By Jim Umhoefer
Chisago County. 13 miles east of North Branch. From town drive about 10 miles east on Highway 95 to Almelund, then turn north on County 12 for 3 miles to the park.
Highway map index: K-14.
Wild River State Park wriggles like a noodle for 20 miles along the banks of the St. Croix River. The park is named for the St. Croix River, which Congress designated as one of the original eight National Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1968.
The river is the park's focal point. Drive-in boat landings at each end of the park provide easy fishing and canoeing access. Anglers catch a variety of fish, including walleye, northern, catfish and bass. The St. Croix River is most famous for canoeing. Although stretches of the upper St. Croix can pose a challenge for some canoeists, the river is not classified as white water.
Besides being a National Scenic Riverway, the St. Croix is a Minnesota State Canoe Route. You can rent canoes and inner tubes from an outfitter in Sunrise (shuttle service is available). Visitors can also rent canoes in the park (a weekend shuttle service is available at the south boat landing). The park maintains over a dozen primitive canoe campsites along the river. Swimming is not allowed in the park, but there are guarded swimming areas in nearby Lindstrom and in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Wild River State Park is within easy driving distance of the Twin Cities and draws large weekend crowds.
Water sports are only part of the attraction of Wild River, however. More than 35 miles of wooded hiking trails crisscross the length of the 7,000-acre park, including 20 miles of horse trails. Because of the varying trail difficulty at Wild River, the park has been the site of the state orienteering meet.
Some of the park's horse trails begin at the Trail Center and head north to the St. Croix River, following it up to Goose Creek. Other loops wind through the park's southeastern corner. There are 20 camping sites (100 capacity) for riders and their horses near the Trail Center.
The hills overlooking the river valley are prime spots to observe hawks and bald eagles during their spring and fall migrations. Some photographers like to "shoot" great blue herons near Amiks Pond in the southeastern corner of the park. Wild River is also a good spot to watch for bluebirds.
The woodsy, 96-site (17 electric) semi-modern campground is usually busy on holidays and weekends, though it tends to be less crowded than its downriver neighbors, Interstate and William O'Brien state parks. Bicycle clubs sometimes make the trek from the Twin Cities to camp at Wild River (Highway 95 has a bike lane from St. Paul). Backpackers can hike in to one of the seven primitive campsites in the park. Fall is the most pleasant season for backpacking because mosquitoes and ticks have declined. A 200-person primitive group camp may be reserved by contacting the park office.
The park's picnic area has both open and enclosed shelters. Some visitors pack a trail lunch and eat by the river at the old Nevers Dam site. At this spot, a large pile-driven wooden dam stood during the logging era. Only the ends of the dam are visible today. You can pause at the overlook to read the displays about the dam site and area logging history. A boat launch is on the Wisconsin side of the old dam.
Visitors can participate in an active interpretive program throughout the year at Wild River State Park. The impressive McElroy Interpretive Center has a wooden deck that overlooks the St. Croix River and the forested valley. Inside, exhibits of animals and artifacts catch the kids' attention, but not as much as the "feel boxes." Just put your hand inside one of these boxes (no peeking) and try to guess what you're touching.
No matter how much skiing experience you have, you'll find cross-country loops to suit your ability among Wild River's 35 miles of groomed trails. Most of these trails are for beginners, but there are some intermediate sections, and there's one advanced ski area in the hills south of the contact station.
Winter naturalist programs include basic ski instruction along with ski selection and waxing guidelines. Ski hikes are sometimes held at twilight or on moonlit nights. You can enjoy a break in the concession/warming house in the Trail Center at the winter trailhead parking lot.
Other organized outdoor activities include snowshoe hikes, winter astronomy, and animal tracking. The McEloy Interpretive Center is open on weekends and holidays. Visitors can view the displays, watch scheduled movies or slide shows, or observe winter birds munching at the Center's feeders. Winter camping demonstrations are also held at the Center. Ask at the office for details about setting up your own winter camp in the park.
Snowshoeing is another popular winter sport at Wild River. You can rent snowshoes (and cross-country skis) in the park. Although snowmobiling is not permitted on park- land, more than 200 miles of snowmobile trails lace the surrounding area.
Rush Lake Island Scientific and Natural Area
An interesting side trip is the Rush Lake Island Scientific and Natural Area, in northwestern Chisago County. This 20-acre island contains one of the largest blue-heron rookeries in Minnesota.