Visit the St. Croix Valley for Charming River Towns & Scenic State Parks
By James Riemermann
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Less than half an hour from Minneapolis-St. Paul, the St. Croix River Valley is teeming with plentiful natural beauty, fun on the water, and small rivertown charms.
The St. Croix 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. Get on the water and see the sights along this iconic waterway.
Explore Four Minnesota State Parks Along the St. Croix
Four Minnesota state parks within about an hour of the Twin Cities provide campers and day trippers the perfect entry point to the pleasures of the St. Croix. Canoeing, kayaking and other river activities are the strongest attraction at these parks, but they also offer great hiking, biking, horseback trails and campsites, and all manners of wildlife watching.
Wild River State Park, set on the upper “wild and scenic” portion of the river, is quiet and remote from signs of civilization. Buildings and other visible structures are minimal, and motorboats are less common than canoes, ideal for the shallow and gentle water. The park’s 6,803 acres offer camping; trails for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing; and good fishing for smallmouth bass, walleye and many other species.
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 “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.
Afton State Park is closest to the Twin Cities and perfect for a day trip, but also offers excellent camping for those seeking a rustic and remote experience. At Marine on St. Croix, William O’Brien State Park has canoe rentals and a boat launch, 12 miles of hiking trails, more than 100 campsites picnic grounds, two 7-person yurts, a fishing pier, and excellent bird and wildlife watching.
Charming St. Croix River Towns Are Full of Wonders
The lovely rivertown of Stillwater is known for its many independent shops for books, antiques, candy, toys and more. Grand mansions have been turned into elegant bed-and-breakfasts, and fine restaurants and breweries line the river, where sailboats, yachts and even gondolas cruise in the shadow of a historic lift bridge.
Hastings, at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, is a popular destination for antiquing. It’s also home to Alexis Bailly Vineyard and Winery. Founded in 1973 as Minnesota’s first winery, it offers tastings, special events and wines for sale from spring through fall.
In the village of Scandia is the Gammelgarden (Swedish for “old farm”) Museum, with restored buildings on an 11-acre site. The museum tells the story of the area’s first Swedish immigrants, with special events such as Midsommar Dag in June and the Spelmansstamma music festival in August.
Boat Tours & Other Attractions
Boat excursions, some offering dinner cruises, operate out of Taylors Falls, Stillwater and Afton. In the fall, several apple orchards and pick-your-own-pumpkin patches are open near Stillwater, Hastings and Afton. Come winter, Wild Mountain near Taylors Falls and Afton Alps north of Hastings offer downhill skiing close to the Twin Cities. The quirky Franconia Sculpture Park in Shafer is a draw year-round.
James Riemermann is a retired writer and editor. Raised in St. Paul, he's a city boy who feels more at home in the woods. Sitting by a campfire on the shore of a quiet north woods lake is his idea of paradise.
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