Sunday, June 15, 2014

St. Croix riverway abundant with day trails

St. Croix River south of St. Croix Falls, Wis.

National Park unit
includes 252 miles
of scenic shore

With the quiltwork of state parks, forests, and natural areas, county parks and other historical sites in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, attractions abound – swimming beaches, boat ramps, campgrounds, shopping in historic towns, ski trails, and more. Well over 70 day hiking trails can be found along the two rivers.

Scenic riverway’s location
From south to north, the scenic riverway begins in Prescott, Wis., where the St. Croix River meets the Mississippi River. This wide stretch of the St. Croix often is referred to as Lake St. Croix, which sports two state parks. At Afton, Minn., and Hudson, Wis., the Interstate 94 bridge handles the greatest amount of vehicle traffic over the river. From there, Willow River State Park sits on a tributary to the St. Croix in what is Lake St. Croix’s most populous stretch, with the cities of Bayport, Oak Park Heights and Stillwater on the Minnesota side and Hudson and North Hudson on the Wisconsin side.

North of Stillwater, the population falls off greatly, with William O’Brien State Park in Minnesota sometimes outpacing the census of the neighboring town, Marine on St. Croix. Then another cluster of villages appears – Osceola, Dresser and St. Croix Falls on the Wisconsin side and Taylors Falls in Minnesota. There the twin jewels of Minnesota and Wisconsin Interstate State Parks straddles the St. Croix O’ the Dalles, a beautiful gorge that the river flows through.

North of this region, the river bulges westward, with a state park in Minnesota and several state forests and state natural areas on both sides, before curving eastward to Danbury, Wis. A few miles north of town, the river ceases to be the state border as it heads northeast, taking in the Namekagon, and then coming to the Saint Croix Flowage near Gordon, Wis. The scenic riverway ends at the dam creating the lake.

West of the flowage, the St. Croix continues northward as a narrow waterway to its headwaters at Upper St. Croix Lake. In all, it’s a 169-mile journey.

The St. Croix’s largest tributary, the Namekagon, meanders for 101 miles, crossing four Wisconsin counties. It’s a major recreational area, with a number of boat landings and campsites, especially in Sawyer and Washburn counties.

From west to east, the Namekagon dips south to Trego, Wis., before heading northeast through Hayward, Wis. Its headwaters are at Namakagon Lake in the Chequamegon National Forest. The tributary runs 101 miles.

The National Park Service operates two visitor centers in the riverway. The St. Croix River Visitor Center is in downtown St. Croix Falls and open from mid-April to Oct. 27. It boasts a 500-gallon freshwater aquarium. The Namekagon River Visitor Center is a mile east of Trego and open from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. Hours for both visitor centers are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Major parks, nature centers, and public forests on or near the scenic riverway (from south to north and west to east) include:
g Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center (Hastings, Minn.)
g St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park (Hastings)
g Kinnickinnic State Park (Prescott)
g Afton State Park (Afton)
g Willow River State Park (Hudson)
g William O’Brien State Park (Marine on St. Croix)
g Osceola Bedrock Glades State Natural Area (Osceola)
g Wisconsin Interstate State Park (St. Croix Falls)
g Minnesota Interstate State Park (Taylors Falls)
g Wild River State Park (North Brach, Minn.)
g Governor Knowles State Forest (Grantsburg, Wis.)
g Chengwatana State Forest (Beroun, Minn.)
g St. Croix State Park (Hinckley, Minn.)
g St. Croix State Forest (Sandstone, Minn.)
g Brule River State Forest (Solon Springs, Wis.)
g Chequamegon National Forest (Cable, Wis.)

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