Days 3 – 4 September 2-3, 2010
St. Croix State Park is, according to their literature, the largest Minnesota state park (with over 34,000 acres), and contains two wild and scenic rivers (The St. Croix is a National Wild and Scenic River, and the Kettle River is designated as such by the state). It was originally developed as a park by the National Park Service and mostly constructed by CCC workers, and was intended to showcase excellence in recreation development. That is does, as the facilities here are by far the most varied I have ever seen in a state park.
Kettle River Highlands
St. Croix River
In addition to two backpack camps (Crooked Creek, where I stayed, and Bear Creek), there are several maintained canoe campsites, a large campground, and an equestrian campground. There are probably a hundred miles of multi-use trails criss-crossing the area. Moreover, there are two fully-equipped guest houses for rent, two “trail center” pavilions with fireplaces, tables, and shower facilities, and a lodge and nature center. The former CCC camp now houses the Minnesota Conservation Corps, as well. Without doubt, you can find something to suit your needs here!
Barrens in St. Croix State Park
The park also has some ecological interest, though it is not quite as remarkable in this regard. Most of the area was cropland before being purchased from failing farmers during the Great Depression, though the federal wild-and-scenic designation now restricts any development (or even parking) along the St. Croix. The reason the farmers didn’t do so well may have been due to the sandy soils in the area (in large part a result of glacial outwash, according to one interpretive display), and those same poor soils now support a limited array of vegetation. Jack pines, adapted to grow in those dry areas, are the primary species of the majority of the park today – in the form of forest, woodland, and barrens. In my meanderings, I did not see any great examples
Restoration in progress (left side of the road) at St. Croix State Park
of the first two, but there are some bits of barrens along the St. Croix that I spotted. For the most part, the park was very overgrown and was not putting as much effort into ecological management as into its recreational facilities (pretty much the norm for a state park), and I found maple and aspen to be the dominant species throughout much of the area. One interesting feature, though, is that the entire park is in the low-lying river valley, so that any time the level of its well-drained sandy soils dipped down a few feet, it became damp enough for an entirely new set of species. One could go from barrens to wetland to forest over the course of a few hundred feet, which I thought was pretty cool.
All in all, I liked St. Croix State Park, but I think the facilities really tipped the balance for me. The mosquitoes very nearly tipped it back – on my six mile hike out on Thursday morning, I killed at least 600 of the buggers on just my hands and forearms! I had been planning to take a little break, but no dice – they
Maples (small-diameter trees) invading woods (larger-diameter tree is a red oak).
swarmed me if I slowed up at all. And counting them was about the only way to break up the monotony of the uniform scenery. It’s definitely a great place to go if you want to practice backpacking – since you don’t have to pack a tent, they supply firewood out there, and the trail is super easy (one caveat: water is not easily available at the sites). I think the Bear Creek backpacking site would be a little more exciting than the one I was at, and I would definitely recommend going in a drought year – or really early or late in the season. Actually, I bet it would be a pretty nice place to see some fall colors, and the bugs should be mostly gone by then!
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