Bikes & Barns: A Weekend Getaway
by Sara Heaser
Explore La Crosse’s Roaming with Littles: Rural Tourism for Families blog focuses on ecotourism in La Crosse County for adults and children alike. The bluffs, rivers, parks, beaches, trails, farms–and the people that live to sustain them–are incredible opportunities for locals and visitors to learn more about life in Wisconsin’s gorgeous countryside. This post, a short itinerary, focuses on central La Crosse County and the communities of Onalaska, West Salem, Bangor, and Brice Prairie.
Wake Up to a Rooster!
Let’s face it: hotels can get repetitious on vacations. Why not stay at a working farm instead?
“America’s Dairyland” is Wisconsin’s reputation: while driving through La Crosse County, it may seem like the rows of crops, red barns, and herds of cattle never end. Rainbow Ridge Farms, a working hobby farm and bed and breakfast, is a unique space to explore the farm life and learn about the role agriculture plays in Wisconsin’s economy. Kids will love getting up close to all sorts of cute and cuddly animals by helping out with feeding time, collecting eggs, or exploring the grounds with a herd of goats. The farm is so idyllic you might fib and tell the kids you’re staying at Old MacDonald’s farm—it’s close enough!
Rainbow Ridge is certified by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism as a “Travel Green Wisconsin” destination, which means the farm is working to preserve, conserve, and educate as an environmentally-friendly, local business. The farm is also a 2015 winner of Explore La Crosse’s “Best of La Crosse County” for Best Bed & Breakfast. The hearty farm-fresh breakfast might have something to do with the award. In short, you can feel good about staying here and create fun family memories to boot.
Cruising the River…On Bike
There is plenty of countryside to see in Wisconsin, but La Crosse has something else, too: the mighty Mississippi. Exploring the Mississippi River and La Crosse County by bike is a must-do and is insanely convenient, as four biking trails connect in the area for over 100 miles of crushed-rock trail: the Great River, La Crosse River, Elroy-Sparta, and 400 State trails. La Crosse has seen an explosion of biking activity over the past few years, thanks to local activism and increased awareness. Now is the time to take advantage of the trails’ incredible infrastructure to see North America’s largest river up close. Trails are flat, a mix of sun and shade, are rooted in history (be sure to stop at the historical markers), and feature plenty of wildlife and picnic-style rest stops. Trailheads have free parking, water, and restrooms. It’s easy, slow riding in a pristine environment that’s tied to La Crosse’s heritage and culture.
From Rainbow Ridge Farms, head to River Trail Cycles in Onalaska to pick up trail passes and rent bikes for the family. Depending on ability level and interests in the family, here are two convenient options:
North to Trempealeau
About 15 miles, 30 miles round-trip. The trail to Trempealeau, an abandoned railroad, literally cuts through the backwaters of the Mississippi and features historical train bridges. Biking right within the Mississippi’s marshes is the closest you can get to exploring the river without a boat. Many locals say this section of the trail is the most scenic. Just off the trail, in the village of Brice Prairie, is the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Its visitor center has interactive exhibits about the migratory birds, plants, and fish native to the area.
You might rest longer than anticipated in the sleepy river town of Trempealeau. The scenery on the main channel of the Mississippi is postcard-worthy. A favorite bike hub is the Historic Trempealeau Hotel, where you and the kids can watch for trains, right on the river, while re-fueling with the Hotel’s responsibly-sourced menu. There is also the locally-owned River Cafe (closer to the trailhead, but not on the river), and the Tanglewood Cafe for ice cream, donuts, and coffee. If 30 miles sounds intimidating, drive a little further north in Onalaska to the Midway trailhead instead to cut the distance to 22 miles.
East to Veteran’s Memorial Park in West Salem
About 8 miles each way, 16 miles round trip. Veteran’s Memorial Park has a fishing pond, playground, grills, restrooms, picnic tables, and plenty of shaded grassy area for a picnic lunch stop. This portion of the trail heads away from the main channel of the river, but still cuts through scenic marshland and is a prime spot for bird watching. If the kids can handle it, continue to Bangor, about 13 miles each way, to the city park, which also has direct access to the trail on Justin Street. There are several locally-owned restaurants to choose from in downtown Bangor, about four blocks off the trail.
Some time on the farm, some time on the river—time well spent exploring rural La Crosse County.