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St. Croix River and Ice Age Trail: Easy Trek from Minneapolis Airport to 2 National Park Service Sites

When I was asked to speak at TBEX North America in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I decided to check off a few National Park Service sites in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The closest major airport to Eau Claire is Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport about 1.5 hours away. Of course I was taking the scenic route to get to Eau Claire so I could visit St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. In just over an hour’s drive from MSP you can be in the small historic towns of Taylor Falls, Minnesota and St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway runs for over 200 miles in northwest Wisconsin and along the border of the two states.

I drove up on the Minnesota side of the river to the picturesque St. Croix Valley and stopped in at Interstate State Park straddling the St. Croix River and has units in both states. My first stop was to see Glacial Potholes in Taylor Falls settled by mainly Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and German immigrants coming on steamboats up the St. Croix River in the 1830s-1850s. How the Glacial Potholes formed is tale of the power of water. There was a volcanic eruption about 1.1 billion years ago resulting in basalt (rapidly cooled lava) related to the lave flows lining Lake Superior’s North Shore. The basalt was buried beneath a thick layer of sand in a shallow tropical sea about 500 million years ago resulting in the sandstone we see today. Glaciers advanced from present-day Ontario Province through the Lake Superior basin repeatedly for over 2 million years. At the end of the most recent glaciation about 12,000 years ago, meltwater formed the Glacial Lake Duluth. When the lake drained, the floods formed the Glacial River St. Croix. The rapid speed and turbulence of the water with a heavy sediment load provided powerful abrasion carving the potholes in the basalt. Potholes commonly occur at the base of large boulders and are made when turbulent water forms eddies strong enough to swirl sediments and stones in one spot grinding a cylindrical hole in the bedrock.

Next I drove across the bridge to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin to go to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Visitor Center. My first question was “Where are the falls?” The answer is both the a Taylor Falls and St. Croix Falls are under the hydroelectric dam that was constructed in 1904-1907 when Minneapolis General Electric began generating power. There was a series of rapids cascading 55 feet for over 6 miles with the largest falls tumbled 20 feet over 100 yards. After a little time to enjoy the view along the river and from an overlook of the dam I headed to my next stop.

The Ice Age National Scientific Reserve is along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. The last great episode of the Ice Age called the “Wisconsin Glaciation” ended about 10,000 years ago and the reserve protects glacial landscapes in 9 units including the one in Interstate State Park. Because the trail is part of the National Park Service your annual pass is good here. Some of the most dramatic landscape is the section in Interstate State Park because it includes the Dalles of the St. Croix gorge. I hiked the Pothole trail. It’s a loop and started to the right, which ended up being a great way to do the easy 0.4 mile loop trail. It quickly takes you through the forest to a cliff along the St. Croix River where you have a great view of the town Taylor Falls across the river. The potholes are easy to spot as you follow the river and start an easy incline to two overlook spots. The trail is also the western terminus of the 1200 mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail running from Interstate State Park to Janesville in southern Wisconsin. After you pass the sign for western terminus, you do a short and very doable, uphill with some stone stairs and finish on the flat trail back to the small parking area.

Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across the United States and is currently on a quest to visit all of the National Park Service sites. Check out post on Eau Claire to explore more of northern Wisconsin. For ideas in Milwaukee, check out posts on Canary Coffee Bar and The Arts Hotel.

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