The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

La Crosse

La Crosse (pop. 51,320) was named by fur traders who witnessed local Winnebago Indians playing the game. It’s an attractive place, but you wouldn’t know that coming into town from the north; thanks to the town’s location astride the I-90 freeway, miles of food-gas-lodging establishments compete for attention. Successfully run the gauntlet and your reward will be finding the century-old downtown, the tidy residential neighborhoods, and the leafy University of Wisconsin—La Crosse campus. Slap Spartacus on the theater marquee and the whole place could easily be mistaken for a giant Eisenhower-era time capsule.

The biggest sight to see in La Crosse is the World’s Largest Six-Pack (1111 S. 3rd St.), right on the GRR on the south side of downtown. La Crosse-based Heileman was widely recognized around the upper Midwest for its Old Style brand beer, and its brewery was famous for its giant fermentation tanks painted to look like the world’s largest six-pack. Alas, about 10 years ago Heileman’s brewery was bought out by a multinational company, which immediately whitewashed over what had long been a cherished local landmark. Then a local company, City Brewing, took over operations and brought back the big Six-Pack, which when full holds enough beer to fill more than seven million real-life cans.

The best overview of La Crosse is two miles east of downtown at the end of Main Street: Grandad Bluff, a lofty 590 feet over the city, gives a grand view of the Mississippi and the two states along its opposite shore.

 

La Crosse Practicalities

La Crosse food tends toward the hearty and all-American. For good ol’ drive-in burgers, chili dogs, root beers, and milk shakes, nothing beats Rudy’s (608/782-2200, daily 10am-10pm), northeast of downtown at 10th and La Crosse Streets, where roller-skating carhops feed you, weather permitting. Rudy’s sponsors classic car “Cruise Nite” every Tuesday, June-September.

The Pearl (207 Pearl St., 608/782-6655), a polished-to-perfection confectionery, offers such indulgences as fluorescent Blue Moon ice cream, while the Andrews Sisters harmonize in the background. More grown-up pleasures, in the shape of nearly 400 bottled beers (plus a dozen microbrews on draft), Wi-Fi, and popcorn await you at the awesome Bodega Brew Pub (122 S. 4th St., 608/782-0677), two blocks away. Travelers seeking something wholesome, fresh, and filling should head to the deli of the People’s Food Co-op (315 S. 5th Ave., 608/784-5798), between Cass and King.

For accommodations, look to I-90 for the national chains, while Hwy-35/US-61 (the GRR, sometimes a.k.a. Mormon Coulee Rd.) is lined with local motels like the friendly Mom ’n’ Pop Welch Motel (3643 Mormon Coulee Rd., 608/788-1300, $55 and up).

For more detailed information, call the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (608/782-2366 or 800/658-9424) or visit its information center in leafy green Riverside Park, where a 25-ton, 25-foot-tall statue of Hiawatha greets river traffic with arms crossed.

 

La Crosse

La Crosse Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (410 E. Veterans Memorial Dr.)

Welch Motel (3643 Mormon Coulee Rd.)

People’s Food Co-op (315 S. 5th Ave.)

Bodega Brew Pub (122 S. 4th St.)

The Pearl (207 Pearl St.)

Rudy’s (1004 La Crosse St.)

World’s Largest Six-Pack (1111 S. 3rd St.)

Grandad Bluff