Two and a half hours south of St. Paul, Minnesota, on the Empire Builder, this historic and lively Mississippi River city offers an abundance of outdoor recreational activities.
Hike Hixon Forest
Saved from development by preservationist Ellen Hixon in the early 1900s, Hixon Forest (pictured above) sprawls over 800 acres of limestone bluffs. A dozen trails wind through the forest, with some—like the 2.3-mile Vista Trail—reaching bluff-top prairies with dramatic views of the Mississippi Valley.
Paddle at Goose Island County Park
The Mississippi River is rich with backwater habitats that make for easy paddling. At Goose Island County Park, a water trail guides paddlers on a seven-mile route around the island through patches of American lotus and cattails. Look out for blue herons, muskrats, and beavers.
Bike the Great River Trail
Complete your outdoors trifecta with a bike ride along the 24-mile (one-way) crushed limestone trail that runs through floodplain prairies, ending at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. The trail passes by ancient burial mounds and through the village of Trempealeau and its charming downtown.
Located in the heart of La Crosse’s revitalized down- town, this former candy factory has been transformed into a luxury hotel. The Charmant—named after one of the premium candies made by the building’s former occupant—boasts a French-inspired restaurant, a sleek coffee bar, and a rooftop lounge with 360-degree views of the city. thecharmanthotel.com
Browse owner John Satory’s eclectic and quirky inventory, which includes his own handcrafted jewelry, as well as fine art pieces, antiques, and curiosities that he finds in his travels around the world, like stunning Chinese screen panels and petrified dinosaur eggs. satori-arts-gallery.com
Eat & Drink
The Sweet Shop
For nearly a century, the Sweet Shop has been making people smile with its homemade ice creams and toppings (try a turtle sundae). Too cold for a cone? Indulge in peanut brittle, cinnamon drops, or house-made mallow cups.
Accented with soft lighting and plush velvet fabrics, this converted 19th-century brick storefront is the perfect spot to unwind after a busy day outdoors. The restaurant features a seasonally inspired menu that emphasizes simple dishes with the best ingredients, like tortelli filled with sweet potatoes and cranberries and tender lamb shank with risotto. lovechildrestaurant.com
Turtle Stack Brewery
This craft brewery in the heart of downtown—its name inspired by the local turtles’ habit of packing onto logs to bask in the warm sun— has developed a reputation for brewing high-quality beers and occasionally pushing the limits (as with its jalapeño–honey Scotch ale). turtlestackbrewery.com
This book by biology professor Calvin Fremling is a must-read for anyone interested in the environmental and cultural history of the Upper Mississippi River. Fremling writes clearly and concisely about a complex system he spent a lifetime getting to know.