St. Croix State Park
Minnesota’s largest state park protects the scenic shore of not just its placid namesake river but also the writhing, boulder-strewn Kettle River, the first state-designated Wild and Scenic River.
In 1934, at the height the Great Depression, the National Park Service bought 18,000 acres of failing farms and over the next several years, aided by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), helped restore the land and build public facilities, creating the park.
Because most of the park’s original design and historic buildings remain intact and in use, it has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Since then St. Croix State Park (30065 St. Croix Park Rd., 320/384-6591) has nearly doubled in size, and the hardwood forests, tamarack and black spruce bogs, meadows, marshes, and streams are home to an enormous diversity and abundance of flora and fauna.
A 130-mile web of trails covers the park. Horseback riders can use well over half of them; though mountain bikers have access to 21 miles, the ride isn’t very popular because the trails are rough and often sandy. Biking is quite good along the park roads, and a paved 5.5-mile trail connects the campground with the beach.
The best and most popular hiking trails are those along the rivers, particularly the three-mile River Bluff Trail, starting at the campground. The 3.5-mile Kettle Rapids Trail over in the west end of the park gets less use, even though it is arguably the most scenic.
Not only does the nearby 2.75-mile Two Rivers Trail lead along both the St. Croix and the Kettle, but it is also the only riverside trail that forms a loop. The five-mile Bear Creek Trail, crossing through the heart of the park along its namesake waterway, is another worthy hike. The 11 miles of trail groomed for cross-country skiing offer several loops, most along the St. Croix, and all are level and easy. Snowshoes for exploring the rest of the park during the snowy season are available for rent.
Of course the canoeing is excellent, and together the two rivers offer something for paddlers of all stripes. Between them the two rivers have nine landings, allowing trips of almost any length and variety, from a nearly placid paddle with just a few Class I rapids along the entire 21 miles of the St. Croix to some moderate white water scattered along most of the Kettle. An outfitter in the park rents canoes and provides shuttle service for over 100 miles of river.
If you are looking for a more restful getaway, have a swim in Lake Clayton, climb the 100-foot fire tower, learn about geology (or just enjoy the scenery) at the Kettle River Highbanks Overlook perched atop the 50-foot cliffs, or cast a line into one of the trout streams emptying into the St. Croix. The St. Croix Lodge, an old log-and-stone CCC building overlooking the St. Croix River, houses human and natural history exhibits.
Canoe-in campsites on both the Kettle and St. Croix Rivers and two Adirondack-sheltered backpack sites, each miles from the trailhead, offer St. Croix State Park’s most secluded camping. The main campground has 211 sites in three distinct sections. All of the park’s 42 electric hookups are in the mostly open Riverview Campground, which is, naturally, where most of the RVs park. The park’s four walk-in sites are over here too.
The Old Logging Trail Campground loops are the most secluded of the three and, thus, the preferred choice for tent campers, while the Painted Rock Springs Campground is sort of middle ground. Five camper cabins (available May–Sept.) and two large, fully equipped guesthouses (open year-round) let you enjoy the park without roughing it. A separate horse camp can handle 100 horses. For reservations, visit www.stayatmnparks.com.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition