This past weekend, I went to film for a future episode of Discover Wisconsin. In doing so, I got to explore a place I've been meaning to see: the Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center, near La Crosse. And it's a beautiful place, filled with history. I even learned some things. It all begins by following this beautiful, twisty-turny drive above, called County PI (not for Magnum, PI, we presume) off Highway 162 or U.S. 14/61 up there.
Norskedalen means "Norwegian Valley," and it serves as a nature and heritage center dedicated to preserving, interpreting and sharing the area's natural environment and cultural heritage. Opened in 1977, Norsedalen features a secluded blend of hills and valleys traversed by trails, historic structures, and artifacts from all over the area, which is essentially the rural communities in southern La Crosse and northern Vernon Counties, about 20 miles outside La Crosse.
The Bekkum Homestead at Norskedalen
The Thrune Visitor Center is an excellent place to start. You'll find several rooms which offer a look at how Norwegian settlers fared in Norway, made their way to America and Wisconsin, and adapted over time. One room traces the process of the early immigrants in a timeline fashion. It begins with displays of the actual trunks they packed their lives in for the ocean voyage, complete with labels and more. It then progresses to tools they brought for making clothing, tilling the land, and building their homes, and moves on to items they used around the house and in the community as they established themselves in Wisconsin. This immerses you in their experience.
Some of the actual early tools used by Norwegian settlers in the La Crosse area, in the Thrune Visitor Center at Norskedalen.
Plenty of historic buildings dot the grounds of Norskedalen. Numerous structures from the original Bekkum Homestead, including the main house, sit in close proximity along a creek. The Benrud Little White Chapel is a reconstructed church that originally stood in Sparta before being moved to Norskedalen in 2009. Today the chapel hosts weddings and other events and houses plenty of artifacts from its church days. Check out the still-playable organ that dates back to 1915!
The Benrud Little White Chapel at Norskedalen. You gotta see the original organ inside the place - it can be played, too!
Between its ability to grow in Wisconsin soil and fetch higher prices, tobacco farming became quite popular with early Norwegian settlers. Along the Ophus Trail, a good 1.1-mile walking path, you'll find an original tobacco barn from the Coon Valley area.
You can also get a little exercise traversing trails that run through the grounds. Some offer steep climbs up the high hills surrounding the valley. Others stay low and let you explore the vegetation, flowers, streams and ponds, and other features that make this place serene and beautiful. Trail lengths range from just under a mile to over four miles.
One of the many trails around Norskedalen. Some climb tall hills and bluffs, other stay low and let you explore streams, ponds, and flowers.
The Paulsen Cabin (no relation my family, as far as I know) on the Norskedalen grounds offers overnight accommodations. It's a 130 year-old log cabin on the outside and a mix of history and today's comforts on the inside. It sleeps six with an authentic log interior and loft; but it also features a full kitchen with modern amenities.
The Paulsen Cabin, with me, Eric Paulsen, wondering if my ancestors had anything to do with this place. Original old log home on the outside, mix of original charm and modern amenities on the inside.
Norskedalen offers events throughout the year, including nature walks and family-friendly options. Midsummer Fest welcomes the warmth after Syttende Mai. Ghoulees in the Coulees (which I get to film at this year) is popular during Halloween. You can take a Candlelight Snowshow Hike in winter. Other events immerse you in nature and history.
Top: Norskedalen's Gift Shop includes this handy guide to the famous Norwegian phrase, "Uff-Da!"
Below: Perusing the Gift Shop, I found a very interesting read where I learned a few things...
Reaching Norskedalen means a beautiful drive through the Driftless Area. Norskedalen is located along County PI between Highway 162 and U.S. 14/61 just north of Coon Valley. County PI itself is a narrow, twisty road that features hairpin turns as it navigates Poplar Coulee, winds past farms, and hugs hillsides on its way to the grounds. This is very much a pay-close-attention stretch of road! But it is gorgeous and very much a hint of the beauty to come when you arrive.
Find out more about Norksedalen here!