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The La Crosse River valley provides level terrain through a rugged area of western Wisconsin for the La Crosse River State Trail. This screened-limestone rail-with-trail passes through farmland, marshes, and tracts of surviving prairie as it rolls for 21 miles between the Mississippi River town of La Crosse and Sparta.
Railway builders chose this route in the 1870s for the Chicago and North Western Railway (CNW) to carry freight and passengers between St. Paul and Chicago. A century later the railroad discontinued the route, and the state acquired it for a recreational trail that opened in the 1980s. The tracks of CNW’s rival during that time, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road), still parallel the trail and carry Canadian Pacific Railway trains and Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
The La Crosse River State Trail passes through the old whistlestops of West Salem, Bangor, and Rockland and serves as a middle leg of Wisconsin’s Bike 4 Trails route. That course comprises the Great River State Trail, La Crosse River State Trail, Elroy-Sparta State Trail, and 400 State Trail as it rolls along the Mississippi River and through the state’s Driftless Area. Snowmobiling is permitted in season.
You’ll begin at the Medary trailhead, shared with the Great River State Trail just east of La Crosse. For about the next 3 miles, you’re passing through the La Crosse River Conservancy, a privately funded refuge surrounding the marshes bordering the river. Migrating waterfowl frequent the area, which is home to beaver, red foxes, and river otters.
In 7 miles you’ll arrive at West Salem, founded in the 1850s. You can find cafés, taverns, and food stores on Leonard Street, which intersects the trail. Farmland borders the trail for the next 5 miles to Bangor, which offers restrooms and a drinking fountain at Veterans Memorial Park, just off the trail at Park Drive and James Street. More services are available in town.
Leaving Bangor, you travel through the La Crosse River Trail Prairies for the next 9 miles, with a brief interruption for the small town of Rockland. Although farms cover large areas, pockets of prairie along the trail represent the extensive grasslands that once covered this part of the state. Looking across this landscape of marshes and grasslands sprinkled with bur oaks, you can see the hilltops, bluffs, and ridges left unscathed in the last Ice Age.
The trail ends in Sparta at a renovated railroad depot, which also serves as the start of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, widely considered to be the oldest rail-trail in the United States. To understand what bicycling means to this town, head up Water Street for a couple of blocks to “Ben Bikin’,” a large statue of a man astride an old-fashioned high-wheeler bicycle.
NOTE: A State Trail Pass ($25 annually/$5 daily) is required for bicyclists ages 16 and older. Snowmobilers must display either a Wisconsin registration or a snowmobile State Trail Pass. For information, go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/trailpass .html. Camping is offered at Veterans Memorial Campground via a 0.5-mile trail at mile 5.2, and at a Department of Natural Resources walk-in campground that’s 1.2 miles east of Sparta on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail (9890 Imac Ave.).
To reach the western trailhead in La Crosse 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 trailhead parking lot. The La Crosse River State Trail heads east from here.
To reach the eastern trailhead in Sparta from I-90, take Exit 28 toward Sparta onto SR 16, heading west. Go 2.3 miles, and turn left onto S. Water St. Go 0.5 mile, and turn left onto Milwaukee St. Turn immediately right into the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead is at the old railroad depot at 111 Milwaukee St.
This is a flat ride. You need to pay $5 a day or $25 a year. You need to purchase it at a business in town. We purchased it at a golf course 1 mile from where we started.
Enjoyed this trail on an autumn Sunday morning. Crossed over 17 (?) bridges! Excellent natural surroundings- would definitely do this again.
I rode the entire length of the trail on August 1st. Great trail. Great surface. Lots of services along the way. Very busy with cyclists and walkers, but not crowded. Met other bikepackers on the route. Recommended!!
I rode the whole trail from Sparta to La Crosse and back on July 13 2022. The trail is in great condition, well maintained . It parallels an active rail line so one can see several trains during their travel. All the rest stops are clean and have running water.
Friend and I rode the portion between Bangor and Sparta. The trail was well maintained although towards Sparta, there were 3 holes in the roadbed about 6” in diameter. As a previous person mentioned, you can hear and see the freeway in some areas of the trail but you could barely hear it. We rode it in the afternoon and early evening. In the evening, you stopped for any reason, the mosquitoes will eat you. So bring bug spray. Also, it’s about 40% shade between Bangor and Sparta with a bubbler on the trail in Rockland. From a railroad fan aspect, the trail has only one historical artifact. There is an old telegraph pole with mile marker 251 on it. But the trail does parallel the CN tracks and you do get to see Amtrak go by as well as an occasional freight. There are some really nice bridges along the trail.
A group of us were in Wisconsin for the Ride Across Wisconsin (RAW) and this trail paralleled a portion of the days route from La Crosse to Sparta. Two of us were on gravel bikes so we experienced some of this trail. The trail was well maintained with two small locations that were rough due to heavy rains in the past. It is more of hard packed clay trail versus crushed limestone. It has a nice tree canopy for the portion we rode but if there was rain before your ride, there are sections that could be muddy.
We enjoyed this trail riding with friends. We rode into Rockland for a water break. Crushed stone firmly pack made ride doable for my husbands road bike. Three trains passed us while riding, so glad we found Rails to Trails!
I rode this 'trail' in the late 1960's, when it was basically a concept trail, and connected with the Sparta-Elroy trail. It actually started at Riverside Park then, on a dirt-gravel trail along the La Crosse River. I see from the trail map, it now starts several miles further, avoiding some highway crossings. At that time, it followed roads, more or less, until it got to the start of the Sparta-Elroy trail. And it was free. I doubt the scenery has changed that much. I have to put in a rating, but what rode then is much different than it is now.
We had a great ride on this trail today. We rode from La Crosse to Sparta and back. 42 miles. There is a tree down about 5 2/3 miles from La Crosse. There is a way around it but it is also pretty buggy there. We thoroughly enjoyed this ride. Trail is in very good shape and very scenic. Since the Elroy Sparta trail is in bad repair, I would highly recommend this trail.
In September 2018 a friend and I biked the trail from Sparta to La Crosse and back. The Sparta trailhead has good bathrooms and a helpful lady in the Chamber of Commerce office in the former depot. Although the 400 and Elroy-Sparta State Trails are closed due to mudslides, this trail was open and OK.
We liked the mix of farmland and small towns (recommend West Salem for lunch), nearly level trail, decent trail surface of crushed limestone, and train activity parallel to the trail
We didn't like the constant traffic noise from Interstate 90, mostly at a distance but crosses over several times.
The La Crosse trailhead has bathrooms and parking but is several miles from restaurants.
This was our 4th trail on our bike trip between Mankato to Wisconsin Dells. even though my priority is asphalt surface for biking, i still loved this trail. It seems so authentic. The trees are in shape and regularly. It was beautiful ride.
My wife and I rode the trail at the end of July 2016 and encountered no issues. In fact, we had an awesome ride and the little bar/restaurant in Rockland was very welcoming. The active rail line makes it even more special.
If were to believe a local Bike shop owner there are only two maintenance persons covering about 300 mile of trail and it is showing. in some areas the crass creep into the trail is so bad that it's not real safe to ride two abreast or pass someone. Because of the nature of the surface it packs well so generally the surface is good. It's not what it was in years past. Sure wouldn't label it a tourist draw unless your a mountain biker.
almost no maintenance done this year. Ridden it two times, once in May and again at the end of June.
was able to get on at west end twice this week while in LaCrosse for work. well maintained trail and only negative was having to rise into a headwind coming home.
I rode this trail in mid-October as a link in the four-trail chain between Reedsberg and Marshland.
The scenery on this link was not as nice in general as the other three but I appreciate the connection of the four trails for over 100 miles of continuous trails.
There was a lot of loose gravel on the short steep downhill heading north from the end of this trail toward the Great River trail. Be careful there. I had wider tires so didn't crash but narrow road tires could have been a different story.
The four trails made a great October trip, even if this was not a stellar year for fall colors.
I have absolutely no idea why the previous reviewer fussed about maintenance because we road the entire length and the trail is in great shape. It is easy, pretty and links nicely to other trails with nice little communities in between. The only reason I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 waz that the bathrooms and water fountains were shut down in mid October. That's just crazy....plenty of people on the trail and no where to get water.
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 quite 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 & there will be holes); plus there are lots of small ruts, probably caused by rider’s tires 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 Great River State Trail (which goes NW from here). The La Crosse River Trail heads east through a mix of lovely marshland, heavily wooded sections, & some farmland, w/a working railroad just to the north (great for watching trains); there are no cross roads/road access points until 5.2 miles where there is a ½ mile spur north to the large Veterans Memorial Park near West Salem on Hwy. 16, which has many toilets, pump water, picnic tables, camping, & another spur into West Salem. At 6.7 miles the trail passes through West Salem, where there is a beautiful park w/a tall, covered pavilion w/toilets & water. Crosses Linse Rd. at 8.8 miles; from here east the trail is pretty close to Hwy. B & I 90 to the south. Another 2 ¼ miles is Bangor (which is where I turned around so I didn’t go the final stretch to Sparta, but I assume the trail condition is similar; I remember years ago completing this section & it is more open & too close to I 90 for my taste). Hey Wisconsin, take care of your precious environment before it is too late– bike trails & other natural areas attract paying tourists!
My wife and I rode from West Salem to Sparta and back, September 23. It is a gentle grade with both open spaces and wooded areas. The trail surface is so well maintained, one scarcely notices it's not paved. Excellent riding surface. As a former dairyman, I liked seeing so many dairy farms along the trail. Enjoyed seeing such pretty rolling wisconsin hills. The old Sparta depot has a good souvenir selection if so inclined. Truly exceptional biking experience!
I rode this 22 mile trail on August 28, 2008 with my Scorpion Fx recumbent trike. This trail isn't much on scenery except for when going through some densely populated wooded areas, but consists mainly of open meadows and wet lands. I did, however, enjoy going over the old iron trestle that spans the La Crosse River. The trail surface is composed of crushed limestone, and is fairly straight and easy to ride with only a few slight gradients. I began the ride at Sparta, and rode to the trail head in Onalaska You can continue from here through the town of Onalaska, and connect with the Great River Trail for another 25 miles. You will also find parking in the small village of Bangor and the town of West Salem as well as a nice rest area to just relax at with rest room facilities, and a soft drink vending machine. To get to the trailhead depot at Sparta turn at the corner where you'll find the tall statue of "Ben Biken", and go about two blocks, the depot will be on your left.
"This trail is adjacent to a heavily used Canadian Pacific rail line. The Amtrak Empire Builder also passes through twice a day. The trail itself is in a oak savannah prairie from Sparta to West Salem which is one of only a few prairie remants still standing. Near the La Crosse end of the trail, the scenery switches to wetland with great views of the surrounding hills. "
"This trail was part of our first full day riding across the state. I've heard it described as ""prarie-like"" and this is certainly true on the western end. After a short run on streets through Onalaska, from the Great River Trail, the recently completed connector brings you to the main trail at a dedicated bridge over the railroad tracks. Running is smooth and grades gradual all the way to Sparta. Services may be sparse in some of the midway towns."
I noticed that the trail indicates it goes from Sparta to La Crosse.That information is incorrect. It goes from Sparta to the Medary Trailhead and on to Onalaska. It also does not indicate that Onalaska is a nearby city. Onalaska and the Great River State Trail are interconnected to this trail.
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