St. Croix National Scenic Riverway – Outdoor Photographer
Minnesota and Wisconsin
Text & Photography By Gary Alan Nelson
Published December 1, 2020
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is one of the original eight rivers in the United States to be protected by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. The St. Croix flows through unbroken woodlands for 170 miles, from northwestern Wisconsin (20 miles south of Lake Superior) to just north of Stillwater, Minnesota. The last 125 miles of the river form the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The upper half of the river, to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, is quiet, free-flowing, relatively narrow and embellished with periodic sandbars and mild rapids—perfect for canoe or kayak travel. The lower half, from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, to Stillwater, Minnesota, is wider and suitable for both canoe and motorboat traffic.
Several access points with landings and parking are located along the entire route on both sides of the river. Canoe and boat campsites are situated along the forested banks and on various islands on the river. Several state parks and state forests border the river and offer drive-in camping and river access. Detailed maps are available from the National Park Service either online or at district offices.
Weather At St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Summer can be hot, muggy and buggy, with temperatures ranging from the 60s to the 90s. Winter can be cold with an abundance of snow, with temperatures often dipping below zero. The river usually freezes over in November and opens up again in late March. The river usually runs high in spring due to the snow melt, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 55 degrees in April. Autumn is very comfortable, with highs in October averaging 60 with lows around 40.
The best way to see and photograph the river is by canoe or kayak. Rentals and shuttles are available at numerous locations. State parks and forests that border the river are great places to make a base camp. Here, you’ll find hiking trails that allow one to explore the river via land.
Since the river was designated a wild river, most of the shoreline is free of development. Along the St. Croix, one will find small islands, sandbars, rocky outcrops, mild rapids, cliffs and an abundance of clean “root beer”-colored water.
Dramatic cliffs overlooking the river can be found on the stretch from Taylors Falls, Minnesota, to Osceola, Wisconsin. This area, called The Dalles of the St. Croix, also has fields of lichen-covered boulders, old-growth timber and some of the deepest glacially formed potholes in the world. Hiking trails lead to dramatic views of the river.
Early mornings in spring and autumn often produce fog in the river valley and are great times for photography. Seek out stretches of the river that face east and west for early-morning or evening light opportunities.
Best Times To Visit
Autumn, from early to mid-October, is my favorite time to visit the St. Croix. It offers a dazzling display of hardwood forest colors, crisp temperatures and the frequent presence of morning fog that adds saturation and mystique to the autumn colors. After the first autumn frost, the landscape is relatively bug free. Spring can be nice as well, with fresh green growth and high water accentuating the area with rapids. It should be noted that the resilient and virus-encumbered deer tick is active for roughly nine months of the year, so preventative precautions are advised.
Contact: National Park Service, nps.gov/sacn/index.htm.
See more of Gary Alan Nelson’s work at garyalannelson.com.