By Jim Umhoefer Trails Reporter
Pine County. 16 miles east of Hinckley on Highway 48. Park headquarters is on County 22, five miles south of the park entrance.
This is Minnesota's largest state park, so there are many quiet spots in St. Croix's 34,000 acres of elbowroom. Yet other spots, like the campground and interpretive center, are bustling. Visitors can hike into the backcountry or stick to developed portions. Though most of the roads are not paved, it's possible to see much of the park from your car. There's vehicle access to the fire tower, landings, campsites and overlooks.
Perhaps the most scenic of the park's 127 miles of hiking trails is in the southwest corner, along the Kettle River. This area is characterized by tree-covered banks that flank the Kettle. St. Croix State Park has 75 miles of bridle paths.
The park's longest trail is the Willard Munger State Trail. Horseback riders and hikers use it during summer, though it is spongy in many sections. North of the park, the Willard Munger forms part of the North Country National Scenic Trail (according to the master plan. This 3,200-mile footpath, not yet completed, will stretch from Lake Champlain in New York to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, crossing seven northern states along the way.
Horseback riders can park their rigs overnight in the camping area next to the trail center. Some riders also drive north into the St. Croix State Forest, where the trails are hillier and there is another campground for riders. Primitive camping for riders is also available in the St. Croix and Chengwatana state forests. The flat terrain of St. Croix State Park can be marshy in early summer and after heavy rains, so riders should check with the park manager for current conditions.
A hard-surfaced 6.5-mile trail from Lake Clayton to the campground is designed for bicycle and wheelchair use. I saw a deer while bicycling here, but deer are plentiful everywhere in the park. Overhead, you might see marsh hawks or ospreys, which have good hunting in the St. Croix River valley. Bears are occasionally spotted, but are not common.
The St. Croix River, which forms the park's 21-mile eastern boundary, attracts anglers and canoeists. Fishing can be good for muskies, northern, bass and sauger. Walleyes are taken in the lower Kettle River as well as in the St. Croix. Hay Creek is popular for trout fishing.
Canoeists can choose from three nearby routes. The St. Croix is both a state canoe route and a National Scenic Riverway. The Kettle River (on the park's western edge) and the Snake River (in the Chengwatana Forest, just south of the park) are also state canoe routes. You can rent canoes in the park and make arrangements for shuttle service in the park concession building. There are two canoe landings on the Kettle River and three on the St. Croix. In addition, there's a drive-in boat landing just downhill from the campground.
Lake Clayton, at the south end of Hay Creek, has a guarded swimming beach. A picnic area spreads out through the trees behind the beach, and another picnic area is located above the river near the campground. Bicycle rentals, snacks, gifts and some groceries are available in the concession building near the campground picnic area.
Watch park bulletin boards for schedules of summertime naturalist programs. These include canoe caravans, Indian rope-making lesions, stargazing and night hikes.
The park has camping facilities befitting its size. There are more than 213 semi-modern sites (42 with electrical hookups) split into numerous loops along the St. Croix River. Even so, the campsites can fill up on weekends. Small playgrounds and game areas are located between the three main campgrounds.
There are a handful of walk-in campsites along the trail at the far end of the campground. Backpackers can hike into sites along Bear Creek and Crooked Creek (register for backpack sites at the park office). Four sites for canoe camping are marked along the Kettle River and eight are located on the St. Croix River.
Group camping at St. Croix State Park is more elaborate than at other state parks because St. Croix has the space to develop large complexes. Three separate group centers in the park feature dining halls, kitchens, cabins, showers, lodges and craft buildings. Swimming is possible at two of them. The centers (St. John's Landing, Norway Point and Head of the Rapids) have a combined capacity of 395. Each is like a little village, complete with administration buildings, staff quarters and infirmaries. Ask the manager above rates, reservations and winter use.
St. Croix State Park's size translates into miles of trails for cross-country skiers and snowmobiles. Eighty miles of snowmobile trails are marked and groomed, including the Willard Munger State Trail, which extends north through the Nemadji State Forest and south to Wild River State Park. Combined with the network of Grant-in-Aid trails, it's possible to snowmobile from Anoka County to Duluth.
Although some skiers also use the Willard Munger State Trail, the park grooms more than 20 miles of cross-country ski loops. These trails are designed for beginning and intermediate skiers. Primitive camping, hiking and snowshoeing are also available at St. Croix. When you need a break, warm up by the fireplace in the chalet, located near the trail center parking lot.