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The best northwestern Wisconsin trails for winter hiking, biking, and skiing

The best northwestern Wisconsin trails for winter hiking, biking, and skiing

Credit: Wisconsin DNR

By Tyler Francischine

January 11, 2024

When Wisconsin’s blanketed in powdery, white snow, it’s time to collect your recreation gear and hit your favorite trails. Whether it’s snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, or cross-country skiing you’re after, here are a handful of trails, parks, forests, and a geological marvel or two that are all begging to be explored this winter in and around Eau Claire and La Crosse.

Hixon Forest, La Crosse

Dreaming of whipping through a wintery, wooded wonderland on an adventurous bike ride? Near La Crosse’s eastern borders, the Hixon Forest trails offer 10 miles of wooded bluffs to traverse by fat-tire bike or on foot. The Upper Hixon trails offer routes of varying difficulties, including a dirt pump track and three downhill gravity trails, while the more popular Lower Hixon trails boast awe-inspiring views of La Crosse and its Mississippi River shores. If the sight has you yearning to visit the city for a bite or to catch a show, trails connect the Hixon Forest to downtown La Crosse via Riverside Park. 

Red Cedar State Trail, Menomonie

Located in Menomonie, a half-hour’s drive west of Eau Claire, the Red Cedar State Trail contains 14.5 miles of prairie, marsh, forest, and sandstone bluffs perfect for snowshoeing, hiking, biking, or cross-country skiing. (If biking or skiing, purchasing a state trail pass is required.) Throughout winter, the 7 miles of Red Cedar State Trail connecting Menomonie to Downsville are regularly groomed for Nordic skiing—characterized by its diagonal stride and freedom of heel movement—as well as skate skiing, a style suitable for the youngest among your group, as skiers glide around like they would on ice skates. 

Kickapoo Valley Reserve, La Farge

On the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR), located an hour’s drive east of La Crosse in southwestern Wisconsin, wintertime visitors can hike to breathtaking ice formations that were used by humans as shelters from the elements 10,000 years ago. Don’t miss the Valley of the Ice, featuring curtain-like ice formations that separate a cluster of neighboring rock shelters, making them appear like a series of rooms. Beholding such a marvelous sight is no easy undertaking—some trails cross icy water and most are strenuous and ungroomed. You’re welcome to snowshoe and hike the reserve no matter the conditions, but the KVR only allows fat-tire bikes on their ungroomed trails when temperatures dip below 25 degrees and the ground is frozen.

Wintermission, Eau Claire

There’s no need to leave the city center of Eau Claire to immerse yourself in winter recreation activities. Eau Claire’s Wintermission winter route comprises 4 miles of trails that the city government prioritizes and maintains after snow events, so no matter how many inches fell, you’re sure to find a plowed path to walk, run, or jog near you. Another perk of this city trail is the plethora of nearby restaurants, cafés, and pubs where you can relax post-exercise with your favorite foods and beverages.

Devil’s Punchbowl, Menomonie

Located just outside of Menomonie city limits, the Devil’s Punchbowl is a unique geological site containing 500-million-year-old sandstone formations that were reshaped by post-glacial flooding more than 10,000 years ago. Access this prehistoric area year-round via a pair of short hikes—climb a small set of wooden stairs to view the Devil’s Punchbowl from above or descend into its depths via another staircase built into the rock. In wintertime, this natural landmark transforms into an otherworldly sight, as ice formations drip and form curtain-like shapes from each layer of sandstone. Hikers familiar with this area advise new visitors to take care not to traverse off the beaten path and grip both hands firmly on the staircase guardrails, as winter conditions coat them with slippery ice and snow.

La Crosse River Marsh

Not feeling up to trekking outside of La Crosse city limits to get your winter recreation fix? The La Crosse River Marsh, a 1,000-acre wetland where the Mississippi meets the La Crosse River, offers resplendent, peaceful displays of western Wisconsin’s natural beauty and myriad wildlife. Cross-country skiers, hikers, and snowshoers to the marsh can expect to spot the vibrant coats of foxes, river otters, mink, and muskrats against the brilliant white of your snowy surrounds. Keep your eyes peeled and gaze high to spot owls, bald eagles, Northern cardinals, woodpeckers, and hawks, all of which are active in this area through the winter months.

Coulee State Experimental Forest, Barre

Only a half-hour’s drive east of La Crosse in Barre, these 3,000 acres of forest are utilized as a laboratory of sorts, as Coulee’s researchers study the watershed comprising its many ravines and gulches in order to create better land management practices and policies. The scientists may be here for work, but locals arrive in droves to play—area volunteers groom 12 miles of Coulee’s trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking, while opportunities for horseback riding and hunting also abound.

Author

  • Tyler Francischine

    Tyler Francischine is a journalist who writes about travel, arts, culture and community. She's passionate about social justice, the Atlantic Ocean and live music.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | THINGS TO DO
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