Kayak the St. Croix River
A 46.5-mile journey from St. Croix State Park to Wild River State Park.
Last summer, I closely followed the news about wildfires in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area—mostly because it’s a place I love, but also because I’d planned a weeklong paddling trip there in late August with my friend Caroline. Even before the U.S. Forest Service closed the BWCA to visitors, I started looking for an alternative destination. Enter the St. Croix River State Water Trail, a favorite paddling destination of mine for its proximity to my Twin Cities home, ease of navigation, and amenities.
I pored over maps to plot our 46.5-mile journey from St. Croix State Park to Wild River State Park. This relatively quiet, paddler-friendly stretch of river has low water levels that prevent the use of large motorboats. We planned on an average of roughly 11 miles per day traveling downriver. Accounting for lunch stops, wind, and inevitable “walk-a-yak” sections, we would travel five to six hours per day before setting up camp.
We decided to use my two-person kayak, a better choice than Caroline’s canoe to paddle the easy rapids characteristic of the middle St. Croix. On the first day, we had a hearty brunch in North Branch and dropped off our shuttle car at the parking lot by Wild River Landing. Then we drove to St. Croix State Park, where we set off on our trip.
It rained for most of our journey—not ideal, but a welcome sight given the severe drought the state was experiencing at the time. The rain helped reduce the smoke we could feel from the fires up north and gave us hope for some respite for the BWCA.
We passed the occasional angler but otherwise had the river to ourselves for the first couple of days. We didn’t see another group of paddlers until day three. Caroline was diligent about calling out and noting the different creatures we saw along the way. The soundtrack to our conversation included toads, cicadas, wolves, foxes, owls, and the splashing of our paddles. My favorite music was that of the whip-poor-will, a night bird named onomatopoeically for its song. We saw frogs, a heron, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, a bald eagle, mussels, and trout.
We hit our first rapids of the trip on day two. Our foldable kayak did great, and as we made our way downriver, we got better at reading the water and more gracefully navigating each section of rapids.
On the last day, we came across a makeshift shelter consisting of a plastic tarp propped up by thick branches. Our good deed of cleaning up the tarp paid off when a heavy thunderstorm blew in and we used it to make our own shelter.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at Wild River State Park, victorious, happy, and soaked. We loaded our gear in the car and hiked to the overlook to admire the scenic river from land and daydream of our next adventure.
Our St. Croix Itinerary
- Day 1. Starting in early afternoon, we paddled just under 8 miles, from the St. Croix State Park Main Landing (river mile 108.5) to a campsite near the confluence with the Kettle River (mile 100.7).
- Day 2. On our first full day of paddling we traveled 13.6 miles to set up camp at Eagle campsite just south of Highway 70 (mile 87.1), after stopping for lunch at Snake River Landing (mile 93.6).
- Day 3. We covered 11.1 miles and stayed at a campsite on the Wisconsin side (mile 76).
- Day 4. We paddled 13.5 miles to Wild River State Park (mile 62.8).
Paddle Trip Tips
- Plan your trip and get maps at nps.gov/sacn/planyourvisit. Many campsites on this route are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Check river levels at mndnr.gov/river_levels.
- Know your paddling ability and test your gear before setting out. Essential paddling trip gear includes a life jacket, rain gear, dry bags, water filter, sunblock and hat, maps and map case, battery pack, and camping gear.
- When paddling downriver, drop off a vehicle at the destination or arrange for a ride.