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Interstate Park: a shared View

View of the St. Croix- Wisconsin Interstate Park

Atop the glacial formed cliffs towering by the St. Croix river, are two beautiful parks: one on the Minnesota side and one on the Wisconsin side. They share the “Interstate” name and they share similar terrain, however they are operated independently by each state. For over 100 years, visitors have come to this area to view the rugged cliffs, unique glacial formations and the forested hills surrounding the scenic St. Croix River. In addition to the breathtaking scenery, the area is perfect for a number of recreational pursuits include hiking, camping, fishing and boating.

In 1895, the Minnesota Interstate Park was established to help preserve the scenic beauty and geologic wonders found in the area. Wisconsin followed suit in 1900 by establishing Interstate Park at the southern edge of St. Croix Falls, directly across from the Minnesota Park.  Wisconsin’s Interstate Park is the oldest established Park in the state.  When originally conceived in the early 1900’s , the Parks were run with a certain degree of reciprocity between the two states.  However, with changes in administration of the Parks, after 2003 the Parks became independent of each other and are operated by their respective states. Even though the administration is separate, the ideology and shared vision of protecting this unique and beautiful glacial land is reciprocal.

Old Man of the Dalles (photo by: thestcroixvalley.com)

Wisconsin Interstate Park is Wisconsin’s oldest state park and boasts incredible land forms and hiking trails with breathtaking view of the St. Croix River. Interesting geological formations in the park called “potholes” can be viewed in several locations throughout the park. Not the kind of potholes we usually think of that afflict the roadways for motorists, these potholes were formed when sand and rocks were trapped in glacial whirlpools and drilled deep potholes into solid rock. Another feature of the rock formations can be found by the cliffs rising from the riverbeds. Some of the cliffs rise up to 200 feet high above the river. One of the most unusual rock formation is the “Old Man of the Dalles”, with an uncanny look of an old man looking out over the St. Croix River. It makes one think of the man-made stone work of Mt. Rushmore, but it is truly amazing that this visage was totally crafted by natural forces.

Another interesting feature of this Wisconsin Park, is that it also has an affiliation with the National Park Service by virtue of the fact that this park is on the western edge of the Ice Age Trail.  The effects of the glacial period are readily seen across the state of Wisconsin and better preserved than almost any other area of the country. The Interstate Park Visitor newsletter reports: “In 1964, legislation was passed by Congress to preserve and protect this heritage of the Ice Age in Wisconsin. This legislation created the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve.  The Reserve consists of nine separate units located across the state from Lake Michigan on the east to the St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border on the west.”

The Ice Age Interpretive center, close to the entrance of the park, has informative displays on the effects of glacial activity and a 25 minute video entitled “Mammoths & Moraines”.  Additionally they have a book store and gift store in this same facility.  The staff there can help with any questions about the area and what your needs are when visiting the park. For example, which trails would be suited for my hiking ability? Some trails are much “trickier” and steep than others.  If canoeing or boating, there are boat launches available on the St. Croix River and Lake O’ the Dalles.  Campers can take their pick from 82 beautiful wooded sites. Camping is  available May 1- October 1.  The Interstate Park of Wisconsin encompasses 1,330 acres with an abundance of land to explore.

Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours

The Minnesota Interstate Park is smaller, at 293 acres, but also has an abundance of interesting terrain and activities. The views of the river provide different outlooks from the western side. When I was there, several brave souls were climbing the steep faces of the rocky cliffs. (With several safety harnesses, luckily….sorry, just not my cup of tea.) Another activity, only available on the Minnesota side of the river, are boat rides on the St. Croix on those old, quaint paddle boats.  I must clarify that the boat tours are not affiliated with Minnesota Interstate Park, they just happen to be right next to the park. Both the Park and the boat tours are in Taylors Falls and both on the riverfront. When you are hiking in the park, it is common to see several of these tour boats going up and down through the Dalles. You gotta love those huge paddle wheels churning up the water. (Cue: “Mississippi Queen…You know what I Mean….”) Boats have been touring up and down this river since 1906.  For more information on the Scenic Boat Tours, you can check out their website at: http://www.taylorsfallsboat.com

Exploring both of the parks can be very rewarding.  They share a border and also share the same vision of protecting a beautiful part of our Midwestern landscape.

Information on Wisconsin’s Interstate Park can be found at:http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/interstate/

Information on Minnesota’s Interstate Park can be found at: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/interstate/

Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Preserving a Legacy: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

View of the St. Croix from one of the viewing platforms at the Visitor’s Center of the SCNCR.

Sometimes it is easy to make assumptions, frequently incorrect, based on common knowledge and not first hand experience.  It can be an eye-opening experience when you learn something new, that turns your previous assumption upside down. That happened to me recently with an updated geography lesson about the upper Midwest. Growing up in Iowa, the Mighty Mississippi, was the grand daddy of all rivers and forms the eastern Iowa border.  Sure,  I had heard of the St. Croix River, but just knew it was “up north” somewhere.  I didn’t realize that a large portion of the Wisconsin and Minnesota borders are defined by the St. Croix River, which joins the Mississippi further south, almost to the Iowa border in Prescott, Wisconsin.  So many “flatlanders” like myself, just make the assumption that it is mostly the Mississippi that carves out the pathways in the Midwest. Yes, this is true, but the St. Croix has an impressive presence north of the 45th degree latitude.

A visit to the National Park Service Visitor Center of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is a great way to learn how the St. Croix and the Namekagon rivers have had an incredible influence on this area of the upper Midwest.  In addition to learning about the fascinating geologic and historical information of the area, one can also get information here on hiking, canoeing and fishing these beautiful waters. The rivers have provided commerce, recreation and also abundant resources to support a diversity of wildlife.  The rivers of the St.Croix and Namekagon together make up 252 miles of protected waterway in the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.

NPS photo, St. Croix river (circa early 1900’s) Logging with Wannigan house

The geologic history of the area began millions of  years ago when the glaciers carved out the river valleys and rugged bluffs overlooking the flowing rivers.  The first human inhabitants of the rivers  were the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwe (Chippewa) that found this area to have plentiful resources for an abundant life.  The next to explore this area were the French and later the English fur trappers. The logging industry in the area took the St. Croix river valley by storm and the pique of the logging industry was the 1890’s. Log jams in the river frequently occurred, not only hindering the progress of lumber to the mills, but also damaging the fragile ecosytems of the rivers.  The life of the lumberjacks was challenging on the river, to say the least, and many lost their lives in this profession. They built small shanties that floated in the river to help carry supplies and were sometimes used to sleep in as they were “steering” the lumber downstream. The shanty was called a Wannigan as shown is this photo. The last major log drive was in 1914.  It is interesting that in St. Croix Falls, WI.  and Taylors Falls, MN. the lumber industry and the rich heritage of the river  is still celebrated today with “Wannigan Days”.  Now that is neat! I learned that new tidbit of trivia when moving to this area….I bet not that many people know what a Wannigan is, well know you know.

500 gallon Freshwater aquarium

When at the Visitor’s Center, be sure to check out the 500 gallon freshwater aquarium. It is stocked with great examples of the kinds of fish that anglers in the area are fishing for. The displays are great in learning all about the wildlife and the plant life near the river. Be sure to take a few minutes (only about 20) to view the film about the rivers and how the National Park Service established protection of this waterway thru the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Map of the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers

The Visitor’s Center is also a great source of information for planning camping, canoeing and/or fishing trips.  They can provide maps, educational materials and answer any questions about the area. The St.Croix River Visitor Center is easily found at 401 N. Hamilton Street, St. Croix Falls, Wi. It is just off the main road (87), 2 blocks north of the St. Croix Overlook Deck.

Put your traveling shoes on. JES