A Tale of Two Interstate Parks
Summer is quickly coming to an end in the Northland, so I wanted to squeeze a final camping adventure in before the season shifts to fall. To this end, I headed out towards Interstate State Park, which is actually two state parks. There is a Minnesota Interstate Park and a Wisconsin Interstate Park. They are located within 10 minutes drive of each other, straddling the banks of the St. Croix River. Both are located around two hours south of Duluth/Superior near the towns of Taylor Falls, MN and St. Croix Falls, WI. Both can be reached by taking either Interstate 35 in Minnesota or HWY 35 in Wisconsin. I opted for HWY 35 in WI, which is a pleasant, leisurely drive through many small, Wisconsin communities. Here is a review of the parks!
Interstate State Park, Minnesota
Interstate State Park in Minnesota is the second oldest state park in the state, after Itasca State Park. While my other state park adventures were filled with solitude and insects, this park was swarming with people! It is a popular tourist destination and more tourist oriented than the other state parks that I have visited this summer. Despite the buzzing throngs of humans, very few opted to go on the free glacial pothole tour that was offered at noon. Every weekend and Monday at noon, park staff provide a free tour of the park’s glacial potholes. I went on the tour and learned about the formation of the large potholes in the park, while meandering around some of the large potholes near the park’s entrance. Basically, when the glaciers around Lake Superior began to melt 10,000 years ago it created a powerful torrent of water which created the modern St. Croix river. The cliffs through which this water flowed were formed 1.1 billion years ago from the lava released from a mid-continental rift that spreads from Minnesota to Kansas. The powerful river once rushed over these cliffs, creating potholes in the landscape as smaller rocks got caught and scoured holes into the surface. Interstate State Park boasts the largest “explored” pothole in the world. This means that there are larger potholes in the world, but they have not been dug out to determine their actual depth. Visitors to the park can actually stand inside one of the larger potholes. These potholes were manually shoveled out earlier in the last century and the visitor center features some modern artifacts that have been retrieved from the potholes over the years. Each year, the potholes are pumped out, as they fill with water, leaves, and other debris. Aside from the potholes, the naturalist also told us about the billion year old basalt left behind from the mid-continental rift. The surface of the basalt is pock marked with air bubbles from when the lava cooled. It was neat to learn about this history and to think about walking on top of such ancient rocks.
After partaking in the tour, I set up my tent at my campsite. At this point, I may have gone hiking, but instead, I wanted to explore Taylor Falls. About 10 minutes drive away from Interstate Park is the Franconia Sculpture Park. On Sundays, the park offers a free tour at 2 pm with one of the sculptors. So, after the glacial pothole tour, I went on a sculpture park tour not far from the park. Prior to the weekend, I had never heard of the sculpture park. I expected to find a quaint community project with a few quirky sculptures. Instead, I found a massive field of impressive sculptures, some created by famous artists from all over the world. Artists even stay at the park as residents and interns. There is also a workshop wherein artists can created their works. It was an impressive artistic institution pretty much located in the middle of nowhere (Taylor Falls only has a population of about 900 people). Once again, the guided tour was not well attended. It was myself and two local senior citizens. However, it was great to learn more about the artists, their methods, and the meaning of some of the sculptures. I hadn’t put much thought into sculptures before- or at least not the process of making them. An artist was busy making a metal sculpture from a mold she made over a plastered comforter spread over a friend’s body. The artist was not an engineer, so she had to figure out for herself how to work with metal and create something structurally sound. I could better appreciate the technical challenges of erecting giant sculptures of metal, cement, or stone after the tour.
Since Interstate Park is located within Taylor Falls, Mn, the local tourist attractions warrant mention- as these are connected to the park through the Railroad Trail. After visiting the Franconia Sculpture park, I returned to the state park and followed the River Trail from the campground to the town. Within Taylor Falls, I grabbed some dinner at the Drive In Restaurant. The Drive In Restaurant is an old fashioned drive in, where you can eat in your car. I chose to eat at a table. The servers wear Poodle Skirts and serve classic American foods like malts, sundaes, burgers, fries, etc. They actually had a veggie burger on their menu. This is easily within walking distance from the park, as are several other restaurants.
On the way back to the park, I followed the Railroad trail, which follows along an old railroad bed. It is less stunning than the River Trail (which follows the St. Croix river) but worth hiking simply to mix things up. Together, the trails make for about a three mile loop. Thus, Minnesota Interstate Park does not have many trails (as these are the main two trails in the park). It is not a state park to visit if you expect to do a lot of hiking, but worth visiting if you want to enjoy the St. Croix river and some local tourist attractions. The Railroad trail leads hikers past the Folsom House (which is up the hill from the trail), which is a house built in 1854 by lumber baron, W.H. Folsom. The house was closed when I visited, but it is generally open on the weekends during the summer and fall. The trail also brings visitors past the historic rail station. Another attraction, back in town and not on the trail, is a small, yellow library dating back to the late 1800s (it was built in 1854 as a taylor shop but later became a library). The diminutive library continues to lend books to this day. Finally, for those looking for something else to do after hiking to two short trails, the state park is unique in that it offers steamboat tours. Tickets for the steamboat tours can be purchased near the park’s visitors office. Tickets cost about $20, which I was content to forgo as I had already explored the river on foot and didn’t feel like spending more money. The St. Croix river can also be explored by canoe or kayak and there are several rentals in the area.
Tiny Library from the 1800s
Pros: Beautiful cliffs over the water, many local tourist attractions, guided pothole tours, largest explored pothole in the world, riverboat tours, kayak/canoe opportunities, easy hiking trails, and well-staffed park and campground.
Cons: Very busy with tourists, loud traffic, not many hiking trails, relatively small park
Interstate State Park, Wisconsin
On the other side of the St. Croix River is Wisconsin’s Interstate Park. As mentioned, this was Wisconsin’s first state park. I visited here early Monday morning after camping at Minnesota’s park. At 7am, the park was devoid of tourists and hikers. This gave me the opportunity to explore the park’s trails alone. Unlike the Minnesota state park, there are many trails to explore. Most of these are small loop trails which connect to each other in a series of lopsided figure eights. Each loop is usually about a half a mile to under a mile long. I hiked several of these small loop trails. One of the highlights was the Pothole Trail. Like the Minnesota park, the Wisconsin Interstate State Park also features potholes. These potholes are smaller in width and depth, so they are not as impressive as the Minnesota potholes. But, if you want to take in more glacial potholes, the trail is still worthwhile and the trail itself features a nice overlook of the St. Croix river. I also followed the Meadow Valley Trail, which was a bit swampy and buggy. It is mostly just a connector between a parking lot and the Pothole Trail. Another trail is the Summit Rock Trail, which brings visitors to the highest point on the bluffs. This trail features the best observation point of all of the trails, since it is the highest. I also followed part of the Echo Canyon Trail, though this was done to get to the Lake o’ the Dalles Trail. The Lake o’ the Dalles Trail is a one mile loop around a small lake. This is the only place between the two state parks where visitors can go swimming. Otherwise, the currents of the St. Croix river are either too strong or the cliffs/bluffs are too steep. This area features a beach house and the trail is described as a wildlife viewing trail. I didn’t see much for wildlife, but I did encounter poison ivy.
I didn’t mention that the Minnesota Interstate Park was buzzing with both people, but also a new colony of honeybees. I have never seen a swarm of bees colonize a tree before. The naturalist pointed them out and put up a sign so that everyone would avoid that area. After a few hours, the bees were settled down in their new home. Despite nearly walking by the swarm, the bees were content to focus on their new home. Other than this brief and interesting encounter with these bees, I had no major insect incidents over the course of my park visit. However….I did notice how there was NO poison ivy in the parks. This was a first, as the other parks I have visited this summer had abundant ivy. I guess I was lulled into complacency, since during my hike around Lake o’the Dalles, I noticed a lush gauntlet of poison ivy right by the trail (which I had already been following). When I looked down at my legs, I saw they had small red bumps near the ankles and lower calves. I couldn’t do much about it at the time. This was a good lesson in paying attention and wearing taller socks/shoes/long pants. Several days later, my legs are still bumpy, red, and itchy. This was my first brush against poison ivy and the reaction was not that severe, just annoying and ugly. I have used Vicks Vapor Rub and Cortisone cream on it.
Despite the poison ivy, I saw a Giant Swallowtail butterfly, which are rare…
There were a few other trails which I did not have time to explore. Otherwise, the park also features a small museum and gift shop. The museum features information about glaciers. It also has a display of various clams found in the St. Croix River. Traveling HWY 35, one passes by Clam Dam and Clam Falls, which alludes to the mussels found in the river. Personally, I haven’t paid much attention to mussels, so the display was neat because it showcased the variety of local clams. The mussels have unique names, such as Fawnsfoot, Higgin’s Eye, Monkey Face, Snuffbox, and Winged Maple leaf. Some of these mussels are endangered and I know that I certainly have never paid attention to the differences between species of clams. The St. Croix River has over 40 species of mussels, making it one of the most significant mussel habitats in the country.
I did not explore the local tourist attractions outside of Wisconsin’s Interstate Park. St. Croix Falls, the community near the park, is larger than Taylor Falls and also more spread out. While I did not stop here, I did stop in Balsam Lake (which was slightly out of the way but roughly 15 miles away from the park). The small community features a museum, a city park with camping, a few eateries, and some historic buildings. I ate lunch at KJ’s New North. The deli/coffee shop does not have any vegetarian items on the menu, but they made me a veggie sandwich with all of their veggies (peppers, pickles, lettuce, tomato, avocado+cheese). The food was tasty and the service was good. Since the town has its own municipal self-serve camping in the park, this might be a camping option when the state parks are full. Pine Park features disc golf and the basic camping sites have a shared restroom and shower. I visited the park briefly and found that it was great habitat for woodpeckers. I saw four species of woodpeckers in my first fifteen minutes in the park, including a red headed woodpecker. This was my only birding on the trip.
Pros: Various hiking trails, glacial potholes, swimming opportunities, camping, quieter than MN Interstate Park, close to St. Croix falls and other nearby communities, gift shop/mini museum, first Wisconsin State Park, and cheaper camping fees than MN.
Cons: Poison ivy and tourists (but less busy than MN Interstate Park…though it was a Monday)
Both parks compliment each other well. Minnesota’s Interstate Park is great for its potholes, boat tours, and proximity to tourist attractions. Wisconsin’s Interstate Park is great for hiking, swimming, and its interpretive center. Together, the parks give visitors an appreciation for geology, knowledge about glaciers, and great views off the bluffs divided by the St. Croix river. The proximity of the parks to the Minneapolis area and the dramatic natural beauty ensures that both are a popular destination. They aren’t the most tranquil state parks, but if you don’t mind the sound of cicadas, traffic, and people they are a great place to visit.