By Jim Umhoefer
Pine County, Four miles north of Sandstone Park entrace is off I-35 and Highway 23. Highway map index: K-12.
It's common to see experienced kayakers practice for hours in the challenging Kettle River rapids. The river flows for 10 miles through the long, slender park, but it's the two miles of powerful, churning rapids that make a kayaker's pulse quicken at the mention of Banning. Even the names of the individual pitches are a call to white-water adventure: Blueberry Slide, Mother's Delight, Dragon's Tooth and Hell's Gate.
No matter how experienced you are in a kayak or decked canoe, always respect the river. More than one life has been claimed here when people have overestimated their skills or underestimated the hazardous rapids (especially in high water). When in doubt, scout ahead or portage. Be especially wary of the high, cold water in April and May. After the snow melts, the swollen Kettle rises to levels that only experts should attempt.
As a general rule, the largest waves in the rapids are as high as the gauge reading on the Highway 23 bridge (east of the park entrance). The rapids will be too low to run if the gauge reads a foot or less. The water level fluctuates repeatedly, however, so that what is runnable today might not be a few days hence. As summer progresses, the rapids calm down enough so that less experienced kayakers (or paddlers in canoes with flotation devices) can give it a try. Autumn rains raise the river level again, but not as high as during spring. Depending on water level and temperature, the banning Rapids vary in difficulty from Class II to ClassV. Check the introduction to this book for descriptions of difficulty ratings.
The rest of the Kettle River in Banning State Park, above and below the rapids, is easier to canoe. The Kettle is a state canoe route as well as a state-designated wild and scenic river. There are two canoe landings and two drive-in boat landings in Banning: the Highway 23 bridge and below the Sandstone Dam for canoeists, above the rapids and near Robinson Park (in Sandstone) for boats.
Canoeists and boaters like to try for bass, northern and walleye in the slower waters of the Kettle River and below the Sandstone Dam. Below the Banning Rapids, canoeists can paddle the brief distance up Wolf Creek to see a pretty waterfall. The park provides three primitive canoe-camping areas; at rustler Bend (above 1-35), near Highway 23 (on the park's eastern edge) and at Blueberry Slide (just above the rapids).
The semi-modern campground at Banning has 34 sites (11 electric) that give campers a sense of privacy. On peak weekends and during fall color season, you'll have to get here early or make a reservation to get a site. Camping is also available at Moose Lake and St. Croix state parks.
Banning State Park is less than 100 miles from the Twin Cities, attracting visitors who want to use the river, watch the kayakers, hike or picnic. The park's shaded picnic area is a short walk from the Kettle River and the trails that flank it. There is another picnic area in Sandstone's Robinson Park. This is the site of an old sandstone quarry, and picnickers sometimes watch rock climbers scaling the quarry walls. A summertime naturalist program features a variety of guided activities on the weekends at Banning.
Today, the park's forests consist mostly of aspen and birch with occasional stands of pine. The woods and wild river form a wilderness-like setting, though the land was not always so untouched. The original white and red pine forest was cut down, and the logs were floated down the Kettle River to sawmills. The land surrounding the river was mined for copper and quarried for sandstone, and the river itself was dammed to generate electricity. The sandstone, quarried along the river near Hell's Gate, was valued for its strength and warm pink color. When structural steel became common in buildings, sandstone use declined and the town of Banning, once a bustling village near the quarries, faded. All that remains today are weathered concrete ruins along the riverbank and some remnants of the quarry processing buildings .The scars of development are slowly disappearing in a second-growth forest that shelters deer, bear, and along the riverbanks, smaller animals like beaver, muskrat and otter.
The park's hiking trails begin at the picnic area and hug the riverbank on both sides to Hell's Gate rapids. These paths are also used as portage trails. There is another trailhead in the campground where hikers can walk north to the picnic area, down to the river, or south to Wolf Creek Falls and the town of Sandstone.
At the northern end of the park are some sandstone formations called the Log Creek Arches. There is no direct park access to the arches, but the manager can give you directions. The arches and Wolf Creek Falls are better viewed during autumn through the thinning foliage.
As you hike downhill to reach the river trails, you'll hear the increasing roar of the rapids. The quarry walls here are usually moist, and the gentle drip, drip, drip joins the constant chorus of river sounds. The riverbank trail passes by several groupings of "kettles" eroded into the sandstone. The kettles, some 10 feet deep, were formed by water and swirling stones that gouged the ovals in the rock over thousands of years.
The closer you get to Hell's Gate rapids, the tougher the trail becomes as it climbs and drops below rocky cliffs (wear good-grip tennis shoes). In places where the cliffs overhang the trail, moisture drips on hikers as they duck underneath. The Kettle River is calm above Hell's Gate, which is typical of the Banning Rapids: quiet pools followed by sudden pitches.
Rocky ledges jut out over the river above Hell's Gate, affording a chance to peek downriver in the direction of the thundering rapids. When you first stand above Hell's Gate, you can understand how it came by its name. Rock walls squeeze the cascading river. The loud, boisterous rapids resemble boiling root beer with lots of foam. If you're lucky, some kayakers will be practicing their white-water skills and you'll have a front-row seat for the show.
Banning's snowmobile trails are not extensive, but connect with local trails for a longer ride. Snowmobiling is popular on the nearby Willard Munger State Trail, which crosses public land along the St. Croix River, including the Nemadji, St. Croix and Chengwatana state forests and St. Croix State Park. Regional Grant-in-Aid trails provide additional snowmobile mileage in the St. Croix Valley.
Some of the park's winter trails are used by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Separate cross-country ski trails, designed for intermediate skiers, loop north along the river from the winter parking lot or head up to the campground and then south to the Wolf Creek Falls area.