Monday, September 23, 2013

Hike to 100-foot tall fire tower at St. Croix SP

View from fire tower at St. Croix State Park, Minnesota.
Day hikers can walk to and climb to the top of a 100-foot fire tower at St. Croix State Park in Pine County, Minn.

An amazing 127-plus miles of hiking trails cross the state park’s 34,000 acres. A combination of three of them (here dubbed the Kettle River Highbanks to Observation Tower Route) marks a great 3.6-mile (7.2-miles round trip) route for physically fit families with a lot of energy.

To reach the park from Minneapolis-St. Paul, take Interstate 35 north, exiting on Minn. Hwy. 48 in Hinckley. At County Road 22, turn south. In about five miles, you’ll reach the park headquarters. From there, turn right/west onto St. John’s Road. At the point the road turns to gravel, you have about a nine-mile drive. Your destination is the Kettle River Highlands, which offers limited parking.

From there, hike north paralleling the road you drove in on. You’ll first pass the Chapel Grove, an impressive stand of red pines. In about 1.5 miles, the road forks. Go right/northeast.

In just under 1.1 miles, a trail bridge crosses Bear Creek. At the next fork, go left/west. You’re now on the Matthew Lourey State Trail, which links the park to the Chengwatana, St. Croix and Nemadji state forests.

In about 0.8 miles, head off the Matthew Lourey by turning left/south for the observation tower. You’ll arrive at the tower in about a third of a mile.

The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the tower in 1937. For the next 40-plus years, watchmen assigned to it scanned the surrounding forests for fires. No breaks or reading were allowed, and visitors were limited to 10-minute stays. The last watchman sat here in 1981, when aerial surveys became the preferred way to spot forest fires.

These days, you can stay in the tower as long as you like. Looking south from it, Bear Creek runs west to east immediately below. In the distance is the Kettle River, a State Wild and Scenic River, which flows southeast to the St. Croix.

After taking in the view, follow the trail back to your vehicle or have someone meet you at the parking lot below the tower (Yes, you could have driven straight to the tower, but then there wouldn’t have been any hiking, would there?).

Read more about day hiking the scenic riverway in my guidebook Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.