By Jim Umhoefer
Washington County. About 2 miles north of Marine-on-St. Croix on Highway 95. Highway map index: Z-23 (metro St. Paul-Minneapolis map on back of state map)
William O'Brien State Park, only a short drive northeast of the Twin Cities, draws large numbers of campers and daytime visitors. People are attracted by the wooded, rolling land along the St. Croix River and the variety of ways they can unwind from city life.
Because of O'Brien's proximity to the Twin Cities, the campgrounds are usually full on weekends. If you don't have a reservation, get here early to register for a site. The park has two semi-modern campgrounds. The lower campground (near the riverfront) has 60 sites. Of these, 43 have electrical hookups and 4 are specifically designated for disabled campers. In the upper campground (65 sites, 19 electric), some sections are open and sunny, while others are deeply wooded.
The park has two group camping areas. There is also a primitive, canoeists-only campground along the St. Croix River (capacity 50). Contact the park office for reservation information about these camps.
The St. Croix River is a National Wild and Scenic River and also a state-designated canoe and boating route. The lower St. Croix (the section below Taylors Falls) offers easy canoeing in a pristine setting. You can rent canoes by the day or hour through private concessionaires in Taylors Falls. Shuttle service is available for cars and/or passengers.
You can also rent canoes in William O'Brien State Park (near the boat landing; shuttle service available) for an outing on the St. Croix River or on man-made Lake Alice. This 15-acre lake, fed by underground springs, is stocked with panfish. Fishing on the St. Croix River can be good for walleye, northern, bass and brown trout. Access to t he river is from a drive-in boat landing in the park.
Boaters and canoeists can cross Pine Slough to Greenberg Island, donated to the state by S.David Greenberg in 1958. The island, accessible only by water, is a secluded refuge for wildlife and vegetation. Great blue herons nest on the island, otter and beaver play here, and scarlet cardinal flowers bloom in August.
Swimming is not allowed in the river because of strong currents, but Lake Alice offers good swimming and a sandy beach. The lake is named for Alice O'Brien, who donated 180 acres of land in 1945 for the state park in memory of her father, a pioneer lumberman of the St. Croix River Valley.
The first residents of the valley were Dakota and Ojibway Indians. The Ojibway eventually pushed the Dakota out of the forests to the grasslands, only to face competition from European trappers for the valley's fur riches. In the mid 1800s, the lumberjacks who came to harvest white pine established the state's first logging settlement at nearby Marine-on-St. Croix. You'll find further information about the natural and human history of the park in the Sam Morgan Trail/Interpretive Center. Naturalists lead canoe floats, guided hikes and other programs during the summer.
The park's 9.5 miles of hiking trails include the two high points in Washington County. From one overlook, you can see Taylors Falls on a clear day. Though the park is heavily used, the trails are rarely crowded, inspiring a feeling of isolation in the wooded hills and grassy meadows. Other trails cut through scattered stands of red and white pines, a maple-basswood forest, and the bottomlands near the river. The sandstone outcrops in the park were formed by ancient inland seas. As subsequent glaciers melted, the torrent of water carved through the sandstone to form the St. Croix River Valley.
William O'Brien State Park features a paved bicycle and wheelchair path. It parallels Highway 95 the length of the park, ending in Marine-on-St. Croix. Some bicyclists pedal to the park from the metro area on a network of Washington County routes (contact the county for maps).
The St. Croix River Valley offers visitor attractions on both sides of the river. In Minnesota, you can drive upriver to Interstate State Park or downriver to historic Stillwater. Between William O'Brien Park and Stillwater is the St. Croix Islands Scenic Reserve, where canoeists are permitted to camp on some of the island.
The hiking trails turn into cross-country ski trails during winter. Although the loops through upland fields and bottomlands are easy, the wooded hills and rolling meadows provide good skiing for intermediate and expert skiers. Whether on skis or on foot, you'll be able to see for miles over the snowy countryside from the park's high ridges. Winter campers can ski, hike or snowshoe into the upper campground. Snowmobiling is not allowed in the park.