Lake Onalaska, Minnesota & Wisconsin, USA

Welcome to the ultimate guide for history, statistics, local fun facts and the best things to do at Lake Onalaska.

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Lake Onalaska visitor and community guide

Lake Onalaska is a popular year-round recreation destination on the upper Mississippi River, located between La Crosse, Wisconsin and La Crescent, Minnesota. When Thomas G. Rowe stood on a Wisconsin bluff overlooking the Mississippi River into Minnesota in 1851, a line from Thomas Campbell’s 1799 poem “The Pleasures of Hope” inspired the name of the town he would build there: “The Wolf’s long howl from Oonalaska’s shore.” Today, Lake Onalaska entertains visitors and residents alike with boating, fishing, ice fishing, waterskiing, windsurfing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and autumn leaf viewing.

The 29 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi River are to maintain the river flow and a nine-foot channel for navigation. Lake Onalaska is fed by both the Black River and Mississippi River, and is bordered by the Black River Delta on the north and Lock and Dam No. 7 on the south. Lake Onalaska is also impacted by the Dresbach Dam which was instrumental in its creation. Because Lake Onalaska is connected to the main channel of the Mississippi River by a network of secondary channels, it is sometimes difficult to determine where one channel begins and the other ends, and it’s possible to boat in a loop through the lake and river. In addition to the channels, there are several islands in Lake Onalaska including Rosebud Island and three crescent shaped islands built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1989 as part of a Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow of the Mississippi River and Lock, Dam, and Navigation Pool No. 7. They determine how much water from the Mississippi River flows into and through Lake Onalaska, but the lake and Black River are managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Mississippi-Lower St. Croix Team and other federal agencies.

Lake Onalaska is in an unusual geological area. Called a Driftless Area, the geography was formed thousands of years ago when glaciers surrounded the area but did not pass over it. The sand and silt left by the melting glaciers was blown into mounds creating the rolling sand prairies. There are several places adjacent to Lake Onalaska to explore the geography of the area. Great River Bluffs State Park, formerly O. L. Kipp State Park, has two designated Scientific and Natural Areas (SNA), the King and Queen’s Bluffs. There are also hiking trails to explore the goat prairies and forest and beautiful views of the Mississippi River. The plentiful wildlife includes coyotes, turkeys and ruffled grouse.

The bird watching around Lake Onalaska is unsurpassed. The lake is part of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1924, the 240,000 acre 26 mile long refuge is a great place to hunt, fish, and bird watch. Lucky visitors may see tundra swans and bald eagles. The Van Loon Wildlife Area and the 6,226 acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, both north of Lake Onalaska, are great places to explore the prairie and watch the waterfowl.

It is possible to sail or boat down the Mississippi River, through and around Lake Onalaska. Canoes and kayaks, however, are also a great way to explore the lake and islands. Anglers can fish year round on Lake Onalaska; there are abundant populations of northern pike, bluegill, crappie, walleye, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass.

Kite skiing is popular in winter when Lake Onalaska freezes. Created in Hawaii, skiers or snowboarders use giant kites to pull themselves across the lake. For as much fun as it is to be one of the kite skiers, it’s also fun to be a spectator. The Great River State Trail also runs nearby and draws over 60,000 cyclists a year.

What are you waiting for? Book your vacation rental soon to enjoy the pleasures of beautiful Lake Onalaska.

Custom Lake Onalaska house decor

Read our full review of these personalized lake house signs.

Things to do at Lake Onalaska

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Ice Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Water Skiing
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Hunting
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Wildlife Refuge
  • State Park

Fish species found at Lake Onalaska

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Bluegill
  • Crappie
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Northern Pike
  • Perch
  • Pike
  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Sunfish
  • Walleye

Best hotels and vacation rentals at Lake Onalaska

The Lake Onalaska map shown above is a simple and stress-free way to search for trip accommodations. But if you want to take a deeper dive to find the ideal waterfront home, cabin, condo, hotel or resort, visit our favorite lodging partners by clicking the buttons below.

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Lake Onalaska photo gallery

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Lake Onalaska statistics & helpful links


Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Water Level Control: US Army Corps of Engineers and WDNR

Surface Area: 7,688 acres

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 633 feet

Minimum Elevation (Min Pond): 0 feet

Maximum Elevation (Max Pond): 639 feet

Average Depth: 6 feet

Maximum Depth: 43 feet

Completion Year: 1937

Lake Area-Population: 16,186

Trophic State: Eutrophic

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