Just a 2.5 hour drive from Minneapolis, La Crosse, Wisconsin has much to offer Minneapolitans in need of an escape. The drive itself is beautiful, and there are some great options for scenic views on the way down. The quickest route, US-52 south to Rochester then Interstate 90 east to La Crosse, is surprisingly scenic. I-90 passes through beautiful rolling countryside. You can also invest a little extra time in the drive (making the total closer to 3 hours) and head south on the Great River Road, enjoying stunning views of the Mississippi River and the river bluffs all the way. A perfect start to your La Crosse getaway!
What to do during your La Crosse Getaway
Stroll along the riverbank at Riverside Park
Riverside Park, on the banks of the Mississippi, is located at the confluence of the Mississippi, Black and La Crosse Rivers. Multiple paths, viewing points and benches await for you to enjoy the views. Depending on the season, you may just be lucky enough to see one of the large steamboats that port at the levee centered in the park. At the north end of the park, you’ll find the beautiful Riverside International Friendship Gardens. The park is just blocks away from Historic Downtown La Crosse, with charming old architecture, plentiful restaurants and fun shopping. But whatever you do, be sure to come back to Riverside Park to watch the sun set over the river!
There is some street parking near the park, but there’s also some construction going on that limits parking. If you’re going on the river cruise, you can park in their dedicated parking lot. Otherwise you might do well to park in one of the downtown parking ramps. During Moon Tunes, a trolley runs between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. to take concertgoers to and from Riverside Park.
Cruise back in time
Hop on the La Crosse Queen Cruises for a cruise down the river in a genuine Mississippi paddlewheel. The La Crosse Queen is a modern-day replica of the grand river boats that plied the Mississippi River in the early 1900s. It’s one of the few authentic paddlewheel boats still in operation in the United States today, as the sternwheel paddles are the only means of propulsion.
The hour-and-a-half sightseeing cruise is the perfect way to see the Mississippi. An informative guide helps you learn about Mississippi River and La Crosse area history. While the La Crosse Queen paddles the main channel of the river, your guide will share facts and trivia from historical times and the present day, as well as local points of interest. Watch for bald eagles and other wildlife as you cruise past the steep bluffs adjacent to the Great River Road. Passing through one of the few remaining swing bridges in the country was memorable for me.
Seating choices include an upper deck, with open seating and seating under a canopy, and a fully enclosed, temperature controlled lower deck. You can enjoy the sights in any weather. Snacks and restrooms are on board for your comfort, as well as a full cash bar. You may book tickets up to four weeks ahead, either online or over the phone. Other tour options include a pizza cruise, Saturday night dinner cruise, and Sunday brunch.
Moon Tunes: Free summer concerts under the stars
Riverside Park has a gorgeous new bandshell, and you can enjoy it during Moon Tunes, free outdoor concerts held on Thursday nights all summer long.
Grammy award-winning artist Bill Miller kicked off the 2022 season June 2. Other nights will feature the La Crosse Jazz Orchestra, Country music, Classic Rock, Blues, Irish music and more, including a community jam.
There is bench seating for more than 700 people. Many more concertgoers can sit on the broad grassy area behind that. Bring your blanket and your picnic! (And don’t forget bug spray in case the mosquitoes come out.)
WholeTrees Structures, a design and construction company, completed the installation of the magnificent timber frame amphitheater. All timber was harvested from sustainably managed forests in Wisconsin’s Driftless region. Roald Gundersen’s design showcases windbent arches up to 32 feet high and spanning up to 84 feet. The roof system, covered with copper scallop shingles, is its crowning jewel. Three years in the making, the $1 million bandshell was a community-funded effort. The hat was passed during concerts at the old bandshell, and so it was created by music makers and music lovers.
The structure is lit every night from dusk to dawn and has quickly become a downtown landmark.
Where to eat and sleep during your La Crosse getaway
There’s some great restaurant options near Riverside Park, including the Waterfront, the Freighthouse, and the Charmant Hotel. The Charmant is also a great place to stay during your La Crosse getaway. Other hotels near the river include the Radisson, the Hampton Inn, Grandstay Hotels and Suites, and Courtyard by Marriott.
Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis
Did you know there are lots of places to see and walk by the Mississippi in Minneapolis? I’ll tell you more in an upcoming post.