Canoe & Kayak Camping Wisconsin: St. Croix River
The St. Croix River is a hugely popular destination for multi-day canoe and kayak camping trips in northern Wisconsin. From Gordon Dam to the confluence with the Mississippi, the river flows 155 miles through a wild and sometimes rugged environment. From quietwater to Class II rapids, paddlers have a variety of options to choose from as the river environment changes from the upper marshland to the lower dells.
The St. Croix was among the eight original rivers preserved as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Along with the Namekagon River, it’s now managed by the National Park Service as part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The designation has prevented development along the riverway, which has protected its naturally scenic and wild character. With numerous access points and campsites, all well-mapped and maintained, the St. Croix is a wonderful paddle-camp destination.
Paddling Style: River Paddling
Best Suited For: Canoes + Kayaks
Camping Location: Riverside
Availability: First-Come, First-Served Designated Sites + Undesignated Public Land Camping
Type: Primitive + Rustic + Remote
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: No
Camping Fee: No | Camping Permit: Yes + No
There are dozens of individual and group campsites scattered along the St. Croix, making it convenient for multi-day trips. The primitive and (mostly) isolated sites are largely paddle-in, meaning only accessible by water. As is the case with most places this popular, it’s easier to secure a site on weekdays in summer. All sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and there is a three night limit at any one site (except for High Bridge to Boom Site, which is seven nights). Unlike the Namekagon, the St. Croix is divided into camping zones and each have their own policies.
Gordon Dam to Highway 8
There are no permits needed to camp in this segment. The entire Upper St. Croix is located within this section and has 48 solo and 10 group campsites available. Primitive toilets and fire rings are provided, and most sites have a picnic table.
Highway 8 to High Bridge
In this wider section, you’ll find plenty of campsites, but a free permit is required. According to the NPS site, you can obtain one by printing an application and then mail/fax (they must still have a fax machine?) it to the St. Croix River Visitor Center. A permit will be mailed to you. Or the easier route? Stop by the St. Croix River Visitor Center to get one in person. You do not need this permit if you camp in State Park campgrounds. Fire rings are provided and most sites have a picnic table, however, campers are required to use their own portable camp toilets.
High Bridge to Boom Site Landing
The final stretch of the riverway’s boundaries allows only island camping. No permits are needed but you must camp on an island. This area is first-come, first-served and limited to seven nights. Fire rings are provided but campers are required to provide their own portable toilet. Some locations provide floating toilets (which is a thing I have yet to experience). From Boom Site Landing in Stillwater to the confluence with the Mississippi River, campsites are limited to county and State Parks since the National Park Service does not manage that stretch of river.
Paddling the Upper St. Croix River:
From Gordon Dam Landing to Highway 70, the upper portion of the St. Croix is also known as the Marshland. In fact, the National Park Service has started referring to the Upper St. Croix as the St. Croix Marshland just recently (the name designation is a little confusing since their maps and guides still designate as Upper and Lower and they’ve removed Gordon Dam to Riverside Landing from their original page, but maybe it’s a matter of time before they update everything). Regardless, don’t let Marshland throw you off, this section has the fastest current and rapids which require skill, especially in high water, so we don’t recommend it for inexperienced paddlers.
Landings and campsites on both the St. Croix River and Namekagon Rivers are documented by mile markers. S stands for the St. Croix and N stands for Namekagon. The St. Croix River begins at the Gordon Dam (S155.0) which means there are 155 miles until the confluence of the Missississippi River. However, the last 25 miles are not within the boundaries of the National Riverway, so they are not included here. Here’s the St. Croix broken out into its most common divisions. Descriptions of the sections correlate to the maps provided by the National Park Service.
Gordon Dam to Riverside Landing
S155.0-S131.7 | Miles: 23.4 | Map
This stretch is ideal for paddlers who enjoy a little challenge and moving-water excitement. There are about a dozen primitive campsites, so it makes for an ideal 2-3 day paddle-camping trip. The first section of the St. Croix is much different than the sections that follow it. Here, the river is narrow and has many Class I rapids and riffles. Only a couple miles in you’ll find a long Class I-II boulder garden on your approach to the S. Mail Road/Scott bridge. Afterwards, there are occassional riffles before the old Coppermine Dam, which can be run if scouted but it’s best to portage on the right.
After the dam, riffles and small rapids continue as the river becomes shallower leading to the County T Landing (S149.5). There’s a few more Class I rapids approaching Louis Park Landing (S144.7), after which is followed by more flat and shallow paddling on a mostly straight section. Quietwater continues to Big Fish Trap Rapids (S140.0), the most difficult Class I-II rapids on the St. Croix, which is then followed by Class I Little Fish Trap Rapids just upstream and below the CCC Bridge Landing (S138.9). The river becomes deep and slow before the Namekagon enters from river-left, but soon, there’s a series of Class I rapids and riffles along the main channel that are often interrupted by smaller islands on the approach to the take-out at Riverside landing.
Camping: Camping is first-come, first served, and no permits are required. Gordon Dam County Park is a nearby campground option located right at the put-in below Gordon Dam.
Riverside Landing to Sand Creek Landing
S131.7-S104.8 | Miles: 26.9 | Map
With the volume of the Namekagon just upstream, comes a lot more water to feed the St. Croix in this section so water levels are almost always ideal for paddling. Whereas the upstream section offers a lot of rapids and riffles, this section is primarily characterized as quietwater with only the occasional rapid or riffle, making it ideal for quietwater enthusiasts. That said, while mostly-wooded surroundings continue, it’s on this section that the first of the tall bluffs begin coming into view. After Thayer’s Landing (S118.3), the river keeps its width of 150-200′ width while the river winds its way over sandy bottoms and fewer obstacles than upstream.
Camping: Camping is first-come, first served, and no permits are required.
Sand Creek Landing to Highway 70 Landing
S104.8-S89.7 | Miles: 15.1 | Map
One can almost guess which sections of the Namekagon or St. Croix rivers are most popular based on the amount of campsites available. Indeed, this is one of those sections with 15 primitive sites located within these 15 miles. Along low wooded banks, this trip is full of riffles and Class I rapids starting just downstream of Nelson’s Landing (S101.4) where there’s a decision point known as the “Head of the Rapids”. Here the river forks creating two channels. The right fork, also known as the Kettle fork, is narrower and if the water level is right, makes for a swift and steep whitewater run over continuous Class I and II rapids as it heads towards the mouth on the Kettle River. Staying on the main, or left fork, offers some Class I rapids, too and is best suited to less experienced paddlers (but not in high conditions). After the Kettle River confluence, the river becomes wider and shallower with occasional riffles. The scenery also becomes more interesting with occasional rock outcrops and specifically, the Sandrock Cliffs area that appears before the Highway 70 Landing (S89.7).
Camping: Camping is first-come, first served, and no permits are required. Sandrock Cliff Campground is a recommended nearby camping option.
Upper St. Croix Maps + Guides:
St. Croix River Paddling Guide: Gordon Dam to Highway 70
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Camping Guide
Wisconsin Trail Guide to the Upper St. Croix River
The St. Croix/Namekagon River System Map
Section Map 4: Gordon Dam Landing to Riverside Landing
Section Map 5: Riverside Landing to Sand Creek Landing
Section Map 6: Sand Creek Landing to Highway 70 Landing
Upper St. Croix Recommended Routes:
Nelsons Landing to Soderbeck Landing
Paddling the Lower St. Croix River:
The Lower St. Croix officially starts at Highway 70 and is a very popular stretch for paddlers. Here, the St. Croix becomes much broader and you’ll find many islands, channels and sloughs to explore. Not to mention, the riverway’s most amazing feature, the Dalles of the St. Croix, a breathtaking gorge, just below Highway 8. As you move closer to the mouth of the Mississippi, bluffs line the banks and development becomes more common.
Highway 70 to Highway 8
S89.7-S53.8 | Miles: 35.9 | Map
Characterized as mostly wide and slow with strong undercurrents, this is another popular section of the St. Croix with numerous sandbars and dozens of campsites along the way. Here, the journey starts with wooded shorelines and modest rock formations that gain momentum further downstream. You’ll encounter some riffles and mild rapids on the approach to Stevens Creek Landing (S84.8). After County Road O Landing (S80.4), the river resumes its gentle meander around sandbars and along sand and clay banks. About a half mile from Nevers Dam Landing (S63.8), you’ll see signs of a former logging structure where eight piles of rock are spaced apart across the river. These were set in place to break up ice so it wouldn’t crush the downstream dam. The site of the former dam is indicated by the remnants of just four piles of rock near the landing where the river narrows.
The last ten miles becomes slow, wide and deep as the river transitions to Indian Head Flowage, created by the giant hydroelectric dam at St. Croix Falls. There are still many campsites before the dam, but there’s also more motorboat traffic and the paddling is lake-like. There are two Lion’s Park Landings (S54.5) located on both sides of the river upstream from the dam. Otherwise, if one were going to continue you past the dam, the portage starts right-right of the dam, and what lies ahead is a long 1.25 mile portage through Taylor’s Falls to the river below.
Camping: Camping is first-come, first served, and no permits are required. St. Croix Campground located in Governor Knowles State Forest is a recommended nearby camping option.
Highway 8 to Osceola Landing
S52.1-S45.5 | Miles: 6.6 | Map
This short stretch is popular with paddlers because of the beautiful dells that line both sides of the river, just downstream from the jaw-dropping Dalles of the St. Croix River. With beautiful stony bluffs and cliffs, you’re treated to the St. Croix at its most rugged right off the bat. Paddlers who don’t mind navigating the motorboat/jet-ski/paddleboat traffic will enjoy this section which has numerous sandy beaches and sandbar islands before it calms down into a very pleasant, placid float ending at Osceola Landing (S45.5).
Osceola Landing to High Bridge
S45.5-S29.5 | Miles: 16 | Map
This is the last section of the St. Croix to offer primitive camping in designated areas but there’s many island options to choose from along the way. There are no rapids on this section and the paddling is generally slow, but attractive sandstone cliffs and bluffs are an added benefit. Past the Arcola Sandbar (S31.0), the river becomes shallow and just downstream from that resides the Soo Line/Arcola High Bridge (S29.5) where the last of the campsites are located.
High Bridge to Boom Site Landing
S29.5-S25.0 | Miles: 4.5 | Map
There is no designated camping downstream from the Soo Line/Arcola High Bridge (S29.5), instead, camping is entirely restricted to islands on this section. There’s also no upstream paddling past the bridge to prohibit the spread of zebra mussels. However, St. Croix National Riverway completists may feel the need to finish what they started, which will ultimately end 25 miles shy of the Mississippi River confluence. This short 4.5 mile stretch is all lake-like paddling around islands and avoiding the wakes of powerboats on your way to the Boom Site Landing (S25.1) at Stillwater, Minnesota, which is the southernmost boundary of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Camping: Camping is first-come, first served, and there are no permits required, but you must camp on an island.
Lower St. Croix Maps + Guides:
St. Croix River Paddling Guide: Highway 70 to Boom Site Landing
St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Camping Guide
The St. Croix/Namekagon River System Map
Section Map 7: Highway 70 to Highway 8
Section Map 8: Highway 8 to Osceola Landing
Section Map 9: Osceola Landing to the High Bridge
Section Map 10: High Bridge to Boom Site Landing
Lower St. Croix Recommended Routes:
Interstate Parks to Osceola Landing