One of the most peaceful, immersive ways to experience Minnesota's fall color show is paddling a canoe between the densely wooded banks of the St. Croix River. Much of the 164-mile river forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it was one of only eight waterways originally designated as a "National Wild and Scenic River" by the federal government in 1968. It's also widely considered one of the best canoeing rivers in the nation.
Five Minnesota state parks provide campers and day trippers the perfect entry point to the pleasures of the St. Croix. Canoeing and kayaking are perhaps the strongest attraction at many of these parsk, but they also offer great hiking, biking, horseback trails and campsites, and all manners of wildlife watching.
It's common to see eagles, herons and dozens of other bird species, and with a little luck and attentiveness, you might see mink, beaver, whitetail deer, fox, and maybe even black bear.
St. Croix and Wild River state parks, set on the official "wild and scenic" portions of the river, are particularly quiet and remote from signs of civilization. At 33,000 acres, St Croix is Minnesota's largest state park. Buildings and other visible structures are few along the Upper St. Croix, and motorboats tend to be less common than canoes, partly because the water tends to be fairly shallow (and usually gentle for less experienced paddlers).
Visitors should ask park staff about the water conditions before heading out, and always wear a personal flotation device.
There's good fishing here for smallmouth bass, walleye and many other species. In centuries past, this was prime red and white pine lumbering country--timber was the economic heartbeat of the area for a long time. Nowadays you'll see more spruce, tamarack, maple, basswood and jack pine, providing a lovely mix of colors in the fall. Peak color is typically late September to mid-October.
Both parks rent canoes and necessary equipment if you don't have your own. About a third of the campsites have electric hookups for trailers and RVs, and modern restrooms and showers are available. St. Croix has six camper cabins, and Wild River has a guest house that sleeps six.
Interstate State Park, at Taylors Falls, is small but distinctive, geologically and otherwise. Massive glaciers retreated from the area about 10,000 years ago, when rushing currents and whirlpools carved deep, circular "glacial potholes" through the sandstone down into the basalt. The view of the river from the cliffs is stunning, especially at the peak of fall color.
Just below the dam that separates the Upper from the Lower St. Croix, narrated scenic paddleboat cruises are offered, some of which include dinner. Another highlight here is rock climbing. Enthusiasts bring their ropes, carabiners and well-conditioned biceps to muscle their way up the steep basalt cliffs. If you're not up to the considerable effort yourself, it's a lot of fun to watch. Modern campsites and canoe rentals are available.
William O'Brien and Afton State Park are within an hour of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and thus perfect for a day trip, but they also both offer excellent camping. Afton is the closest park on the St. Croix to the Twin Cities, and caters to those looking for a rustic and remote experience close to the metro region. All of the camping and most of the other features of the park are hike-in, with few amenities accessible from the parking lot.
William O'Brien has canoe rentals and a boat launch, 12 miles of hiking trails, more than 100 campsites (75 with electric hookups), a large, accessible picnic grounds, a fishing pier, and excellent bird and wildlife watching.
Find more information on all of these parks on our Parks & Forests page.