Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hike alongside lake, thru floodplain forest

St. Croix River shoreline at William O'Brien State Park.
Day hikers can learn about the power of floods on the St. Croix River via the Riverside Trail at William O’Brien State Park in Minnesota.

The 1.5-mile trail loops through a floodplain and typically is open during summer and autumn when water levels have gone down. Don’t think of this area as a swamp, though – you’ll find rest areas (some with benches) about every 900 feet on the trail, as well as interpretive signs.

To reach the trail, from Marine on St. Croix, Minn., take Minn. Hwy. 95 north into the park. Turn right/east onto O'Brien Trail North/County Road 33. The road curves south, dead ending in a parking area alongside Lake Alice. The trail begins at the picnic grounds immediately east of the parking lot.

Floodplain forest
At the amphitheater, the trail curves east then north again as paralleling a back channel of the St. Croix River. The fresh scent of pine needles upon the trail and the gentle rush of water along the river’s rock walls instantly lulls you into a feeling of serenity.

About 0.3 miles from the amphitheater, shortly after passing a stem trail leading to a campground, the back channel joins the main channel. Roughly half of the trail follows the river, mainly through a good mix of hardwoods common to a floodplain forest in this region. During autumn, their leaves turn gold, red, orange and brown. Across the water is Wisconsin, and with the two undeveloped shorelines, tranquilityreigns.

A little more than halfway through the hike, the trail veers from the river and follows a small stream that flows from the bluffs into the St. Croix. Frogs make their home along the creek in large numbers, and you’re likely to hear them through the day.

The trail then curves south and soon crosses O’Brien Trail North. This marks the steepest section of the trail as it rises and drops about 40 feet over a knoll.

Lake Alice bird life
Next the trail squeezes between the road and Lake Alice. The lake was named for Alice O'Brien, whose donation of 180 acres in honor of her father, William, launched the park.

Springs at Lake Alice’s north end feeds it through the year, assuring the water remains clean and blue all summer. Keep an eye to the sky for eagles and hawks looking for a meal in the lake. Geese and ducks usually can be spotted floating about, so if you have little ones, bring some dried bread they can toss into the water to feed the waterfowl.

The Riverside Trail is wheelchair accessible. It also has restrooms and a swimming area on Lake Alice at trail’s end, so be sure to pack your kids’ swimming trunks.

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