Saturday, January 2, 2016

Consider family hike at Interstate state parks

Dalles of the St. Croix, from Wisconsin Interstate State Park
At Wisconsin or Minnesota’s Interstate State Park, you can experience the results of the three most significant geological events to affect these pair of states: billion-year-old lava flows, the sands of a 500-million-year-old tropical sea, and a massive glacial flood from 10,000 years ago.

The twin parks mark a unique arrangement – it runs in two states along both sides of the ancient gorge known as the Dalles of the St. Croix. The two sides are run independently of one another by each state’s Department of Natural Resources. In addition, they border two entities operated by the National Park Service – the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, the latter of which actually enters the Wisconsin park.

That so many parks and trails populate this area is no surprise. Few locales in the Upper Midwest match the Dalles of the St. Croix’s scenic beauty: a pristine blue river running through a gorge sided by black lava; fascinating multi-story sandstone formations; an utterly clear lake; extinct ancient riverbeds covered in ferns and wildflowers; glacial potholes that run dozens of feet deep.

The two state parks rank among the most visited in either state. The parks’ nearly 330,000 annual visitors exceeds that of several national parks.

Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin side is that state’s oldest park and Minnesota’s second oldest. During the 1890s, Harry D. Baker of St. Croix Falls, Wis., and George H. Hazard of Taylors Falls, Minn., spearheaded groups to preserve the area as parks. Minnesota established its park in 1895, and Wisconsin followed in 1900.

The parks really are 1.1 billion years in the making, though. The gorge wouldn’t exist if not for a major geological event dating that far back, when massive lava flows covered this region of the world. The hardened lava, or basalt, forms the bedrock that the St. Croix River and the surrounding valley and bluffs sit upon.

The rocks above it – and those that make up the park’s Old Man of the Dalles – were laid some 515 million years ago when this region sat under a warm shallow sea near the equator. As sediments piled up and were covered, they hardened over the eons into rock; the landscape finally rose above the sea about 345 million years ago.

Then about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, a glacial torrent swept through the area when ancient Lake Duluth drained south. This flood broke off the basalt in chunks, created the intriguing cliff formations, and gouged out the deep gorge that is now the river valley.

During the flood, giant eddies from the flow drilled holes into the landscape; these are the potholes near the river shore. The largest glacial potholes in the world sit in the Minnesota park.

Today, Interstate State parks find themselves at the center of a major outdoors recreational area. Thanks to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and several other nearby state parks and natural areas on both sides of the river, a number of impressive trails run through and near St. Croix Falls and Taylors Falls.

Dry and warm spring days, summer, and autumn for fall color season mark the best times to day hike the parks. They do remain open in winter, however, and when snow covered the river bluffs and rock formations offer a beauty reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains.

How to Reach the Parks
From Minneapolis-St. Paul, take I-35 north to U.S. Hwy. 8 in Forest Lake, Minn. Go east. Upon reaching Taylors Falls, the highway heads straight through the Minnesota park, with multiple access roads. Crossing the bridge into Wisconsin, take State Hwy. 35 south for a half-mile and turn right onto Park Road, which enters the Wisconsin park.

From Wisconsin, take State Hwy. 35 to St. Croix Falls, taking Park Road to the trails. To reach the Minnesota park, take Hwy. 35 to Hwy. 8; go west on the latter road, crossing the bridge into Minnesota and into the park. Hwy. 35 intersects I-94 in Hudson, Wis., for those traveling from southern Wisconsin or Illinois.

Hours and Admission
Wisconsin Interstate Park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. A vehicle admissions sticker is required. Because Wisconsin Interstate State Park is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, any of the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass Series also will get you in.

Minnesota Interstate State Park is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. A state park pass is required.

Several lots are available at both parks. In the trail descriptions that follow, the best parking lot for each trailhead is provided.

Both parks offer several activities that perfectly complement a day hike. Among them are camping, swimming, picnicking, rock climbing, and fishing.

In addition, each park boasts a visitor center. At the Wisconsin park, the Ice Age Interpretive Center through displays and murals focuses on the Dalles’ geological history with a 20-minute movie available upon request; the center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Minnesota park’s visitor center focuses on the area’s history and resources; hours vary by season. Both centers include gift shops.

Dogs are allowed at both parks but must be personally attended to at all time and kept on a leash (six feet maximum in Minnesota and eight feet maximum in Wisconsin). Dog waste always must be picked up. In the Wisconsin park, a dog walk area is southwest of the River Picnic Shelters where Dalles Creek flows into the St. Croix River.

g River Trail
g Shadow Rock Lookout Trail
g Ladder Tank Trail
g Pothole Trail
g Rock Creek Trail
g Summit Rock Trail

Read more about day hiking Interstate State Park in my Hittin' the Trail guidebook.