Thursday, July 3, 2014

Easy to reach St. Croix National Scenic Riverway offers diversity of day hiking trails

St. Croix River shoreline near campsites north of Danbury, Wis.

Adventure awaits
in nat. park unit

A quick travel quiz: Name the national park unit where you can lean against 200-year-old trees, feel the splash of a hidden waterfall, retrace the steps of historic portages, watch bald eagle families soar overhead, walk across billion-year-old rock, and pick apples as autumn leaves turn red and golden.

Yosemite National Park? Nope. Yellowstone? Nuh-uh. Cuyahoga Valley? Sorry, still wrong.

The correct answer: The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Covering more than 250 miles of shoreline, the National Park Service unit straddles the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and includes both the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. Seven state parks and several state forests, county parks, and nature centers are in the scenic riverway.

Just a few hours’ drive at most for anyone living in Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the scenic riverway’s proximity to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport makes it easier to reach than most national parks. Indeed, the scenic riverway outperforms more than half of all national parks in attendance.

200-year-old trees
Last year, I spent six months hiking 40-plus trails in the riverway as researching my latest book, “Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.” I initially expected to find that every trail was the same: a path through a Northwoods forest with river views. Was I ever wrong.

The St. Croix River begins north of Solon Springs, Wis., where the Bois Brule-St. Croix River Historic Portage Trail runs 4.4-miles round trip. The trail is the same route crossed centuries ago by Daniel Greysolon Sieur duLhut, a French explorer who opened the way for fur traders in the 1680s.

South of there, the St. Croix meets its main tributary, the 101-mile Namekagon River. A plethora of great day hiking trails wind alongside the Namekagon. The Wild Rivers Trail, in Trego, Wis., crosses the waterway on an old railroad bridge near the park service’s Namekagon Visitor Center.

A few miles below the St. Croix-Namekagon confluence is Governor Knowles State Forest. There the Cedar Interpretive Trail heads through a grove of stately eastern white cedar. The cedars that are a foot in diameter were mere saplings during the War of 1812.

Old Man of the Dalles
At Wisconsin Interstate State Park, the Summit Rock Trail climbs to a scenic overlook of the St. Croix River and the Old Man of the Dalles rock formation, which looks like an elderly man’s face. The trail crosses volcanic rock from 1.1 billion year-old lava flows. Families of bald eagles families searching for a meal in the river glide about the summit, sometimes coming within a few feet of hikers.

In nearby St. Croix Falls, Wis., the St. Croix River Visitor Center boasts a 500-gallon aquarium and presents an award-winning film about the riverway. Events featuring authors and artists often are held there.

Day hikers can walk alongside the multi-level Willow River Falls at Willow River State Park east of Hudson, Wis. The rock on the gorge walls’ lowest levels is about 600 million years old.

Apple picking during autumn highlights the stop at the privately-run Carpenter Nature Center. The center sits on the Minnesota side of the riverway close to where the St. Croix flows into the Mississippi River.

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