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The Great River State Trail is named for the Mississippi River, but Ol’ Man River stays mostly out of sight if you follow this 24-mile trail through river marshes, wildlife preserves, hardwood forests, and old river towns on its eastern shoreline.
The trail traces the old Chicago and North Western Railway, which opened a route between the Twin Cities and Chicago in the 1870s. It became disused in the 1970s and was acquired for use as a trail in 1984. A 100-mile length of that former rail route is preserved by Bike 4 Trails, a combination of four state rail-trails—Great River, La Crosse River, Elroy-Sparta, and 400 —that roll from the Mississippi River and across the rugged Driftless Area. The Great River State Trail is also part of a designated 3,000-mile bicycle route, called the Mississippi River Trail, that runs from the headwaters of Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Beginning in Marshland on Great River Road, you’ll immediately enter the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. The 6,500-acre refuge is on the Mississippi Flyway, so if you time your visit right, you’ll be in the company of a vast assortment of waterfowl, wading birds, and migratory songbirds. Watch for offshoot trails that explore the refuge. You’ll pick up the railroad grade as you leave the preserve on Refuge Road. About 2.3 miles after leaving the refuge, you’ll pass the entrance to a campground for Perrot State Park, which features more wildlife viewing in its rugged terrain of hills, ridges, and bluffs.
Less than 3 miles past the campground, you’ll enter the small town of Trempealeau, which provides a nice break with its cafés and parks. Earthen mounds in the vicinity are evidence of civilizations that date back 1,000 years. For the next 10 miles, you’ll pass through peaceful wooded areas that provide shade on a warm summer day, and then a series of bridges that span several small tributaries within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Six miles past Trempealeau is Lytles Landing, a boat launch park that provides parking and trail access, as well as a 1,200-foot-long railroad trestle spanning the river.
Continuing south, the trail passes small neighborhoods and pockets of woods. You’ll ride alongside Lake Onalaska, an impoundment of the Black and Mississippi Rivers, for a couple of miles before arriving in the heart of Onalaska about 8 miles past Lytles Landing. There are restaurants and pubs here. A 0.7-mile trail gap requires that you follow signs on side streets to Hilltopper and Oak Forest Drives, where the trail resumes.
You’ll pass through a warehouse zone and some woods with a bridge over the La Crosse River before you arrive, in 1.9 miles, at the trailhead for the La Crosse River State Trail. This marks the end of the Great River State Trail, but more adventures await if you choose to continue ahead to Sparta.
Snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are permitted based on local county announcements. Hunting is allowed, in season, about 3 miles north and 10 miles south of the village of Trempealeau.
NOTE: A State Trail Pass ($25 annually/$5 daily) is required for bicyclists ages 16 and older. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/trailpass.html. Snow-mobilers must display either a Wisconsin registration or a snowmobile State Trail Pass, and hunters must have a license.
To reach the Marshland trailhead from I-90, take Exit 4 onto US 53 headed north. Go 19.1 miles on US 53 to Galesville, and follow SR 54/SR 93 straight as US 53 goes right. Go 5.2 miles, and stay straight on SR 54 as SR 93 turns right and SR 35 enters from the left. In 5.2 miles, just before the railroad tracks in Marshland, turn left at the brown marshland access sign. Parking is a short distance down this road in the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.
To reach the southern trailhead from I-90, take Exit 5 south toward La Crosse on SR 16. Go 1.8 miles, and turn left onto County Road B. Go 0.4 mile, and turn left into the parking lot for the La Crosse River State Trail. The Great River State Trail heads northwest from here.
In September 2018 a friend and I biked the trail from Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge to Onalaska and back. Unfortunately it rained heavily all morning, so our ride south was nearly all in 1-2 inches of water. Coming back later in the day, the puddles were mostly gone thanks to sandy soil. Other than skirting the town of Trempealeau, the view is nearly all Mississippi backwaters, restful and boring. We hoped to see migratory birds but were too early. BE CAREFUL on the bridges: the wooden patches sometimes are at an angle and have nails sticking up. Also, there are no bathrooms or businesses north of the town of Trempealeau.
This trail was our 3rd trail between Mankato,MN to Wisconsin Dells,WI. We used it from beginning to the end. When we started in Marshland Access, the trail was closed. We had no idea why it was closed. After a mile we saw a puddle on trail and we passed it. Half mile further we saw another puddle and passed it too. It was not a big deal. But after half mile we saw that river was flooded. We already made 160 miles from Mankato and did not want to give up. We passed the flooded river by walking with our bikes. The water was on our hips and pushing us away. It was the unforgettable moment. We enjoyed it. After that finally we got into real trail. It was in the wood. The surface is gravel and crushed stone. Also covered with alot of branches. This trail could be top if it was asphalt but with this bad surface , the rank will be always down. Just scenic.. Not really good for bikers. Maybe snowmobile or skiing would be the best choice for this trail.
Rode from Onalaska to Trempealeau on a gorgeous late fall day. It was very quiet and peaceful, lots of pretty marshland. One of the bridges was super neat. The trail was in better shape than others have reviewed- fine for a hybrid bike pulling a puppy in a bike trailer.
Went from Trembeleau to past Lytles Landing (the long Black River Bridge). About 12.2 miles round trip. This section of the trail, while a little rough and frequent broken branch fragments, was not as bad condition as others have described in their reviews. I probably wouldn't want to ride it with one of those skinny tired bikes. Was very peaceful, not many bikers (maybe the trail conditions keep them away). There is a nice spur to an overlook platform with telescope to scan a large backwaters area.
I would definitely go to this trail again, interested in trying out other segments.
Only complaint and advice to others is to buy your passes (if you don't have an annual pass already) ahead of time. There is not a self-pay station at either parking lot trailhead (neither end of the leg we did). We got our bikes off, rode over to the post that we thought would have self-pay, only to read it tells you locations of businesses in Trembeleau and somewhere else you can buy a pass. Fortunately one gas station is only a short jaunt back into Trembeleau. I can only guess that there is a lack of funding for someone to come and empty the payboxes regularly.
Not really a bike trail, so much as two tire tracks. Grass is overgrowing the trail, and the tracks are muddy and rutted in many places. bridges are getting pretty rough too.
First of all, the natural beauty of this trail is amazing, way past 5 stars! The trail itself is in terrible shape and looks to me like an accident and lawsuit about to happen. There are two tire track trails to follow with grass 6-12 inches tall in the center. There are washouts, deep and winding ruts and almost no limestone left on the trail. Weed limbs are getting real long from the sides of the trails and swipe you in the face if you are not careful. Beautiful bridges are in a sad state with nails showing, holes, plywood pieces covering some bad spots and just plain coming apart. It's hard to keep your eyes on the beauty of nature when you might have a bike accident if you don't keep your eyes on the trail. Where does the money go that is paid for trail passes, what can we do to get this beautiful area's trail upgraded before it costs a fortune for repairs? For now, my friends and I are going to ride trails in Minnesota until this trail gets improved.
We rode from Trempeleau northwest to the end of the trail at Marsh Access where there is small parking lot. Lows of wildlife, including a young beaver very close to the trail feeding on some plants, deer, all sort of birds. We passed the cemetery in Trempeleau lined with flags for Memorial Day. The trail is a big rough in spots, probably from horse riding when the trail is soft in early spring. I liked the run from Trempeleau south to Unalaska with several bridge crossings and lots of marshes and forests. All in all an outstanding trail.
The 400 Trail, connecting at Elroy with the longer and better known Elroy-Sparta Trail, compares very favorably with its sister trails. It winds through the Baraboo River valley and passes through some very nice small towns. It is much more level than the Elroy-Sparta Trail, but every bit as beautiful. I saw lots of large turtles, deer, and two very large and very odd looking brown birds that I am still trying to identify. The trail surface was excellent. I hope to ride it again someday.
I've ridden this about 6 times this year and it's really suffering from a lack on maintenance. Bridges are in need of serious work. trail hasn't been maintained (no mowing or cutting back brush)generally pretty rough. Looks like more of a mountain bike trail. Despite the lack of maintenance the state has raised their fees to use it.
Great River trail is a pretty easy ride, with minimal change in grade, pretty smooth surface, mostly crushed stone, some smoother bare ground spots.
Each time we've been on the trail, we've camped at Perrot State Park, from which there is access to the trail.
North from the park is the Trempeleau National Wildlife Refuge, with an observation deck, that makes for a good spot for a break. South from the park, you will see a mix of natural beauty, and a couple small towns, with a steel train trestle near Lytle's Landing. The trail ends in Onalaska, where it links to the Lacrosse River Trail.
It is part of Bike 4 Trails, which is the Great River Trail, Lacrosse River Trail, Elroy-Sparta Trail, and The "400" Trail.
I rode this trial and the other three connected ones that run between Reedsberg and Marshland in mid-October.
There were almost no other riders and the scenery was quite nice. No Mississippi River views but lots of bridges across tributaries.
I agree the condition of the trail was not great, but I had no problems with a cross bike with wider tires.
It is annoying that WI charges a $4/day trail user fee but apparently does not use the proceeds to properly maintain the trails.
Loved the small town of Trempeleau. Old hotel had a nice restaurant and deck to sit on.
I think the previous reviewer pretty much summed up a lot of points I was going to make but I will add a few more. This is a beautiful, easy route, except for the section that goes thru Onalaska and a busy intersection. But past that is really nice. My husband and I went from Medary to Marshland and back...48 miles. Fortunately I was riding my cyclocross bike and he had his hybrid cause if we used road bikes here it would have been bad. The section past trempeleau is potholed and in poor shape and most of the trail in general needs to get the grass out. The bridges are ok but I agree that the rails are warped and the planking bumpy. We enjoyed the ride for the most part but it's really sad that such a jewel of a trail is not being maintained.
5 stars strictly for the ambience of the area. Trail surface I would rate at best a C, but the areas the trail passes through are definitely an A+. This trail needs maintenance soon; unfortunately since 2010 Wisconsin’s government decided spending any money for natural resources was no longer an option since businesses & the rich needed more tax breaks, & it’s starting to show on our once great bike trails. This often very narrow, hard-packed crushed limestone trail is very bumpy; much of the limestone is gone so the surface left, though still very hard, is starting to erode in big patches (a few more years & this will be a “very sore butt ride”); plus there are lots of small ruts, probably caused by rider’s tires or heavy equipment during spring thaw or saturating rains, & a few large varmint holes. There are a few sections still in pretty good shape where there is more crushed limestone left. There is a large parking area at the Medary trailhead (w/toilets) on County Hwy. B, just east of Hwy. 16, south of Onalaska, where this trail intersects w/the La Crosse River Trail (which goes east from here). The Great River Trail heads NW into Onalaska (watch out for the beginning of this trail just after crossing the long bridge over the railroad as there is very loose sandy limestone mix for a couple hundred feet) where you must travel some busy streets (using sidewalks) & then alleys, before riding into wooded bluffs overlooking the river & railroads, & then into lots of backwater areas (from Onalaska to Trempealeau, about 14 miles, there are only 4 road access points – for emergencies – Z & ZN around 4 miles, Lytles Landing around 8 miles, & then Trempealeau); from there to the north end there are quite a few more. The real treasures of this trail, however, are 2 access points. Just NW of Trempealeau is Perrot State Park, definitely worth a ride through the hilly hard surface road. And DEFINITELY DO NOT MISS the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge at the northern end of the trail (parking at end of trail or w/in the refuge). Absolutely beautiful w/thousands of birds during spring & fall migrations, including dozens of duck species, pelicans, bald eagles, egrets, bluebirds (& many other songbirds) throughout the woodlands & huge backwater areas; there are over 20 miles of bike-allowed trails in here, & since it is federal land, they are in MUCH better shape than the Great River Trail, but they are bumpy just because the limestone base is larger (but a more “smooth/ even” bumpiness, unlike the ruts/ holes/ jarring bumpiness of the GRT). Hey Wisconsin, take care of your precious environment before it is too late– bike trails & other natural areas attract paying tourists!
Was on this trail first part of August 2015. Starting out from parking lot in Midway and biking to Trempeleau round trip 36 miles. We were disappointed the trail had a grass strip down the center looking like a lane you would find going back into some farm field. This went on pretty much all the way to Trempeleau. All the bridges had warped decks and side rails. There were nails coming up from some of the decks. Had to watch where we rode in crossing them. There were many tree limbs hanging down over trail, had to duck down as we rode along. Is the worst Wisconsin trail we have been on this year. We noticed that there was a lack of riders out on this trail and no cars in many of the trail head parking areas. The Trempeleau end was the best part as we could ride to the lock and dam and then later through Perrot State Park on hard surface. Hope the state of Wisconsin will put some effort into grading this trail and resurfacing. Paying a trail fee for trail usage we wonder where these fees go. Will not ride this trail again any time soon.
Absolutely amazing path that's an easy ride and offers many scenic views especially in the Autumn. Very well maintained and in the 6 mile section we covered to Trempeleau there were at least ten bridges that we crossed. Highly recommend. It offers a number of wide spots in the trail for a quick break and facilities along the way even if spartan-like. Enjoy!
I have been enjoying this trail since childhood. There is something for everyone whether you bike, walk or run. The most scenic part is from Midway to Perrot park or visiting the lock and dam to see the boats go through.(turn left at the gas station in Trempleau and follow the road down the hill) This section of the trail has long been a favorite for the wildlife I have seen: eagles, heron, waterfowl of many kinds, turkey, deer (I hit a deer while riding my bike in 2005) turtles (painted, box and snapping) and snakes. A great way to get the kids into biking and appreciating nature. I attach a lot of sentimental value to this area it may not seem to be all that to someone who has not had the many good times we have had here, also a good choice on windy days since it is an easy trail.
On June 20, 2012 we biked this trail from Trempeauleau to the Upper Mississippi River Fish and Wildlife Refuge and back through Trempealeau. Then we rode on to Lytles Landing where some young boys told us about fishing for the "crazy" dogfish and back to Trempealeau. Nice trail. A daily pass @ $4.00 per person is required. We bought ours at a gas station/convenience store in Trempeauleau.
We rode this trail on a Sunday in late October. I was surprised there were so few people using the trail. We parked at the north end at the entrance to the wildlife refuge on West Prairie Road. The trail maps show the refuge’s scenic drive as part of the trail but we did not ride that portion. The bike-only trail beginning at this parking area has the best surface I’ve ever seen on an unpaved trail; hard-packed stone smoother than many paved road I’ve ridden except for a short stretch of sandier (but still quite solid) surface near the Onalaska end. I had a road bike with the widest tires that will fit (700x35) but I wouldn’t hesitate to ride this trail with skinny slicks. There are rest areas spaced at about 5 mile intervals along the trail, but no facilities at the refuge parking lot.
Go into this ride with the understanding that in spite of the name you are going to get only 1 brief view of the Mississippi, looking north near the Onalaska end. With that out of the way, enjoy the trees and farm fields, wetlands and many bridges. The on-road segment in Onalaska is pretty well marked, but when going south don’t miss reconnecting to the trail on the right after crossing highway 35 at the stoplight. From here it’s an easy ride to the Medary trailhead which joins this trail with the La Crosse River State Trail.
A note about trail distances: Mile markers start at zero on the north side of Onalaska; it’s almost 3 miles from there to the Medary trailhead. The mile markers quickly become spotty then disappear, then reappear mid-trail only to die out again, and finally reappear near the northern end, with an extra 1.2 miles suddenly added on. I measured 22 miles from the refuge parking lot to Medary.
I rode this trail during the last weekend of July. Generally, it is a nice trail, not too bumpy, not too crowded and fairly shaded in most areas. The only bad part of this trail is that for about 5 miles or so right in the middle of trail, it was infested with all manners of biting insects. It was four days ago and I am still itching. I was sweating alot and I got bit up pretty badly. This was near the swampy/boggy area on the trail. Just beware.
Stopped in the first gas station/convenience store right off the trail in Trempealeau. Nice place with reasonable prices.
This trail connects with the La Crosse River trail if a rider keeps going south and east from Onalaska.
Ultimately you could keep riding all the way to Sparta and beyond.
Despite some difficulty finding the trail head we started our trip in Onalaska and traveled to Perrot Park. We enjoyed a picnic lunch there, chatted with the rangers, climbed up Brady's Bluff for spectatular views of Mississippi. The trail itself is mostly through the marsh with lots of bridges and wildlife (we saw two cranes strolling on the trail) along the way.
July 17, 2009
My wife and myself are working up our distance and can now easily bike about 25 - 30 miles at a clip. We entered the trail at the parking area on County Road OT in Holman and did the 10 miles to Trempealeau and then returned. We needed to complete a quick ride as we had to check out of the motel and I wanted to take a good hot shower before hitting the road for home (Laporte, Indiana). We rode the Elroy-Sparta Trail the previous two days.
The Prairie Inn & Suites, a very nice motel (clean and new) and very reasonably priced, is only about 1/2 mile from the trail, just off of County Road OT. There is a McDonalds, Subway and gas station next to the motel. We will make it our "Base of Operations" next time we visit the area.
This trail is very secluded and really gets you back into nature. We enjoyed the easy ride, with very gradual uphill grades. The scenery along the marshes and river is beautiful. I whispered to my wife to slow down and be quiet, as there was a deer up on the trail ahead .... it turned out to be a very large crane. We approached it very slowly and then dismounted and it remained on the trail, walking along in front of us for about 100 feet, until we had to startle it and get back on the bikes and head back to Holman.
Along the bike trail, just before entering the Perrot State Park, is the Lock and Dam #6 in Trempealeau. It is a must see if you've never seen a string of barges pass through a lock. There are clean restrooms and it is very well landscaped and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers ... our tax dollars at work.
The Historic Trempealeau Hotel Restaurant and Saloon is just next to the Locks and has pretty good food at reasonable prices. The vegetarian walnut based meat substitute lasagna was good.
We can't wait to return in the fall to see the trees changing color and to hike in the Perrot Sate Park.
The bike trail runs through the park, past the campground and near one of the highest peaks in the area. It's hiking trail offers a great view of the Mississippi River and the breathtaking shoreline of Minnesota.
..... Steve & Ann
"This trail traverses through deep woods and meadows crossing many wood plank bridges including the lengthy iron trestle bridge over the black river.
If you plan on staying overnight the Pleasant Knoll motel in Trempealeau is a nice place to stay with reasonable rates.
There's a trailhead about a mile outside Trempealeau on the south end of town along Hwy. 35. This is where I started my ride from with my Scorpion Fx trike. There are rest room facilities here, and one other time when you reach the black trestle.
This trail is exceptionally easy to ride on it's crushed limestone, with virtually no grades encountered. However, it can be noisy at times since it parallels a pair of railroad tracts. I encountered numerous trains going in both directions which broke the silence.
I began my ride going south to onalaska. I think the south end provides the best scenery with it's deep cool woods, and lush meadows alive with butterflies and grass hoppers. you'll cross over numerous creeks and waterways before you arrive in Onalaska as well as the small village of Midway which is about 5 miles north of Onalaska.
As you go north from the trailhead you'll find yourself crossing many roadways to get through Trempealeau. Once clear from the residential area of town the trail once again finds it's way through lush forest. All though, this end of the trail supports more open areas that are less spectacular scenery wise.
Once at the northern end you'll reach Marshland which is basically the Trempealeau Wildlife Preserve. This is where you'll find the parking area for the northern trailhead.
From here, the trail takes you into the preserve on a 3 1/2 mile loop on gravel roads shared with cars. About half way around, the trail branches off to the right onto another loop road, which passes between a swamp. This road is strictly for bikes, and no cars allowed. I found the gravel roads through the preserve to be an additional six miles, and that was without doing the complete secondary loop. The gravel roads through the preserve are hilly, and can be quite taxing on your legs. I found myself pumping extremely hard with the trike, and some fish tailing Occurring going up hills on the gravel.
All in all I found this to be one of my favorite trails, and drove six hours the following week to do it again."
"This is a very easy trail to ride. The surface is hard packed and almost level. Although the Mississippi River is not visible along most of the trail, the wetland scenery is great, and lots of wildlife can be viewed. This would be a great family ride."
This trail has always been a great one to ride since I first rode it in 1989. The wetland scenery from the Black River Bridge (mp 8) to Trempealeau is spectacular. I recommend a side trip through Perrot State Park which features tree lined bluff and great views of the Mississippi River.
Riding along the Mississippi River is an amazing experience just because of how huge it is and how much it connects you to nature. The gravel road through the wildlife refuge is interesting and there is a pair of binoculars at the river's edge there for watching large birds across the huge expanse and freight trains hugging the bluffs on the far side.
Overall it was a fantastic trip.
"We started our cross-state trek at Winona MN and camped at Perrot SP. This trail has some of the nicest river scenery I've experienced, especially near the Black River. The trailhead at Marshland isn't obvious, doubly so in the dark; find the parking area E. of the RR crossing for the NWR; the trail starts here."
This beautiful trail along the Mississippi River is well packed and the scenery is breathtaking. The River provides a changing panorama all year. Autumn makes for a gorgeous color-rama.
The Trempealeau Hotel is a must stop for great food. Try the Walnut balls or burger.
The slight down hill from Trempealeau back to Lacrosse eases the return journey.
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