A new hiking trail opened in La Crosse Friday, the latest addition to growing recreational opportunities in the city and a testament to the regional dedication to preserving and promoting the region’s natural resources, officials said.
The roughly one-mile long trail leads hikers from the Hixon Forest parking lot to the top of Miller Bluff, a new and more official access to the popular vista overlooking the city.
Officials held a grand opening ceremony on Friday morning that included a ribbon cutting and the first public sneak peek at part of the trail with the groups that helped spearhead the project.
“It’s just a wonderful statement on how we can cooperate and collaborate to create something wonderful,” said La Crosse Mayor Mitch Reynolds.
Two local groups, Outdoor Recreation Alliance and Great Lakes Trailbuilders, helped design and construct the trail, but many other area organizations helped gather community input and will use the new trail to promote the region going forward.
“It’s beautiful, and we think it will be a great addition and it will help provide recreation for local residents and we will hopefully make this whole region a destination for people to come and share what we have to offer here,” said Pat Wilson with the Bluffland Coalition.
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The Miller Bluff trail itself took only about a year to plan and construct — sometimes through inclement weather — but officials said the desire to have the hike-only trail leading up the bluff has been in the community since it came into the city’s possession 20 years ago.
“It’s really, really remarkable that we’re here right now with a completed trail in such a short amount of time,” said Leah Miller, the outdoor recreation coordinator for the La Crosse Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department.
“This has been a really cool project,” said Jed Olson, executive director of ORA. He said the design process had an environmental review, and took the land’s history and intended use into consideration.
“This area was added to the preserve that is Hixon Forest so that it could be enjoyed by the community and preserved some of the very special spaces that are up here,” Olson said. “This new trail helps us get to those places in a safe and sustainable way.”
Reynolds said when he first moved to the city in 1994 the Hixon Forest recreational landing site looked “significantly different,” highlighting how much the public use of the city’s land has transformed.
During planning and construction, crews found a lot of rogue or “social” trails that led up to the bluff. “It proves that people wanted to use this area, too, they just weren’t doing it in a sustainable way,” Miller said.
This new trail has several connections to other existing trails in Hixon Forest, and it snakes up the hillside and through prairies to the top of the bluff with vistas along the way, Miller saying it was a “different kind of experience.”
The trail also offers the chance to get “up close and personal” with a rock band that displays the layers of sandstone and limestone, which officials said wouldn’t be accessible without a partnership and negotiation between the city and neighbors. The city underwent a land swap with a neighbor near Rim of the City Road earlier this year in order to make room for the trail.
Olson said one his favorite features, though, was the noise that is a reminder that the blufflands are the region’s backyard.
“Some people might not love that you can hear traffic on Highway 16. But I think it’s a great reminder of how close our nature is to our city. Most cities don’t have that opportunity, and I think this is really amazing in our region,” Olson said.
“As we’re standing here of course the traffic, the train is going by and somebody’s hitting golf balls out on Forest Hills — we have such a unique thing here where our metropolitan area is almost embedded in this incredible forest,” Reynolds said.
“And as the mayor I think of this pragmatically,” as a way to bring people to the city, he said. “But it’s also an amazing playground.”
In addition to the new hiking trail the Bluff Pass Trail was revamped with new drainage systems, a new kiosk has been built near the top, and signs encouraging the use of the official trails.
A connector loop to the Vista Trail makes for a shorter loop hike on the new trail, officials said, and the “quickest way to see a vista in the city.”
Plus, crews said they didn’t see any rattlesnakes near the trail during their two months of construction, they joked.
“One of the big joys to me living right next to Hixon is that I can walk out, anybody can walk out and just wander around and everything is so connected,” said La Crosse County Board supervisor Maureen Freedland, who was among the first to try out the new trail. “You can spend hours just trying new paths and new ays, and that’s a lot of fun.”
Some work will continue on the trails, including clearing of undesirable buckthorn near vistas and along the path, and the city will continue working on its mapping. This latest trail is not currently on the app, but will be soon, she said.