St. Croix River
★ ★ ★ ★

St. Croix River I

By on August 8, 2010

St. Croix Falls to Osceola
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A magnificent stretch of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway that begins immediately with an outstanding gorge, exhilarating (and paddable) rapids, beautiful cliffs, with lots of sandy beaches and sandbar islands before calming down into a very pleasant, placid and short float trip.

August 8, 2010

Class Difficulty:
Flatwater + Class II

St. Croix Falls: ht/ft: 8.80 | cfs: n/a

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level and water levels are almost always reliable.

Interstate State Park, North campground, St. Croix Falls, Polk County, Wisconsin
Osceola Landing (technically on the Minnesota side of the river)

Time: Put in at 11:00a. Out at 2:30p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.25

Wildlife: Turtles, a couple blue herons and a bald eagle. Oh, and tourists.
Time worth driving to: 2 hours given the geology and paddle play.

I had just invested in my Paddling Northern Wisconsin book and was very eager to explore its recommended trips. I was visiting a friend in Hudson, Wisconsin so a paddle on the St. Croix seemed a propos. There are fantastic aspects to this trip but also some drawbacks. Depending on where you put in, this can be anywhere from a 6-mile jaunt to an 8-mile one (or even more) which is a perfect length for an afternoon.

What we liked:
At the risk of sounding campy, if you like geology, you can’t help but fawn for the dalles of the St. Croix. Formed by ancient lava beds and violent explosions an eon or two ago, the results today are a magnificent gorge, balsam and dolomite cliffs, potholes and much more I won’t bore you with in what is supposed to be a writeup about river paddling. Chances are you have seen pictures of either St. Croix Falls or Interstate State Park (and no pun intended, it truly is gorgeous). And at the risk of sounding like a dork, it’s kinda cool that on your right is Minnesota and on the left, Wisconsin. The take-out at Osceola is picturesque, and the town itself cute as a button.

What we didn’t like:
Coincidence or conspiracy, there is a conspicuous absence of relevant information about how to access the rapids immediately below the Highway 8 bridge. Neither the National Park Service nor Interstate State Park offered much more than a pair of shrugged shoulders and references to third parties (I have yet to hear back from said third parties).

You have a few different options if you want to paddle the rapids, none that are quite ideal. There is the Wisconsin DNR Fish Hatchery just downstream from the hydroelectric dam but I don’t know what their policy is, if any, about parking and so forth. A better bet is to launch behind campsite #25 in the North campground of Interstate State Park, just above Highway 8 on the Wisconsin side. A hiking path goes down to the river from there. Again, I myself did not do this, but I’ve learned that it should be able to be done.

What I did, which I don’t really recommend and will not do the next time I’m up there, is to put in at the official riverside boat launch on the Wisconsin side of Interstate State Park. There is plenty of parking, plus it offers soft and easy beach access. The bummer is then having to paddle half a mile or so upstream against a pretty good current coming off the wake of the rapids. Then, once you’re close to the rapids, you must portage 50-100 yards on the shore (and by “shore” I mean jagged, uneven rocks). It’s definitely doable but not necessarily for the feint of hoof (a sturdy pair of sports sandals would be a blessing).

I schlepped my 13’ Necky Manitou on my shoulder while trying to maintain my balance and cool as I passed rock climbers clambering and belaying the cliffs, as though I too were bad ass and knew what I was doing. I didn’t. This was to be my first splash of Class II whitewater. More awkward yet – high on the cliffs of the Minnesota side, in line to board one of the huge touristy paddleboats that slog through the St. Croix, were throngs of folks with nothing better to do but watch the yahoo below about to enter the belly of the beast in the most ramshackle manner possible.

I did find an adequate spot on the shore in relatively calm water to put in, paddle one or two strokes and then just come what may in the waves, because there’s really not enough time to think or strategize about it beforehand. In the end I was fine and only mildly wet as the rapids aren’t too formidable. The whitewater section is only about 50-100 yards long and the whole experience whizzes by in a flash of adrenaline-soaring seconds. I loved it. And yes, I did look cool to all those clambering rock climbers and ice cream-licking tourists bridling to board their oldey-timey paddleboat.

Incidentally, if you want to skip the rapids altogether, the put-in on either side of Interstate State Park (i.e., the Wisconsin or Minnesota side – though both will require a state park pass admission sticker) is excellent.

This magnificent section is heartbreakingly brief. Here is a rough breakdown of what can be expected:

1: If you put in at the North campground you’re looking at about 5 minutes of paddling before hitting the rapids below the Highway 8 bridge.
2: Then a rush of thrilling timelessness as you plummet and pummel the rapids.
3: Another 5 or 10 minutes of bragging rights and floating with no need to paddle, you’ll appreciate the sheer reward of the gorgeous cliffs and magnificent scenery of this special place.
4: Head back to reality as one of the ginormous paddleboats approaches and threatens to squash your big ego little self.
5: Resume paddling and get ready for lots of canoe/kayak rentals, motorboats and jet skiers now that the water has totally flattened out and the river widened.
6: Get used to this because it’ll be much of the same for the next couple hours until you roll on into the Osceola landing.

So yes, it’s much too brief and you will have to contend with lots of otherwise undesirable distractions. Is it worth it? I think so.

If we did this trip again:
I will and try my luck with one of the possible put-in options upstream of the Highway 8 bridge. Or perhaps just spend the day in a whitewater boat and play in the rapids/dalles section only.

Related Information:
St. Croix River II: Osceola to Somerset Landing
Camp: Interstate State Park
General: National Park Service
Good People: Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters
Good People: Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District
Guide: Paddling Northern Wisconsin
Guide: Wisconsin Trail Guide
Overview: Wisconsin Guides
Video: St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers
Wikipedia: St. Croix River


Shuttle Information:

8.6 miles. A truly beautiful bike ride almost entirely in the country off the beaten track of car traffic, offering a state park on one side, a state natural area on the other, with a designated rustic road (#101) threading its way through the two.

Note: if you are driving and not riding a bike, you’ll probably want just to get back on Highway 35 from downtown Osceola to the entrance for Interstate State Park.

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