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Outdoor rec activities draw visitors to West Central Wisconsin

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January 22, 2024

WEST CENTRAL WISCONSIN – Outdoor recreation is such an integral part of Eau Claire’s economy that its tourism marketing organization, Visit Eau Claire, has a position dedicated specifically to it.

Kennedy Domerchie, Visit Eau Claire’s outdoors recreation manager, spends her days touting and supporting the region’s many outdoor activities, ranging from biking and water-related activities in the summer to cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter.

“As a (tourism) industry, we can’t work in silos,” she said. “We need to work together to market and research the best resources for every activity.” 

Outdoor recreation plays not only a vital role in tourism but also in Wisconsin’s overall economy. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, outdoor rec activities brought in a record $9.8 billion to the state’s gross domestic product in 2022.

That’s a 6.8% increase over 2021, which was the previous record high.

“The data shows why it’s important and necessary to have someone focused on the outdoor rec industry here,” Domerchie said.

A.J. Frels, executive director of Explore La Crosse, said outdoor recreation is one of the city’s biggest tourism draws.

He said the area’s unique topography and bluffs are unique in the Midwest – making the region a hot spot for outdoor enthusiasts.

“There are few places that offer this kind of beauty,” he said. “Plus, we have the Mississippi River, which is another draw.”

Popular activities, Frels said, include boating, kayaking, hiking and biking.

“Road cycling is huge – the topography is attractive to riders,” he said.

La Crosse is on the Wisconsin Great River Road, which travels 250 miles along the Mississippi and goes through 33 historic river towns and villages.

Frels said the road is extremely popular in the fall among drivers, motorcyclists and bikers.

“It’s a beautiful drive any time of the year, but in the fall, it is glorious,” he said. “We are also a popular place for birdwatchers since we’re on the Mississippi Flyway, one of the Great Migration routes.”

Biking, Domerchie said – more specifically mountain biking – is also a huge draw in the Eau Claire region among adults and children. 

The Community for Outdoor Recreation, Biking and Adventure (COBRA) oversees the area’s 120 miles of trails.

And more trails, Domerchie said, are on the way.

“We have two (mountain) development projects that are shovel-ready or close,” she said. “The Lowes Creek Bike Park and City Wells trail development will cater to the mountain biking scene. The bike park will be built for all skill levels, allowing a safe space for anyone to learn the sport.”

Domerchie said biking of all kinds, including electric biking, has continued to gain in popularity in the region.

As interest in the sport grows, she said new businesses have sprouted up or grown to meet customer demand.

Specifically, Eau Claire E-Bike and E-Scooter Rental and Compass Bike Lab, which sell and rent bikes, Domerchie said, are two businesses that have benefited from the increased interest.

In addition, Eau Claire Outdoors opened in the city’s downtown and focuses on selling and renting outdoor recreation gear.

Domerchie said biking is just one outdoor activity that’s popular in the region.

Walking, hiking, camping and water-related activities, including kayaking, tubing and fishing, also attract residents and visitors in the summer while cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, hunting and snowmobiling are popular winter activities.

“Within the city, you see a lot of running and walking, biking, hammocking, tubing down the river, kayaking and fishing, especially on Half Moon Lake,” she said.

Bringing visitors in

Events focused on outdoor activities, Frels said, are another draw for communities.

He said people come to the area, see what’s all available and many make plans to come back.

“I’m a perfect example,” he said. “I came here for the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and loved the place. I was working in South Lake Tahoe (in California) and heard this job was open and told my wife I at least had to check it out. It has so much natural beauty.”

Frels said the WIAA state track tournament also brings hundreds of athletes and their families to the La Crosse area each year.

“Many students fall in love with the area and want to go to school here or families make plans to come back and participate in other activities they noticed while they were here for the tournament,” he said. “Each year, new athletes come and stand on the track and can see the bluffs in the distance.”

Frels said La Crosse also has a lot of community festivals that attract folks from all over the country.

“I’ve never lived anywhere that had so many festivals,” he said. “I think part of our draw is that La Crosse is big enough that you won’t get bored, but it has a small-town feeling so you feel safe.”

Eau Claire is also home to multiple unique events as well, Domerchie said, including ski jumping.

She said the city hosts the annual Flying Eagle Invitational, for example, and is close enough to other locations that host larger events, such as the annual Birkebeiner that prompts a trickle-down effect. 

“We have people staying here who are doing activities in Hayward, Cable and Steely,” she said.

The National Kubb Championship, Domerchie said, is another annual visitor attraction that brings tourists in.

Kubb (rhymes with rube) – sometimes referred to as “Viking chess” – is a lawn game with Scandinavian roots where the objective is to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden batons at them.

Established in Eau Claire in 2007, the National Kubb Championship held each summer is the largest kubb tournament outside of Europe. 

From players to spectators to media, Eau Claire’s tournament brings in an estimated 500 people each year.

Domerchie said other large event draws include Country Jam, Rockfest and Blue Ox Musical Festival.

“We draw primarily from the Twin Cities for our events beyond people living in the area, but we also get a fair amount of people coming here from Chicago,” she said.

Working together

Eau Claire County and six of its adjacent counties – Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Pepin, Buffalo and Trempealeau – are part of the Rural Partners Network, which focuses on promoting the area as an outdoor recreation destination.

“The network is sure to bring more funding and attention to our region,” Domerchie said. “We want to promote our activities as family-friendly, not intimidating, and easily accessible. We also want to promote the region’s features.”

La Crosse, Frels said, is part of the Outdoor Recreation Alliance (ORA Trails), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building healthy and happy communities by providing access to outdoor recreational experiences.

He said ORA shares information about local trails and their conditions while also supporting improvement projects.

“We work closely together to bring events here and publicize them,” he said. “For example, Ride Across Wisconsin begins here. It’s not our event, but we publicize it because we know if we can attract people here using tourism, it’s good for the community. And what’s good for the community is good for everyone.”

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