October 3, 2012

At the Mississippi River’s Front Door

Lake Onlaska (Dean Klinkenberg)

Editor’s note: As part of Wisconsin Travel Best Bets’ Shift Your Gears campaign, we asked bloggers, writers and photographers to visit destinations across Wisconsin and share their experiences. Today, Dean Klinkenberg of mississippivalleytraveler.com talks about Onalaska, the Sunfish Capital of the World.

Onalaska is at the heart of Wisconsin’s Great River Road and is a great place to enjoy the outdoors and good food. While most of the city’s growth has been in recent decades, Onalaska has a long history. Thomas Rowe, who plucked the town’s name from The Pleasures of Hope by Thomas Campbell, arrived here in 1851 to sate the thirst of the hard-working and hard-living men employed in the lumber mills of the Black River Valley. From 1855 to 1899, over 6 billion board feet of lumber floated down the Black River to Onalaska’s mills, enough to build about 2 million ranch houses.

The forests were depleted by 1900, and Onalaska’s economy gradually shifted to light manufacturing and agriculture. In recent years, Onalaska has also developed a strong retail economy. Today’s visitors will find that Onalaska offers many recreational opportunities, particularly along the Black and Mississippi Rivers, the places where the city began.

Getting Outside

The wide expanse of water to the west of town is known as Lake Onalaska, but it is formed from the Mississippi and Black Rivers. The lake was created when Lock and Dam 7 was completed in the 1930s, flooding low-lying sections of French Island and obscuring what was once the Black River channel along the east side of French Island. The lake is very popular with folks who like to fish: in winter, ice fishing shacks spread out across the section between French Island and Brice Prairie. You can get great views from the overlooks on Highway 35, or, even better, on the water with your own boat or by renting a canoe or kayak from Schafer’s Boats and Bait in Brice Prairie.

Onalaska Center for Commerce & Tourism (1101 Main Street).


Van Loon Wildlife Area (Dean Klinkenberg)

Van Loon Wildlife Area is a peaceful 4,000 acres of marshy Black River floodplain with a diverse population of birds and easy hiking. The preserve is also known for six rare bowstring arch truss bridges built between 1905 and 1908.

Eating and Drinking

If you’re going to be active, you’ll need some food to fuel your efforts. Nutbush City Limits is a favorite among locals for affordable food that is generously portioned, especially during breakfast. The Blue Moon Saloon and Roadhouse offers a relaxing dinner with impressive views of Lake Onalaska.

You can buy fresh, local products at a number of places in the area. The Onalaska Farmers Market operates on Sundays from 8am to 1pm (June through October) at the Crossing Meadows Shopping Center. You’ll also find a number of roadside stands and orchards from Holmen to Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (primarily along Highway 35) selling berries, apples, tomatoes, squash, and other seasonal fruit and vegetables. Holmen Locker and Meats, about five miles north of Onalaska, is known for their homemade jerky, especially the beef varieties, and for stocking local and regional food products.

If you’re staying overnight in the area, Perrot State Park in Trempealeau has a large campground with electric and basic sites. If you want some pampering, the Lumber Baron Inn Bed and Breakfast in Onalaska is right on the river. All six rooms have a private bath.

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