Highway 95 heads south along the St. Croix River and, except for a few quick glimpses of the water, is pretty ordinary until it hits Afton, a quaint village of 19th-century homes, several now housing restaurants and shops.
The Afton Historical Museum (3165 St. Croix Trail S., 651/436-3500, 1–8 p.m. Wed. year-round, 1–4 p.m. Sun. summer, free admission), housed in an 1868 church, has a small collection of artifacts with an emphasis on farming, appropriately enough, since the first farm in Minnesota was established by Joseph Haskell just a mile west of the village in 1839.
Beyond Afton, scenic County Highway 21 veers away from the river and up a steep, wooded bluff, passing half a dozen orchards and farms where you can pick your own apples, strawberries, cherries, and the like.
Four miles on is Afton State Park (6959 Peller Ave. S., 651/436-5391), established and managed for nature first and recreation second. The 1,700-acre park protects several deep, wooded ravines, some lined by sandstone outcrops that drop hundreds of feet down from the bluff tops to the St. Croix. With a mix of prairie and forest, Afton is a good park for bird-watchers.
The primary reason for the park’s overall peacefulness is that reaching most facilities requires a bit of a hike. The rocky beach and picnic area are half a mile downhill from the parking area. The only camping spots are the 24 widely spaced backpacking sites, reached by a long one-mile climb, and a single canoe site on the St. Croix.
Most of the 20 miles of hiking trails have some long, steep climbs, but the effort is usually rewarded with great views, particularly the series of loops in the north end of the park. The riverside route along the south end of the park is also scenic, and the rocky beach makes a nice stroll when not busy with swimmers.
Horses are allowed on one five-mile loop, and a four-mile paved bike path runs along the entrance road and down a short stretch of the river. Most of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, including 2.5 miles of level beginner trail.
Surrounded by, but independent of, the park is Afton Alps (6600 Peller Ave. S., 651/436-5245 or 800/328-1328, www.aftonalps.com ), one of Minnesota’s largest ski hills, with 48 trails, 18 lifts, a snowboard park, and a tubing hill. The rest of the year there is an 18-hole golf course and 7.5 miles of challenging mountain bike trails. Rentals are available.
A little farther down the road, St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park (10191 St. Croix Trail S., 651/430-8240, $5 day sticker) has one thing Afton State Park does not—a drive-in campground ($18–20 with electric and water hookups). With abundant shade, it’s pretty good. The park also has hiking trails, boat access, and picnic sites.
In Afton itself, the large full-service Windmill Marina (16065 32nd St. S., 651/436-7744, www.windmillmarina.com ) takes care of boaters’ needs.
The Afton House Inn (3291 St. Croix Trail S., 651/436-8883 or 877/436-8883, www.aftonhouseinn.com , $79) was built in 1867 as a hotel, and a night here feels like a real escape. Most of the cozy rooms have fireplaces and/or whirlpools. Although there have been gaps in the lodging operation, a restaurant has operated here continuously since it opened, and currently they have a pair of them.
The pasta, meat, and seafood menu in the Wheel Room averages over $20 for dinner, while the more casual Catfish Saloon is much cheaper. Both are open daily for lunch and dinner. You can also dine on the river between April and October on the Inn’s Sunday brunch ($28) and Friday dinner ($35) cruises.