EAU CLAIRE — Already beloved by tubers, kayakers and fishermen, the 4.2-mile stretch of the Chippewa River that runs through the heart of Eau Claire recently was designated a national recreation trail.
The Chippewa River Water Trail was one of two Wisconsin trails to receive the designation last week by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. The other one in Wisconsin was the 52-mile Heart of Vilas County Paved Bike Trail System in northern Wisconsin.
An Interior Department news release described the Eau Claire project this way: “The popular Chippewa River Water Trail flows 4.2 miles through historic downtown Eau Claire and features an urban landscape endowed with natural beauty including sandstone cliffs and cave formations.”
The designation should benefit the Chippewa Valley by giving the Chippewa River Water Trail a platform in national searches for top trails, said Benny Anderson, acting director of the local tourism marketing agency Visit Eau Claire.
“It’s great national recognition for something that those of us who live here already knew was national caliber,” Anderson said. “A lot of people come to Eau Claire to make the Chippewa River a part of their trip or even the reason for their trip.”
The rivers and the area’s other natural resources became a major focus of Visit Eau Claire marketing efforts this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many resident to seek safe, socially distanced, outdoor recreation opportunities, Anderson said.
“Our whole tourism marketing approach during COVID was to remind people of what was in their own backyard,” he said.
A coalition of area groups announced the creation of the Chippewa River Water Trail in 2017 to expand on the popularity of Eau Claire’s rivers. The coalition created a detailed brochure and online guide to the water trail that highlights the safest travel route, best practices and historical significance of the Chippewa River Water Trail. The brochure calls attention to such historical sites as the locations of the former Gray Street steamboat landing and the former 1,200-foot logging industry canal connecting the Chippewa River with Half Moon Lake.
The water trail also serves as the central hub for about 80 miles of state recreation trails that extend from Durand to Menomonie to Cornell, Anderson said.
The local designation was part of a broader national announcement that establishes 30 new national recreation trails in 25 states, adding more than 1,275 miles to the National Trails System.
“I encourage Americans to get outside, enjoy our incredible public lands and visit a nearby national recreation trail,” Bernhardt said in the release. “Spanning more than 83,000 miles, larger than the interstate highway system, the National Trails System provides easy access to a wide variety of outdoor experiences.”
The Chippewa River Water Trail will now be included in a database of more than 1,300 national recreation trails across the country.
“The NRT program brings vibrancy to the National Trail System by uniquely highlighting trails that are accessible, relatable and serve a wide diversity of our nation’s public,” NRT executive director Mike Passo said in the release.
The National Recreation Trails program is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with a number of federal and nonprofit partners.