Nestled in the heart of the picturesque Driftless Area, Grandad Bluff Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, stands tall as the crown jewel of Mississippi River overlooks. Offering panoramic vistas of the river valley and bluff headlands stretching across Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, this captivating park is a haven for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Its extensive network of multi-use trails, visitors can explore miles of wooded bluffs, scenic overlooks, and river trails, immersing themselves in four seasons of natural beauty in this Driftless region.
A Tribute to Ellen Hixon
As visitors make their way to the main overlook at Grandad Bluff, a life-sized bronze sculpture of Ellen Hixon greets them. This extraordinary woman played a pivotal role in shaping the physical and philanthropic landscape of La Crosse.
A fervent believer in the transformative power of practical philanthropy and public service, Ellen was instrumental in numerous initiatives, including founding a home for children and contributing to the establishment of an early La Crosse hospital. Notably, she led efforts to preserve a prime section of local bluff land, which today encompasses Hixon Forest and Grandad Bluff. After personally financing much of the $15,000 required for the land acquisition in 1909, Ellen generously gifted it to the city of La Crosse in 1912 for use as a city park, ensuring its preservation for future generations.
The Ellen Hixon Sculpture
Crafted by the talented La Crosse sculptor Mike Martino, the statue of Ellen Hixon depicts her in a contemplative pose. Clutching a pine bough in her right hand—a symbol of the Hixon family’s fortune in the lumber business—she is seated on a slab of limestone, reminiscent of the stone used in the construction of stately homes and commercial buildings in the area. When viewed from the front, Ellen sits before a backdrop of neighboring bluffs, coulees, the city of La Crosse, and the sweeping expanse of the Mississippi River valley. From the rear, one can see Ellen immersed in her surroundings, seemingly reflecting upon the fruits of her labor. Today, many public, private, and nonprofit organizations continue the legacy initiated by Ellen and others, tirelessly working to develop trails and facilities for various outdoor recreational pursuits.
Historic Shelter and Inspiring Views
Adjacent to the statue of Ellen, visitors will discover a shelter constructed during the Great Depression as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. Built using some of the last stones harvested from the original quarries on Grandad Bluff, this shelter stands as a testament to the enduring craftsmanship of that era. A prominent flag, fluttering in the wind atop a nearby pole, serves as a recognizable landmark visible from various points in the city. The summit area of Grandad Bluff is wheelchair accessible, and conveniently located restrooms ensure visitors’ comfort. Fenced overlooks and well-curated interpretive displays educate visitors about the area’s rich history and geography. Limestone benches offer serene spots for contemplation while soaking in the awe-inspiring views of the valley. A second and slightly lower summit observation platform allows visitors to stand completely surrounded by sweeping views of the city of La Crosse and beyond. It is a very popular spot for taking selfies and group photos.
Wildlife and Outdoor Activities
Grandad Bluff is not only a feast for the eyes but also a sanctuary for diverse wildlife. Bald eagles and turkey vultures grace the skies, gracefully riding the thermal currents created by the surrounding bluffs and coulees. (Visitors can easily distinguish between the two bird species from a distance—the outstretched wings of the bald eagles versus the V-shaped wings of the turkey vultures.) Deer, fox, possums, raccoons, and many other species of midwestern wildlife can often be observed on the network of interconnecting trails. Birders track indigenous as well as migratory species on bluff and river trails. Beyond the mesmerizing wildlife, the extended trail network presents a year-round playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking, biking, snowshoeing, running, skiing, skating, sledding, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and birdwatching are just a few of the activities that draw locals and visitors alike to these trails. Moreover, the park hosts numerous competitive events throughout the year, adding a dash of excitement to the natural splendor.
Grandad Bluff Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, embodies the harmony between nature’s magnificence and the enduring spirit of philanthropy. From its majestic overlooks to the extensive trail network, this cherished landmark captivates all who venture to its summit. As visitors explore the trails, breathe in the fresh air, and witness the panoramic vistas, they become part of the legacy built by remarkable individuals like Ellen Hixon. With each step, they honor the vision of preserving these enchanting landscapes for future generations to discover and cherish.
Writing and Photography by Mark F Devine
Featured Image : Grandad Bluff Rolling Back Morning Mist –A westward-looking view of the main overlooks at Grandad Bluff with the valley fog being rolled back by the rising sun.