Years of planning, thousands of volunteer hours and a prolific partnership between the city of La Crosse and community groups came to fruition this summer as a brand new trial opened in Hixon Forest.
The Rotary Vista Trail, a 2.3-mile multiuse path that connects the Hixon Forest trailhead to Rim of the City Road, was quietly unveiled a few weeks ago. A grand opening is planned for sometime in August, but local runners, hikers and cyclists have already taken to the trail with the enthusiasm that’s come to be expected from the La Crosse area’s passionate outdoor recreation devotees.
“We’ve had awesome feedback,” Outdoor Recreation Alliance Executive Director Sue Howe said. “The lower Hixon Forest is just a gem in our area, and the Vista Trail really opens up the whole left side of the park.”
Named for the stunning views it provides as it meanders up the bluff, the Vista Trail represents the shared vision of the city Parks and Recreation Department, the ORA and WisCorps. Back in the days of Human Powered Trails, which was the organization that eventually became the ORA, members identified the need for a new, well-planned and expertly-crafted trail, ORA President Kurt Schroeder said.
“(The original trails) were put in with very good intention, but not much trail design science,” he said.
In addition to donating the land, the city of La Crosse contributed nearly $75,000 for the project and secured a $45,000 grant from the Department of Natural Resources. The Outdoor Recreation Alliance donated $40,000 in labor, bringing the total cost of the project to about $160,000.
The Rotary Club of La Crosse donated $15,000 for revamped signage throughout Hixon Forest and a redesign of the trailhead parking lot which will include a new kiosk, a raised platform for port-a-potties and landscaping improvements. Schroeder, who serves as chairman of the Rotary’s annual service project committee in addition to his role with the ORA, suggested the club sponsor the trail. In addition to their donation, Rotarians will provide annual trail maintenance. The city of La Crosse also contributed $15,000 for the signage and parking lot.
“The community support has been terrific for outdoor recreation,” Schroeder said. “It’s all about taking care of our town.”
ORA members brought in professional trail builders and volunteers from WisCorps, who spent much of 2011 and 2012 planning the trail’s design, taking care to protect sensitive plant and animal species and habitat. Hundreds of volunteers, including groups from local school districts, spent thousands of hours clearing and landscaping the trail, WisCorps Operations Director Willie Bittner said.
“Laying out a new trail is about creating an experience for the user group,” said Bittner, who served as the project’s general contractor.
The Vista Trail winds uphill to an elevation of 500 feet but maintains a consistent grade of 5 percent, making it an easy climb for all fitness levels. The path travels through several micro-ecosystems – grassy prairies, deciduous hardwood forests, oak savannahs and deep ravines bursting with trilliums – and ducks below limestone outcroppings.
The trail also features a 40-foot fiberglass bridge over a gully, special ordered for the project and assembled by 30 volunteers in one day. It’s the biggest bridge in the trail system, Bittner said.
“People are really excited,” he said. “I think this will be Hixon’s premier trail.”
The Vista Trail begins at the north end of the Hixon Forest trailhead parking lot and serves as a replacement for the old TNT trail, which, ironically, stands for “this is not a trail.” And it really wasn’t, Bittner said. TNT was nothing more than a bulldozed logging or quarry road which took a straight, 0.7-mile drop down the bluff.
“It was really unsafe,” Bittner said. “There was a lot of water running down it all the time, and it was an access for bikers to come up and down.”
For safety, cyclists can only ride uphill on the Vista Trail, but plans are in the works to create a new downhill trail, said Schroeder. The new trail would likely be in the southern portion of the forest, near the older trails. The city and the ORA are in the process of raising funds and seeking grants.
The Vista Trail’s opening represents a step toward the city’s ultimate goal of connecting paths from the marshland up to the bluffland, said Cinthia Shireman, forestry coordinator for the city Parks and Recreation Department.