The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is a popular paddling river due to its close proximity to the Twin Cities. And you don’t have to be a highly-experienced paddler to run this river lined with old-growth white pine, sandstone bluffs, sandy beaches and primitive campsites with river views, fire rings, tent pads and picnic benches.
Fall is the time of the year to experience the St. Croix River, too, as the mosquitoes have run their course and the nights are crisp and cool. If you can swing it, a three-day weekend in late September through mid-October is the ideal time to catch fall colors emerging.
Day 1: Riverside Landing to Thayer’s Landing (map)
The distance of Day 1 is about thirteen miles of easy paddling. Expect about five to six hours with a fifteen-foot drop in gradient. Depending on the river level, there are two sections of Class I rapids (benign little ripples).
This stretch of river runs wide and slow and is surrounded by forest with some wooded islands that make great rest or lunch stops. As you get closer to Danbury, expect to see increased canoe traffic.
All campsites along the river are first come, first served, but the ideal campsite on this stretch is the last campsite before you reach Thayer’s Landing. It has two picnic benches, two tent pads and two fire rings. The campsite is very nice and sits on a small bluff overlooking the river. The boat landing is a little hairy but manageable.
The bathroom situation, unfortunately, is sordid. In lieu of a park-installed pit toilet, a path through a cluster of thick bushes to the west of the campsite serves as the “spot” and it looks like a giant kitty box in need of scooping.
If you’re planning to fish as you make your way down the river, the fish do bite in this section. Our friends caught a nice small mouthed bass and my husband struggled for twenty-eight minutes with a three-foot, fifteen-pound Northern (that got away).
Note: by the end of the trip, the fish had grown substantially in size and weight.
Day 2: Thayer’s Landing to Norway Point Landing (map)
This next stretch is about fifteen miles with scenery-aplenty. Governor Knowles State Forest is on the east side of the river and Minnesota’s St. Croix State Park sits on the west. Throughout this paddle, you’ll encounter wooded islands, sand bars, turtles tanning on rocks, herons wading and eagles and kingfishers diving for food. Expect about seven hours of easy paddling with a ten foot drop in gradient.
Camping is best at Norway Point but not in the campsite at the boat landing. Unless you like camping next to an outhouse that is cleaned once every three years at best. Instead, paddle to a small sandy beach about twenty feet past the landing on the east side of the river. You’ll see wooden steps that lead up a bank to a cluster of five squeaky clean campsites, each with a fire ring, picnic bench and tent pad. We had this entire cluster to ourselves on this night. The outhouse at the boat landing is a short hike but far enough away that you don’t smell it.
Day 3: Norway Point Landing to Highway 70 Landing (map)
This section kicks it up a notch with quite a few sections of Class II rapids. Expect to paddle about fourteen miles in six to eight hours with a sixty-eight feet drop in gradient. Novice paddlers can handle this section with no problems, but it’s this section that you’ll want to make sure you wear clothing that dries quickly (e.g. do not wear cotton on this day). I personally believe this is the most scenic part of the trip because the river flows past tall, rocky cliffs and more wooded islands. There’s also a number of small channels to explore if the water level is high enough.
The Kettle River Slough and the Sandrock Cliffs are popular features in this section. The Kettle River Slough starts about a half mile below Nelsons’ Landing where the St Croix forks around a cluster of islands. The narrower, right fork forms the Kettle River Slough while the deeper main channel runs down the left fork. Both forks have Class II rapids. August Olsen, the most significant rapids, is located at the confluence of the two forks.
The Sandrock Cliffs, a must-see, are tall rocky bluffs that overlook the river along the left bank below Soderbeck Landing. The cliffs are very photogenic and can be accessed via a small channel. If the river is low, expect to get your boat beached on the high parts. There’s a short hiking trail that takes you up to the cliffs where there are several campsites.
Your trip concludes at the Highway 70 Landing.
If you go:
Begin your trip at Wild River Outfitters in Grantsburg, WI. If you don’t have a canoe or a kayak that can hold three days worth of food and gear, you can rent one here. If you have your own boat, Wild River also offers a shuttle service to Riverside landing and will also pick you up at the Highway 70 Landing at the end of your trip.
If you arrive the night before, Wild River Outfitters has a little campground with tent sites for $14 per night. The owners also maintain a hobby farm in addition to the Outfitter so expect to see a herd of four sheep grazing in random places on the property. Clean showers and bathrooms are located in the main building so you indulge in a hot shower the morning of your departure and take one after your paddle.