It was my older brother’s idea to get the entire family together, pack a picnic lunch, and spend an afternoon exploring Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, Wis.
“I used to go rock climbing there,” he said. “And cliff jumping, back in high school.”
“You were crazy,” I told him matter-of-factly. (Not so much for the rock climbing, but definitely for the cliff diving.)
As it turns out, cliff jumping/diving is no longer allowed (it’s extremely dangerous — you can get a hefty fine if caught), but the park is more popular than ever for bouldering/climbing.
For us, the main attraction was the family-friendly hiking trails. (And geocaching, which didn’t work out that time but I vow to try it one of these days!) The park is also a hotspot for river sports: fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and excursion boating. It’s close enough to home to make it an easy escape, yet “out there” enough that it feels like you’re truly getting away from city life.
Because the park straddles the St. Croix River, you can explore in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. No offense to the North Star State, but we opted for the Wisconsin side—Wisconsin’s first state park, as a matter of fact—because we had promised our 6-year-old that he could go mini golfing, and St. Croix Mini Golf and Go Karts is conveniently located off Highway 8 in St. Croix Falls. We went mini golfing, rode the go-karts, and checked out a flea market before driving to the state park, where we paid a $10 non-resident fee for a day pass. (Worth every penny.)
After following a line of cars down into the park, we parked in a space facing the river, not too far from a picnic shelter and within a short walk of easy hiking trails. It was a beautiful day, and plenty of people were taking advantage of it by fishing on the riverbanks, grilling at group sites, and dropping their kayaks in the water. After enjoying our picnic lunch, we walked a short way to the bluffs (aka the Dalles of the St. Croix, if you want to be technical about it) for an easy family hike. My youngest son is only 4, and my dad is 64, and together with my 6-year-old, husband, mom, brother, and sister-in-law, we all navigated the terrain just fine. (It definitely helped that the trails were well-maintained, we had plenty of water and bug spray, we were all wearing practical shoes, and we never walked too fast.)
And oh, man, when you get to the top of the bluffs, what a view it is. We all stopped, awe-struck at their courage, strength, and determination, as rock climbers on the Minnesota side climbed up steep cliffs and waved at passengers on the big riverboats below. (Just be sure to hold onto little hands and keep a safe distance from the edge. The sheer drop down to the river is terrifying.) We saw an eagle. We took photos of the scenery. It was one of those “we’re glad to be alive and together and have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Mother Nature” kind of days, when you forget about your house in the city and focus on the landscape, the fresh air, the blue sky, the ground underfoot, the people you’re happy to be with.
We hiked for under an hour before returning to our cars. We didn’t have to retrace our route, either—we entered on a slight incline and returned on flat ground. The adults could have hiked longer, but it was the perfect distance for the kids (one who promptly fell asleep once he was buckled into his car seat). Personally, if we return without the kiddos, I’d love to do the longer hike that takes you past impressive glacial potholes. I’d also love to rent a canoe or kayak some time and paddle down a stretch of the St. Croix.
Being less than an hour from home, and costing only gas and a $10 day pass fee, I have a feeling we’ll be back in the very near future for another adventure.
• If you want to stay for more than a day, you can reserve a campground site for a really reasonable rate. Sites can be reserved up to one year in advance. The secluded, wooded campgrounds have bathrooms and showers.
• The park offers excellent biking trails and a swimming beach at the small Lake of the Dalles lake (no lifeguards on duty). *Whatever you do, don’t attempt to swim in the river, especially now—it’s running high, fast, and cold.
• Dogs are allowed at the campground, but they must be kept on a leash no longer than 6 feet.
• There’s an interpretive center for those interested in seeing educational exhibits about the park and rock formations, a 20-minute movie, or visiting the gift shop. The Ice Age Interpretive Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• If you want to stop for a cold drink or hot meal on your way to or from the park, downtown St. Croix Falls and Taylors Falls are both fun little river towns.
The park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.