One of the most beautiful gorges on the St. Croix River is the centerpiece for two state parks. On the east side, is the 1,330-acre Interstate Park of Polk County, Wisconsin, while on the west side of the river is the 298-acre Interstate Park of Chisago County, Minnesota. The gorge is called The Dalles of the St. Croix and is characterized by sheer high walls of basaltic rock rising from 50 to 250 feet above the river. The rapids on the river between these rocky cliffs provide a great opportunity for fun and adventure, plus outstanding photo ops. One notable rock formation on the Wisconsin side is called the Old Man of The Dalles.
The thick eastern white pine forests native to the area were stripped bare by excessive logging in the 1800’s. The forest re-growth has brought back some of the eastern white pines, but has also brought more hardwoods and is now dominated by maples, oaks, basswood and birch. Despite over 350,000 visitors per year, abundant wildlife can still be seen in the form of deer, fox, raccoons, skunks, muskrats, river otters, beavers and a very large squirrel population. At least 150 species of birds have been documented in the park. The park contains numerous wetland areas and encircles Lake O' The Dalles on the Wisconsin side.
The towns of Taylors Falls, Minnesota and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin are adjacent to the parks. Interstate Park is within the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve. The western terminus of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail is on the Wisconsin side. The Wisconsin park's Ice Age Interpretive Center features a 20-minute film, photographs, and more information about the great glaciers. Pets are welcome in Wisconsin State Parks but must be on a leash and under control at all times. Certain areas may be posted as off limits to pets.
Wisconsin’s Interstate Park, the larger of the two, is the state’s oldest state park, established in 1900, and is still one of its finest. The Wisconsin park has two campgrounds with 85 sites and there are nine miles of trails in the park. For those wishing to cool off after rock climbing or hiking, a swimming beach is located on Lake O' The Dalles. Swimming in the river is dangerous because of strong currents. Rock climbing is permitted on many of the cliffs on either side of the river. Certain sensitive areas, as well as all potholes are off limits to climbing.
Minnesota’s Interstate Park has a campground with showers and 37 sites, 22 of which have electrical hookups. There are 4 miles of trails. A long-standing concession offers scenic riverboat cruises and canoe and kayak rentals with shuttle service back from near Osceola, Wisconsin, and William O'Brien State Park, Minnesota
Native Americans were the first to utilize the St. Croix River. While no village sites have been found within park boundaries, ancient tools have been found. In 1680, the first expedition of European explorers passed through the St. Croix Dalles. Not long afterward, in the early 1700's, fur traders used the river for commerce. A fort was constructed near where the campground on the Minnesota side of where the interstate park is now located.
Logging became a huge industry in the St. Croix valley beginning in 1837. Because of the narrow gorge where the park is now at, terrible log jams occurred several times. During the historic log jam of 1886, it was so bad that dynamite and steamboats could not un-jam the three-mile backup on the river behind the gorge. It took 175 workmen six painstaking weeks to finally break the jam. During the period of historic log jams, tourism began with curious crowds of people making the journey from the Twin Cities first by steamboat, and then starting in 1880, by steam train.
In the 1860’s, concern grew locally about vandalism of rock formations and plans for mining the basalt along the river. The Minnesota Legislature calling for the creation of a state park along the Dalles of the St. Croix and urged cooperation with Wisconsin to protect both sides of the Dalles. Minnesota’s bill passed in 1895, creating Minnesota’s second state park. The Wisconsin Legislature did not act until 1900 when they created their first state park in Wisconsin. This became the nation’s first interstate park. Construction of many of the parks’ stone walls and buildings were started in the 1930’s by the Civlian Conservation Corps. During that time, they also built the beach and beach house on Lake O' The Dalles on the Wisconsin side.
One of the great trails in Wisconsin finds its western terminus at Interstate Park. The Ice Age Trail was built to help visitors see the great beauty left behind from the retreating glaciers in much of the state. The remnants from the receding glaciers provide outstanding examples of how glaciers sculpt our planet. This 1,200-mile trail has not been completed entirely, but most is open to the public. As one of only eleven National Scenic Trails, the trail is used by hikers, snowshoers, backpackers and in some locales by skiers. The trail has been built and maintained by volunteers, with chapters all over the state. Thirty-one Wisconsin counties are home to various segments of this incredible trail. The trail through Interstate Park in Wisconsin is one of the more scenic parts in the trail system. The Ice Age Trail includes various portions of other forest trails.
Other Trails in the Parks
Besides the eastern terminus of the Ice Age Trail, at least eleven other trails wind through the 1,330-acre Wisconsin park, many providing outstanding views of the dramatic gorge. There are over 12 miles of winter recreation trails that are multi-use trails and open to snowshoeing, hiking, pets and cross country skiing. However, snowshoers, hikers and pets are not allowed on the Skyline Trail when it is groomed for skiing. For a Wisconsin park map, click on the link below:
Since the Minnesota side of Interstate Park is much smaller, there are fewer trails. However, there are several trails that offer great hiking and spectacular views. For a map and more information, you can download a copy at this link: Minnesota Interstate Park Trails Map
A trail to one of the highest points in the Wisconsin park overlooks the valley. Hikers climb 120 feet in elevation from the Pines Group Camp up to the summit of Eagle Peak on this .8-mile trail. The rugged trail winds past boulders and volcanic rock outcroppings. Hikers can make this an “out-and-back”, or go on to the South Campground past an old 1930’s CCC trap rock quarry.
A short half-mile loop trail to the highest point on the bluffs above the St. Croix offers spectacular views of the river gorge. Summit Rock offers one of the best views of the Old Man of The Dalles rock formation located high on the Wisconsin bluffs upriver near the Pothole Trail observation area. One option on this scenic hike is the possibility of combining the route with the Echo Canyon Trail. The route is rugged and uneven with wooden stairs and stone stairs to the lookout.
Wisconsin does not have many real canyons. Of course, the gorge of the St. Croix could be considered a canyon. Echo Canyon is an extinct riverbed carved by glacial meltwaters eons ago and now the canyon empties into the St. Croix. Though it is very short, the steep sides and heavy forest screen out much of the sunlight and visitors generally notice the temperatures along the trail through the bottom of the canyon to be noticeably cooler. A really scenic and rugged hiking route begins at Lake O’ The Dalles on the Echo Canyon branch. Follow the trail until you come to the Summit Rock Trail, then follow that to the summit overlook and back on the other part of the loop (see park trail map on this page).
If you want to see the biggest and deepest natural potholes in the world, there is no better place than at both Interstate parks. Though Minnesota has the deepest one and the largest one, you will not be disappointed at what you find on both sides of the river. These potholes were carved (or drilled) by glacial meltwater eons ago into the basaltic bedrock. They can be as shallow as 1 foot or as deep as 60 feet. One pothole is available to climb down into.
On the Minnesota side, the Glacier Potholes Trail begins adjacent to the parking lot and visitor center for Interstate Park. Along the winding trail, walkers encounter the most memorable potholes like the Lilly Pond, The Bottomless Pit, The Bake Oven, and The Cauldron. At the bottom of each pothole those drilling stones can be found. They are called grindstones and are perfectly smooth and rounded.
On the Wisconsin side, you can see numerous potholes, large and small, along the .4-mile Potholes Trail loop, plus some spectacular views of the gorge and rapids. Be prepared to encounter rock climbers as they reach the upper edge of their routes
Rock climbing is a popular activity on both sides of the river. However, Interstate State Park officials advise, quote: “The park is not maintained for rock climbing; climb at your own risk. Climbers may encounter loose rocks and surfaces can become slippery when wet or leaf covered. Individual climbing permits are not required; however, climbing instructors should contact the park office regarding a use permit. Particular areas or climbing routes are not reservable and some areas are closed to all use.”
Mountain Project lists numerous routes for each park at these links:
With visitor numbers that rival some national parks, people come from many directions. Perhaps Minnesota’s Twin Cities accounts for the largest block of visitors annually. The most scenic route is not necessarily the quickest route from the Twin Cities. However, when people are going to the Interstate Parks, they normally want great scenery. If you take Interstate 94 east out of the Twin Cities for that scenic route, turn north at Exit 258 on Highway 95 and take that to Taylors Falls. Under normal driving conditions, that should take about 75 minutes.
Of course there are plenty of visitors from Wisconsin also, and many make the trip west on Interstate 94, turning north on Exit 4 at Hudson and following Highway 35 to St. Croix Falls. This route takes about 50 minutes. It is not as scenic as Highway 95 on the other side of the St. Croix River, but it will get you to where you want to go.
There are vehicle fees at both state parks, and if you wish to visit both, you will have to pay at each park. If you are hunting or fishing, you will need the appropriate license at each park. Camping at either park also has fees and regulations. See the rules and regulations links in the camping section below. Interstate Park is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve and Federal passes are honored. Holders of National Parks passports receive a waiver of the vehicle admission fees, but camping fees are not affected.
Interstate Park is open year-around on both sides of the river. Deep winter snow will limit some activities, yet aid skiing and snowshoeing. Again, rock climbing is done at one’s own risk, and the icy conditions that prevail in the winter months are something to consider, along with summer lightning storms. Hunting and trapping are allowed in most Wisconsin state parks from mid-November to early January, then again during the month of April into the first week of May. These might be conditions that some visitors might not wish to be around, so make your plans wisely. For up-to-date weather conditions and forecasts, click on this link:
While there are many campsites at the Interstate Parks, please bear in mind the great popularity of these parks and that they often fill up early, due to an average of nearly a thousand visitors per day. Plan your trip carefully and get your reservations in early.