the day, so you don’t have to worry about figuring anything out—just bring your gear and you’ll be all set. There are plenty of easy options for visitors, but Longhurst suggests that if you "really want a challenge, we've got that too: ‘Ride the Five Monsters.’" The ride covers “105 miles, nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, 12 climbs (including five monster climbs), and at least one section near Genoa that goes over 14% grade (touching 18% in spots).”
Sign up (and pay for) a premium registration and get a T-shirt, free food and drinks, and admission to the Saturday night party.
Even if you can’t make it for Bike Fest, Bicycle La Crosse has a variety of maps, self-guided routes, and information about where to ride in the area. Another option is to choose your own adventure around town. According to Longhurst, who has lived in La Crosse for nine years now, "that Driftless geography means that the city is compressed into a small, flat river town, with just two miles of space between the bluffs and the Mississippi River. You don't even need a geared bike; just any beach cruiser or single speed will do for riding in town."
5. Apple Blossom Loop
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate
Distance: 35 miles
The popular Apple Blossom Loop is a local favorite, and it’s easy to see why. The route heads west out of La Crosse over the Mississippi River and into neighboring Minnesota, climbing up Pine Creek Valley to the top of the bluffs. If you had your heart set on seeing apple orchards after hearing the name, keep an eye out for them on your way back. Cruise back down the bluffs and through La Crescent, and stop by Leidel’s Apples to grab a healthy snack—you’ve earned it!
6. Coon Valley Coulee Express
Distance: 29, 48, 0r 56 miles
The Coon Valley Coulee Express is "the fastest way for flatlanders from Chicago to find out what riding a coulee is like," says Longhurst, who recommends taking on the full 56 miles. The monster climb up Sveum Ridge Road is “truly epic” with switchbacks and grades up to 18 percent. But that’s not the only climb on the 56-mile route: there are four climbs and a number of rollers throughout, for a total of 3,000 feet of climbing. With both wide open farmland and forested roads, there’s enough change in scenery to keep things interesting along the way.
7. Hixon State Forest/La Crosse River Marsh Area
Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate
Distance: 9.1 miles total
With just over nine miles of riding across four trails between the two areas, you’ll find easy to intermediate riding in the Hixon State Forest/La Crosse River Marsh Area, with options to add more mileage on to your ride.
The easier trails run through the La Crosse River Marsh Area (closer to the town of La Crosse), including the 3 Rivers Trail that starts in Riverside Park and runs 4.5 miles along the La Crosse River to the marsh area. Continue north to connect to the longer Great River State Trail and the La Crosse River State Trail, or take the 1.25-mile Marsh Loop Trail. Stop at the viewing platform overlooking the marsh before taking the short Wood Duck Trail (1.1 miles) over to Hixon State Forest to run some laps on your mountain bike, or turn around and go back to town.
After warming up (or you can drive over to the forest and just start there), the intermediate Rotary Vista Trail is the only trail in Hixon State Forest open to riding, but offers a decent challenge. It’s well-maintained and marked, but has a gradual incline and several steep sections. Overall, it’s not super technical, but there are some rocky sections and one sandy turn, as well as the opportunity to fly downhill when you’re done. Don’t forget to take in the views along this beautiful ride.
Note: All of these trails are also open to hikers and runners, so keep an eye out for others. Check out this map before you go.
8. Upper Hixon Trails
Distance: 9 miles
For even more mountain biking, check out the area locals call "Upper Hixon", where you’ll find the Human Powered Trails. Home to the annual Hixon Forest Epic (one of the races in the Wisconsin Off Road Series), the nine miles of trail are filled with tight singletrack and log obstacles, just to make sure you’re paying attention. You can drive to the area, or take the Rotary Vista Trail up the bluffs to the trailhead.
As you can see, whether you are an experienced cyclist or on your first trip, there is something for all levels and interests when it comes to bicycling in western Wisconsin. So what are you waiting for? Pack up your bike, grab a couple buddies, and head to La Crosse for the cycling trip of a lifetime.
Originally written for Explore La Crosse .