My Favorite Place on Earth
Unit # 29 / 412 - Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
If you're planning your next summer vacation to Saint Croix, be careful of the GPS coordinates in your search field.
However, if your goal is to escape urban hustle and bustle for private and pristine water, then it might not matter whether your reservation ends up being for Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, or the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.
Though only one hour from "Sin Cities a.k.a. Minneapolis/St. Paul," as Gladys Leeman from Drop Dead Gorgeous would say, it's true that you can be on the water, in a kayak, and not see a single other person, all without taking a flight to the Caribbean.
Paddling through the water in a tandem kayak, I couldn't help but let Andy take over and dangle my feet in the cool river. Reveling in the mid-70s weather, slight cloud coverage, and complete lack of bugs, it was confirmation of what I learned six years ago:
Wisconsin in the summer is heaven.
I first came to this conclusion after a June-August spent working at Camp Wapogasset. This Lutheran site rests just 17 miles east of the Saint Croix River, on a peninsula nestled between two lakes, and offers near-360-degree views of the water.
Providing what feels like endless epic sunsets.
Though Camp Wapogasset is my favorite place on earth, this corner of northwest Wisconsin highlights something very important I worry travelers often overlook:
We have lots of amazing places in our own country.
While I admit there's an allure to international travel, I sense people think they have to Eat Pray or Love in Italy, India or Bali to be transformed.
As was confirmed by the wave of feelings I experienced on this, my first visit to Wapo since 2010: Special places don't have to be halfway around the world.
The sunset that night proved it.
This is a power the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway possesses.
I say that not only because of its proximity to my corner of the sky, but supported by anecdotal evidence from Deb Ryun, Executive Director of the Saint Croix River Association.
Deb had lived and worked for a number of years in eastern Iowa, establishing a career in tourism many would dream about. Yet, on a visit to the Saint Croix, she fell in love with the area and couldn't pass the chance to be in it regularly.
As many of my friends confirmed with their "I've never heard of it," and "We have national parks around here?" comments, it's likely that this getaway is unknown to many of the 3.5 million Twin Cities residents.
(Full disclosure: it was only at the beginning of this trip that I learned my own home state, Nebraska, had five national parks)
Yet through programs like Veterans on the River, Deb and her staff, along with the National Park Service, work to share this pristine waterway.
At over 200 miles in length, it's made more impressive by the protections of the 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which established it as a national park. Under those rules, not just the river, but also the surrounding land is designed to feel like you're in untouched nature. So much that it's even illegal to build a cell phone tower within sight of the water.
That protection extends along an extensive network of Minnesota and Wisconsin state parks, allowing for ample picnics, hiking, fishing, tubing, and boating; accented by the 100+ no-fee campsites lining the entire riverway.
Meaning that for how ever many miles you choose to traverse, your lodging is free along with the natural scenery.
And that's something you won't get if you end up at the other Saint Croix.
5 Saint Croix River Highlights (You Can Do!)
1. Cruise from Taylors Falls
Want a good orientation to the park including history, shaded seats and a cool river breeze? Wild Mountain offers daily cruises which will take you faster than a kayak/canoe, and allow you to fully see both banks of rocks without having to hike to every overlook from the shoreline forests.
Taylor Falls Scenic Boat Tour highlights
2. Kayak/Canoe Downstream
With a calm river, it was a lot easier than when I tried to canoe at Voyageurs National Park! Wild Mountain even has a rental location near Taylors Falls where they put you in, then pick you up down river.
3. Fish from a Sand Island
With a clean river, sparse boats, dockable islands and less bugs than most national parks I've visited, it should be the fish biting and not the flies.
4. Hike the Local's Favorite Trail
My Camp Wapo friends' favorite hike is the main loop just east of Taylors Falls in the Wisconsin Interstate State Park that borders the Scenic River.
The shoreline where you'll be brought. Do you see the face? It's one of many designs within the waterway's rocks.
5. Climb the Basalt Rock
Do you see her in the upper right corner? For the really brave, Saint Croix Scenic River offers a number of dramatic basalt rock drops to test your nerve.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations, please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Minnesota to Iowa to Illinois to Indiana to Michigan to Ohio to New York
-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
-Effigy Mounds National Monument
-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
-Pullman National Monument
-Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial
-James A. Garfield National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
The journey thus far: