We were waiting on the front porch of Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, when they opened. Our day of paddling the St. Croix was soon to begin.
All checked in, we went to grab our gear. Three big passenger vans sent dust flying when they wheeled into the lot. Barely stopped, the doors rolled open and poured forth dozens of Boy Scouts. They were really excited. We could see it in their faces and hear it in their loud talk.
They had booked the longest trip Wild River offers: nine days of camping and paddling the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers to the landing just a mile west of Wild River.
Everyone with a passion for the outdoors deserves to see the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway that way at least once. To spend those intimate days and nights focused solely on the river can be life-changing.
Yet wilderness camping is not the only way to enjoy this fabulous shared recreational resource of Minnesota and Wisconsin. My wife and I were equally excited about our glamping expedition, for exactly the opposite reason.
The definition of “glamping”—a mash-up of the words “glamorous” and “camping”—is still in R&D. Depending on your preferences, glamping can mean anything from simply staying where sleeping accommodations keep you off the ground to fully-appointed cabins with bathrooms, saunas, and even room service.
Glamping allows you to enjoy the river for a day’s paddle without tying your entire vacation to it. A glamping base camp makes it convenient to sample all the area has to offer.
Approximately 255 miles long, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway includes the Namekagon River in Wisconsin, and a stretch from the St. Croix’s headwaters near Solon Springs, Wisconsin, (37 miles southeast of Duluth) to the St. Croix Boom Site north of Stillwater on the Minnesota side. The St. Croix demarcates 130 miles of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, and its upper and middle stretches were designated as a National Scenic Riverway, managed by the National Park Service, in 1968.
We chose Wild River’s longest recommended one-day paddle, but with high water, it took less than five hours—including a break for lunch and geocaching along the way. That night, we enjoyed sous vide steaks and corn on the cob that we picked up at the Burnett County Farmers Market. Our relaxed itinerary included visiting the Burnett Dairy, wildlife watching at Crex Meadows, checking out the local pizza joint Pizza Place, antiquing, and plenty of kicking back on the screen porch at the cabin with a glass, or two, of wine.
Finding a place to glamp is easy along the upper or middle St. Croix. Services like Airbnb.com and Hipcamp.com can guide you to unique, comfortable small-town options across all price points. Most times you’ll come up with something for less than the cheap chain motels.
On our trip to Grantsburg with another couple, we chose a fully appointed, two-bedroom cabin with acreage on the Wood River. Returning to the Hayward area on our own, we used Airbnb to find a rustic, tiny house at a place called Roam Adventure Basecamp. Our small cabin was clean, warm, and dry, with obvious Scandinavian influence in its efficient use of space. Though the bathrooms were about 50 yards away and the showers another 50, they were also extremely clean and well-heated—even in March.
Another glamping bonus: You can release your inner foodie instead of maintaining the usual steady diet of instant oatmeal and freeze-dried foods on the riverbank—possibly in the rain. Staying at the Wood River Retreat, we planned a combination of dining out and preparing our own meals in the cabin’s kitchen. The relaxed nature of glamp planning also leaves room for unexpected opportunities along the way, like discovering small-town farmers’ markets.
For food that didn’t disappoint, and top-notch people-watching, we sought out breakfast or lunch at main-street cafes in small towns. Lots of locals and few tourists frequent these places. Such an adventure led us to the Brick House Café in Cable. The menu told us the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives endorsed the house specialty, Crème Brulee French Toast with caramelized pears and whipped cream. My wife declared it was like eating dessert for breakfast—a good thing! The breakfast burrito was the best I’ve ever eaten.
Nearly every community in the shadow of the Riverway has one or more canoe/kayak outfitters. In Grantsburg, it’s Wild River; in Danbury, it’s Pardun’s Canoe Rental; in Trego, there’s Jack’s; and in Cable, there’s Bear Country Outfitters. These services rent you all the gear and provide all the info you need for a safe, enjoyable paddle. If you bring your own gear, they offer parking and shuttles for trips that last from a few hours to a week or more.
When your destination is the upper St. Croix River region, you might as well go as far “upper” as you can. At the top of St. Croix Lake, near Solon Springs, is a monument marking the continental divide separating the watersheds of the Bois Brule River, flowing north into Lake Superior, and the St. Croix, flowing south into the Mississippi. This spot is also the southern trailhead of a portage that’s been in recorded use since 1680, and by Native people before that. The trail is about a mile long and hikeable today, in the footsteps of more than three and a half centuries of explorers and voyageurs.
All of this lives less than a tank of gas away from the Twin Cities. Take advantage of it—whether you decide to camp it, or glamp it.
Eat/Play/Stay on the St. Croix River
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center
St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
Every expedition to the St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers should begin with a stop at the Visitor Center and Park Headquarters just across from Taylors Falls, Minnesota. Visitor center hours, in season, are daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 715-483-2274
Burnett Dairy Cooperative
With roots dating into the late 1800s, it’s a story of a backwoods dairy gone big-time. Besides the cheese-making plant, there’s a modern retail store, café, and ice cream counter. Be sure to check out their cheese curds—so fresh they’re guaranteed to talk back when you bite into one. 715-689-2468
Crex Meadows Wildlife Area
Slightly more than 30,000 acres, this area is home to 270 species of birds, 600 plants, and nearly every mammal that lives in Wisconsin. Especially interesting in spring is watching the mating dances of sharp-tailed grouse, from blinds placed near the leks (breeding grounds). At the education center, grab a weekly report of migrating birds. 715-463-2739
Angry Minnow Brewing Co.
The beers here are stellar and growing a following. Brewery tours are offered on request. The pub offers a diverse “up north” menu including a classic Friday-night fry of Lake Superior Whitefish. 715-934-3055
St. Croix State Park
With all the traditional state-park amenities—including camping, hiking, and picnicking—St. Croix also offers canoe/kayak rentals in season and a historic fire tower for an elevated view of the beauty. Used today by glampers, six available cabins were constructed in the 1940s by the Veterans Conservation Corps. They rent for an amazing $85/night, mid-May through mid-September. Grand Casino Hinckley is just minutes away. 320-384-6591