By Jim Umhoefer
In addition to being a state canoe and boating route (the Minnesota segment), the St. Croix River is one of the eight original streams included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, including the Namekagon River of northwestern Wisconsin, flows through some of the most scenic and undeveloped country in the upper Midwest. The good news is that even beginning canoeists can handle most of the river and it's all within easy reach of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Many St. Croix River trips start on the Namekagon River at the County K landing (below the Trego dam) in northwestern Wisconsin. Outfitters in Minnesota and Wisconsin will shuttle canoeists and gear to this access or farther upriver. Canoeists get a backcountry experience on the Namekagon because there is little development visible from the river. The Namekagon flows for about 100 miles before meeting the St. Croix River 6.5 miles upstream from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
The St. Croix rises at Solon Springs, Wisconsin, becomes the border river above Danbury, and then flows for 140 miles to merge with the Mississippi River. It is narrow and shallow until joined by its major tributary, the Namekagon River. From Danbury to the mouth of the Snake River, you'll see few signs of civilization as you paddle through dense second-growth forests and past pine-covered islands. The majestic red and white pine all but disappeared during the logging frenzy of the late 19th century.
The Upper St. Croix, from the Namekagon to the St. Croix Falls dam, is punctuated by several Class I-II rapids. Most of these are rated Class I and are not difficult. As you canoe to the lower end of St. Croix State Park (which extends for more than 20 miles along the Minnesota riverbank), you'll encounter a five-mile stretch of rapids above the confluence of the St. Croix and Kettle rivers. The Kettle River Rapids are a series of Class I and II drops interrupted by some wooded islands. The high, cold water of spring makes these pitches even more difficult, though some canoeists avoid the worst sections by keeping close to shore on the wide channel.
The St. Croix quiets down below the mouth of the Kettle River, wrapping around rocky islets. The going is easy from here to the St. Croix Falls dam, which must be portaged. This is the dividing point between the Upper and Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. National Park Service Headquarters is located just above the dam in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.
The upper river, formed by draining water from Glacial Lake Duluth, cut a deep, narrow gorge through bedrock to join the lower river at present-day Taylors Falls. This ravine, called the St. Croix Dalles, towers 200 feet above the deep river (average depth here is 70 feet). Pine trees perch on rocky toeholds, and hikers can see 60-foot-deep potholes formed by swirling rocks and gravel. A strong rapids at the start of the dalles rates Class II in low water and a challenging Class IV in high water. Though there are few obstacles here, standing waves from 3 to 5 feet high can swamp an open canoe.
South of the dalles, the St. Croix is relaxed river with lots of side channels and backwaters. The valley hillsides are heavily wooded, with occasional rocky bluffs poking through. Below the mouth of the Apple River to just above Stillwater is a seven-mile stretch that is full of long, narrow islands where the National Park Service allows camping. Some of these islands, which compose Boomsite Park, were used as sorting stations by lumbermen before sending logs downstream to sawmills.
Near Stillwater, the largest town on the route, the St. Croix widens and deepens into Lake St. Croix. Steep wooded bluffs still border the channel, but many hillside homes contrast with the less settled upper St. Croix. You may see powerboats of all sizes (some towing water-skiers), sailboats, and houseboats. Houseboats reflect the river's easy pace, especially on Lake St. Croix. Fishing is popular along the whole route. The Namekagon is noted for its brown trout, and trout fishing can also be good in some tributaries. The upper reaches of the St. Croix River are frequented by muskie fishermen. Other parts of the river harbor walleye, sauger, northern and crappie, with channel catfish in the lower section.
The riverway retains its wild and scenic character partially because of the public lands that bound it on both sides. On the Minnesota side of the upper river, canoeists pass by the St. Croix and Chengwatana state forests, and St. Croix and Wild River state parks. Interstate State Park, on the lower river at Taylors Falls (and St. Croix Falls in Wisconsin), opened in 1895 as the first interstate park venture in the country. Also on the lower river, on the Minnesota side, are William O'Brien and Afton state parks.
Water-use regulations apply on the lower St. Croix to alleviate conflicts between canoeists, power boaters and swimmers. There are special no-wake zones, for example, and some rules govern water-skiing and motorboating. Contact the Minnesota DNR or the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Headquarters for details.
There are many landings and primitive campsites along the riverway. You can also camp in designated sites in the state parks and forests on both sides of the river. Riverway communities offer accommodations and supplies, including commercial canoe outfitters. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway maintains four visitor centers along the route: Stillwater, Minnesota; Highway 70 on the Minnesota side of the river (5 miles west of Grantsburg, Wisconsin); Trego, Wisconsin; and the headquarters in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Contact one of the visitor centers to get riverway maps and other information