Where the St. Croix Meets the Kettle

St. Croix State Park offers views of the fast-moving St. Croix and Kettle Rivers, along with opportunities to travel downriver guided by local outfitters for whitewater adventure.

Getting into the park, you notice the trailhead is a bit of a drive from the road. Take that as a sign.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota’s biggest state park, which means that some sights and activities are far apart from one another. (While driving toward the infamous fire tower, you’ll see signs encouraging you to check your gas tank. It’d be a long walk back.)

Aside from taking your chances on the river, the state park has a lot to offer hikers, backpackers and campers alike.

The Riverview Campground

My fiancé Ashley and I stayed at the Riverview Campground. Pulling in, you get a view of almost the entire campground. It looks a bit bare and awfully flat. Granted, we were among few who dared go camping on a weekend it was expected to rain, and rain hard.

But, even if, the campground doesn’t offer much exclusivity between campsites. You’ll have a clear view of neighbors on either side of you, with limited tree cover overhead.

If you’re hoping for a site that offers such amenities, opt for a walk-in. The so-called walk-in sites in this campground have a designated parking lot, which would fit about a dozen cars, and the sites are a short — as in, less than 50 yards away — walking distance from the lot.

These sites were more secluded, offered more privacy and coverage, with thick foliage and tree density. There were a few of these sites all lined up, so if you have a group that’s into the outdoors, this might be a good option. When I go back for more car camping, this is what I’m looking for.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

What to do

This state park is big, and that means a lot more driving than what you might expect at a state park.

When you visit St. Croix State Park, there are a number of things you should make time for. Among them, you should check out of the fire tower, which was built in the early 1900s by the Conservation Corps to keep tabs on forest fires, as well as the joining of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

Both of these activities are, I think, about 7 miles from the Riverview Campground.

A quick checklist:

  • Pack a day bag before going out.
  • Have back-ups of batteries (camera), clothes, etc.
  • Make sure you’re fueled up.
  • Drive slow.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

Heading out, the paved roads turn to gravel quickly, and they stay that way. In wet conditions, the roads can get a bit slippery and flooded. It’s best to take your time and drive slow. Also, pay attention to large rocks and trees that encroach on the road.

But once you arrive at the scene, the 100-foot fire tower is something I’ve not seen before this state park, and if you’re okay with heights, it gives an expansive view of the many acres that make up this beautiful park.

A few words of caution:

The stairs are very steep and narrow. On a windy day, it’s easy to feel unstable and insecure. There are many landings that give you space to catch your breath, look around and read about the different stories of the forest. However, continuing higher and higher, the wind can seem unforgiving if the conditions are right (or, wrong, depending on how you look at it).

Don’t worry, though, if you can’t make it all the way up, there are many other activities that keep you much closer to the ground — like the Kettle River Highbanks Trail.

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest state park, offering views of the St. Croix and Kettle Rivers.

The Kettle River Highbanks Trail runs parallel to the river, with many points to look out high above the river to see its fast-moving current, sharp bends, and natural features, as you hike through a forest full of red pines and paper birch trees.

Despite having to drive a ways to reach these trails, the views and experience are well worth it.

Quick facts from the DNR

  • 34,086 acres
  • 187,891 annual visits
  • 50,579 overnight visits