By Jim Umhoefer, Trails Reporter
Washington County. About 10 miles north of Hastings at junction of County Hwy 2 and Hwy 21.
Highway map index: K-17.
Bring comfortable walking shoes when you visit Afton State Park because you'll have to hike in order to picnic, camp or swim here. Although only a 40-minute drive from the Twin Cities, Afton offers a solution for traffic snarls and freeway mania: motorless motion. Afton, one of the newer additions to Minnesota's state park system, is still being discovered by visitors.
Those who have already found the trails that plunge into deep ravines and climb up to ridgetops where you can overlook the St. Croix River Valley would prefer that Afton remain their secret, but the news is bound to get out.
If you feel out of touch with the natural world because of too much city, Afton State Park will help you mark the seasons. The St. Croix River Valley is one of the state's best birding areas. As the flocks fly overhead, you can hear the collective fluttering of their wings, like a wind urging them on their way. In spring, warblers and bluebirds return to the park, filling the woods with song. You'll also see many hawks during the migrations and might notice red-tailed hawks circling above the fields, hunting for rabbits or rodents. Eagles are often spotted soaring above the bluffs on their way through the park, but they don't nest here.
Afton's 18 miles of hiking trails (some of which are strenuous) begin from the parking lot near the interpretive center. To reach the backpack sites or the trails in the main body of park land, you'll have to drop into the ravine, cross Trout Brook near its mouth, and climb the bluffs on the other side of the stream. Some trails follow the 2-mile-long river shoreline in the park, while others twist through the hills and valleys farther inland. The quietest trails are in Afton's northern and western extremes.
A 5-mile-long bridle trail allows horseback riders to enjoy the park's hilly terrain. A recently developed bicycle trail parallels the park road and extends along the river, totaling some 4 miles of pedaling for cyclists. The paved trail may also become popular with disabled visitors.
The 24 wooded open sites in the backpack camping area are on an upland plateau. The secluded primitive sites, spaced along the forested edge of a former pasture, are attracting more backpackers as people hear about Afton. Water is available from a hand pump. A group camp will be developed in the southern corner of the park.
Most visitors stick close to the river at Afton. They hike down here to swim at the beach, picnic or fish. Anglers try for walleye, silver bass, smallmouth bass or sauger from the riverbank. The St. Croix River is a state-designated canoe and boating route (the park has one canoe campsite near the river). Since the river is heavily used by large powerboats and houseboats in the summer, the park maintains an area for self-contained craft to anchor. A self-registration station is available at the mooring area for boat campers. Plans are under way to develop a new shelter near the river.
Be sure to stop at the visitor center adjacent to the parking lot, next to the park's other picnic area. Easy-to-understand displays describe points of interest and park resources. Park staff members encourage visitors to assist with interpretive programs and resource management. If you're interested in volunteering, contact the park manager.
Include a side trip to the historic village of Afton in your travel plans. Gaslights cast a warm glow over the restored 19th-century buildings that now house local businesses. The village is north of Afton State Park at the junction of Highway 95 and County 21.
The interpretive center stays open year-round and is used as a warming house by winter trail users. Weekends draw crowds from the Twin Cities metro area, mostly for the excellent cross-country skiing and for the winter sliding hill. The marked and groomed 18-mile trail system at Afton (including 7 miles of skate-skiing tract) provides challenging skiing for expert and intermediate skiers.
Some people like to ski down to the St. Croix River to try ice fishing. Snowshoeing and hiking are permitted anywhere in the park (snowmobiling is not allowed), but it can be difficult to navigate in the slippery ravines. You can camp at Afton in the winter by hiking or skiing to the backpack camping area.