Bikes, birds and bogs along Wisconsin's River Road

Between Trempealeau and Onalaska, cyclists encounter a happy mix of wildlife and civilization.

Bicyclists on the Great River State Trail.
Dozens of bridges cross rivers, sloughs and wetlands on the trail.

The pelicans and cormorants of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge are used to train whistles and the distant popping of trap guns. But they're even more used to the whir of bicycle gears.

Each fall, birds and bicyclists migrate to the same place along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

Here, the 24-mile Great River State Trail starts in the refuge, skirts Perrot State Park and goes through the river town of Trempealeau before entering the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and then the prairie outside Onalaska.

Onalaska, just north of La Crosse, grew up around a lumber mill and today is where the citizens of its hemmed-in sister city come to dine, shop and fish.

At first glance, Onalaska isn't much. Virtually the only fancy house in town is the the longtime Lumber Baron Inn, built in 1888 by the man who owned the sawmill.

Lake Onalaska, created by the damming of the Mississippi and Black rivers, appears only in tantalizing glimpses from Wisconsin 35, then disappears as the highway heads north.

The bicycle trail at the foot of the bluffs is the best way to see the lake and bottomlands, and I'd arranged for shuttle service to the trailhead the next morning.

I took a sunset drive into the coulee country just outside town, climbing along County Road S onto a high ridge, past quarries and apple orchards.

The view of far-off valleys fading into the twilight haze was spectacular.

The next morning, I met my driver at the Onalaska visitors center.

Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge.
The trail starts in Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.

On our way to the northern trailhead, we passed a llama ranch and a berry farm, where we bought pints of raspberries before he dropped me off, returning my car to the visitors center.

In Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, all was quiet. A great blue heron looked at me from a moss-covered pond next to the trail before flying off with a few languid flaps.

At an observation platform on a Mississippi backwater that was alive with birds, Don and Christine Reel of Milwaukee were studying some yellowlegs through the birding scope.

"That's a shore bird just coming through," Don Reel said. "And look, there's a white heron, and a blue one right next to it. There are lots of coots, of course, and cormorants. We came in May, too; that was fantastic."

I passed more marshes, framed by dead trees and, in the distance, a range of blue peaks. French explorers called the largest of these La Montagne Qui Trempe a l'Eau, "the mountain that soaks in the water."

In Trempealeau, I turned off the trail and rode down to the riverbank and the Trempealeau Hotel, an 1871 working-man's hotel that now serves fajitas and grilled fish on an enclosed porch.

This porch may be the most pleasant lunch spot on the Upper Mississippi; I ate a walnut burger, watched a barge pass by and chatted with a couple who had spent the previous day catching heaps of catfish.

There were more lakes and marshes on the next stretch, and brilliant red sumac lined the trail. I spotted a pheasant just off the trail and began stalking it with my camera, until approaching cyclists made it mince into the underbrush.

One sludgy marsh was particularly appealing to herons; whenever I started to pedal away, one more flew into view. Above another marsh, dozens of swooping swallows put on an air show.

From one of the 18 wooden bridges, I spotted 12 turtles lined up on a fallen log. I stopped to photograph a snowy-white milkweed pod, then again to watch a train thunder by.

Bicyclists ride the Great River Trail near Trempealeau.
The Great River State Trail goes through river bottoms and past bogs.

At Lytles Landing, the bottomlands turned to prairie, and a skunk crossed the trail just ahead.

Lake Onalaska appeared, and in a few more minutes, the trail had dumped me into downtown Onalaska

It had taken me most of the day to ride the Great River State Trail, probably a record slow time. Of course, I had a lot to look at.

Trip Tips: Wisconsin's Great River Trail around Trempealeau

Getting there: It's half an hour north of La Crosse.

Bicycling: The Great River State Trail is 24 scenic miles from a wildlife refuge north of Trempealeau to Onalaska, through Mississippi wetlands.

From Wisconsin 35, the northern trailhead is reached via the Marshland access of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, 8½ miles north of Trempealeau. The surface is finely crushed limestone pressed into hard dirt.

A milkweed on the Great River Trail.
A milkweed pod spills its silk along the trail.

Just north of Onalaska, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge-La Crosse District Visitor Center is 1.4 miles via County Road ZN from the trail and has two miles of trails through 186 acres of restored sand prairie.

In Onalaska, the Great River trail connects with the 22-mile La Crosse River Trail, which connects with the Elroy-Sparta and 400 trails to provide 101 miles of trails.

Trail passes cost $5 daily, $25 annual.

Accommodations: In the coulees north of Onalaska, Rainbow Ridge Farms B&B is a hobby farm with goats, sheep, llamas and donkeys. It has three rooms, one with twin beds.

In Trempealeau, the Trempealeau Hotel has two attractive suites in the Doc West House next door, with whirlpool and gas stove. Above the restaurant are eight comfortable rooms that share one bath. Four motel rooms are near the dam.

Perrot State Park has 104 campsites, 608-534-6409.

Dining: The screened porch of the Trempealeau Hotel is the place to be on a summery day. Try the famous walnut burgers and a microbrew.

Just north of downtown in Onalaska, the Blue Moon serves hearty American classics with lake views.

Information: For more, see Trails of Trempealeau.

Last updated on April 28, 2021

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