Grandad Bluff stands 590 feet above the Mississippi River Valley and 1,183 feet above sea level.
It’s a towering icon shaped by the geologic forces of melting ice sheets and by men who later quarried dolomite rock. It also helped shape the region as the rock was used for building foundations and for paving streets.
In geologic terms, it’s actually a mesa, an elevated table with a flat top and steep cliff sides. Locals and visitors for years have stood on the vista for a panoramic view of the city below, the confluence of three rivers and a chance to see three states.
How the bluff was named is speculative. Some believe early La Crosse residents thought the profile of the bluff resembled an old man, hence granddad. Quarrying that was conducted until the 1930s and erosion resulted in a substantial facelift. Others believe it was given the patriarch’s moniker because it was the tallest bluff in the area.
The bluffs may look more like mountains to flatlanders, and for a brief period there was a movement to call the promontory Grandad Mountain. In 1928, Mayor J.J. Verchota and some council members considered calling the entire bluff range the Mississippi Valley Mountain Range to promote the bluffs as a tourist attraction. Alderman Ed Erickson suggested a large, illuminated sign could be installed on the bluff that would read “Grandad, La Crosse the Beautiful.”
The bluff passed through many private hands until 1909, when the daughter of Henry Bliss (who built the road to the top of the bluff) transferred the deed to Joseph Hixon for $12,000. Hixon in 1912 donated the bluff and land that is now Hixon Forest to the city.
Various park improvements were made over the years, including the shelter built in 1938 under the WPA program. The south overlook was closed in 2007 because of safety concerns and reopened after the park underwent a $1.4 million renovation completed in 2013.