Sunday, April 20, 2014

St. Croix riverway offers plethora of trails

Namekagon River at Groats Landing near Hayward, Wis.

National Park unit includes
two Midwestern waterways

Imagine a land where you can walk alongside crystal blue rivers or over billion-year-old black rock, where you can lean against 200-year-old trees or feel the splash of rustic waterfalls, where you can retrace the steps of historic portages or watch families of bald eagles soar overhead. Such a land not only exists, it has been preserved for all to enjoy. It’s called the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

The scenic riverway includes most of the St. Croix and all of the Namekagon rivers along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and in the latter state’s northwoods. While the National Park Service runs the scenic riverway, a patchwork of state and county parks, nonprofit nature centers, and state forests combine to protect 252 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon.

Half-million visitors annually
Today, a whole variety of recreational activities, from camping and fishing to canoeing and day hiking, are possible in the scenic riverway. It’s a few hours’ drive at most for anyone living in Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – and with its proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport an easier destination to reach than most national parks.

Indeed, 520,000 people annually visit the scenic riverway, outperforming more than half of all national parks in attendance.

The scenic riverway wouldn’t exist at all if not for a major geological event dating some 1.1 billion years ago. At that time, massive lava flows covered this part of the world. This basalt now forms the strong bedrock of the St. Croix River gorge, the surrounding landscape, and nearby Lake Superior.

The sandstone above the basalt began forming some 515 million years ago when this region sat under a warm shallow sea near the equator. As sediments piled up and were covered over the eons, they hardened 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 carved the St. Croix River valley and left many intriguing cliff formations.

Protected since 1960s
Since the last ice age, Native Americans have used the St. Croix and Namekagon for trade and travel. When European explorers and fur traders arrived during the late 1600s, they mainly saw the waterways as quick routes connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; so vital was this link that by 1688 the French had established Fort St. Croix (“Fort Holy Cross”) along the St. Croix, giving the riverway its modern name.

Throughout the 1700s, the river area was hotly contested, first by Ojibwe and Dakota Indians living there and then later the French and the British.

The United States wrested control of the area from the British following the Revolutionary War but would not assert any real power over it until the 1830s when the Treaty of St. Peters was signed with the Ojibwe. This opened the area to logging, which dominated the riverways and surrounding forests for the rest of the century. Many of today’s towns along the two rivers got their start thanks to the logging industry.

During the 20th century, the economy along the rivers shifted to agriculture, but with the growth of the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, a number of conservationists and concerned citizens feared the riverway was ripe for commercial exploitation. Their efforts led to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which protected significant portions of the St. Croix and Namekagon north of Taylors Falls, Minn.

In 1972, Congress protected the St. Croix south of Taylors Falls to Prescott, Wis., by creating the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Day hiking trails
There are several excellent day hiking trails in the scenic riverway, including:
g Stand atop remains of 500-million-year-old sea on Sandrock Cliffs Trail
g Pleasant walk, otter slides await kids along wild river in northwoods
g Hiking trail leads to delta of St. Croix River’s largest tributary
g Burkhardt Trail takes kids along river to impressive falls in Wisconsin
g Explore Wisconsin's major geological events on Summit Rock Trail

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