La Crosse was incorporated as a city in 1856, but its history dates further. The first Europeans to see the site of La Crosse were French fur traders who traveled the Mississippi River in the late 17th century. There is no written record, however, of any visit to the site until 1805, when Lt. Zebulon Pike mounted an expedition up the Mississippi River for the United States. Pike recorded the location’s name as “Prairie La Crosse.” The name originated when he saw the Native Americans playing a game with sticks that resembled a bishop’s crozier, or la crosse in French.
A small Mormon community settled at La Crosse in 1844, building several dozen cabins a few miles south of Myrick’s post. The land they occupied near La Crosse continues to bear the name Mormon Coulee.
In 1850, Father James Lloyd Breck of the Episcopal Church said the first Christian liturgy on top of Grandad Bluff. Today a monument to that event stands atop the bluff, near the parking lot at a scenic overlook.
More permanent development took place closer to Myrick’s trading post, where stores, a hotel, and a post office were constructed during the 1840s. The city grew even more rapidly after 1858 with the completion of the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad, the second railroad connecting Milwaukee to the Mississippi River.
During the second half of the 19th century, La Crosse grew to become one of the largest cities in Wisconsin, and today it is the largest city on Wisconsin’s western border. Around the turn of the 20th century, the city also became a center for education, with three colleges and universities established in the city between 1890 and 1912; the educational institutions in the city have recently led it toward becoming a regional technology and medical hub.
The meandering waterways of the La Crosse area are a paddling paradise, offering wetlands courses for gentle canoe rides as well as moderate to strenuous kayaking adventures along the Mississippi, Black, or La Crosse Rivers. Canoe trails, launches, and outfitters abound in the area, making it one of the best paddling destinations in the region.
Situated directly on the Mississippi River just three miles south of La Crosse’s largest county campground, Goose Island Campground & Park is popular for its nature trails, excellent fishing, and beautiful views and sunsets. The canoe trail has seven miles of moderate paddling that will take you 4-5 hours to complete. Canoe rentals are available from Goose Island County Park.
One of western Wisconsin’s most popular campground destinations, located in nearby West Salem, offers canoe and kayak rentals for paddlers who wish to explore and relax on Lake Neshonoc’s beautiful, placid waters. You’ll also find a resort located directly across the Mississippi River’s main channel from downtown La Crosse, offering excellent access to the myriad backwaters and smaller channels meandering through the area, as well as canoe and paddleboat rentals to explore them.
There are a variety of options available to get some exploring done. Upper Mississippi National Fish & Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trails is a 240,000-acre refuge encompassing 231 miles of the Mississippi River. These trails will ensure you enjoy marked and open canoe areas in La Crosse County. Lake Onalaska Canoe Trail is the newest marked trail on the refuge. Follow Mississippi River backwaters out onto Lake Onalaska. From Lytle’s Landing, it’s an easy four-mile trail to Fred Funk Landing, and Brown’s Marsh Canoe Area (Lytle’s Landing) is a canoe area without a marked trail. It is closed year-round to motorized watercraft and offers easy paddling.
The La Crosse River is an often-overlooked paddle from Lake Neshonoc in West Salem all the way to Riverside Park in La Crosse. With six conveniently spaced boat landings situated below Lake Neshonoc, you can plan for a quick paddle or an all-day, leisurely paddle. There are also canoe, kayak, pontoon, and fishing boat rentals on nearby Lake Onalaska.