Thursday, December 5, 2013

Enjoy quiet day hike along Lake St. Croix

Swimming beach on North River Trail in early spring.
North River Trail map

Swimming beach also found
on tranquil nature trail

Day hikers can enjoy a pleasant walk alongside the widest section of the St. Croix River on the North River Trail at Minnesota’s Afton State Park.

The 2.2-miles round trip also offers the opportunity for a swim to cool off when the walk is all over.

To reach the park, take Minn. Hwy. 21 about 4.5 miles south of Afton. Turn east into the park at the Minn. Hwy. 20 intersection. Follow the entry road to a set of seven parking lots in front of the visitor center; any one of them will work with a trailhead or a connecting trail on each lot’s east side; just always be sure to veer left/north when coming to the first trail junction. If taking the southernmost (first) parking lot along the entry road, you’ll add about 0.3 miles one-way to the hike.

Wide and deep
The trail gradually veers toward the St. Croix, which at this point on its course is known as Lake St. Croix because of its width. Lake St. Croix stretches south from Stillwater, Minn., to Prescott, Wis., where the river joins the Mississippi.

The St. Croix reaches its widest at 1.25 miles just north of the state park. Its deepest point is 78 feet.

Between the parking lot and river, the North River Trail passes picnic areas, a shelter, and telescopes for viewing the scenic Wisconsin side across the sapphire-colored water. The trail goes by the swimming beach about a half-mile to 0.75 miles into the hike.

As the trail stays close to the river below the bluff, trees along the way can be underwater during spring flooding and other high water years.

Record fish
Once away from the beach, the trail becomes a tranquil, natural path. Your only company likely will be the birds of prey circling for fish and the number of recreational boats enjoying the river.

This section of the river is extremely popular among anglers. More than 60 fish species call Lake St. Croix home; among them are walleye and muskies (Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s state fish respectively), northern pike, largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegill and crappie. White bass is particularly abundant near the park.

Some fish size is exceptional. Minnesota’s state record catfish – coming in at 70 pounds – was caught in Lake St. Croix. Fishermen also have hauled in lake sturgeon weighing more than 50 pounds. Some channel catfish weigh in excess of 25 pounds.

At 1.1-1.4 miles from the visitor center, the trail veers west away from the river and climbs the hill up the bluff. This marks a good time to turn back. Before returning to your vehicle, stop at the visitor center to learn more about the river and ecosystems at the park.

This also is a bicycle trail, so be aware of the two-wheelers. During spring and early summer, always don repellant for mosquitos (Minnesota’s unofficial state bird).

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