The upper St. Croix River has been designated a National Scenic River by the National Park Service.
The park site is shared by Minnesota and Wisconsin, because the river forms 125 miles of the border between the two states. The park itself stretches many more miles into northwest Wisconsin along the Namekagon River.
Thousands of people enjoy the scenery along the river, from boats and canoes in the water itself, or from the trails along the shoreline on either side. Minnesota and Wisconsin each have state parks along the St. Croix as well.
It's unusual to have a river with this special designation so close to a big city, according to Julie Galonska, chief of interpretation for the St. Croix park. She says that's one of the park's major selling points.
"It's the fact that we have an incredibly clean water system that is very close to a major metropolitan area, and it's the ability of us to protect an area like this so close to metro area that allows us to provide a really unique recreational experience. that ranges from quiet solitude to boating in the Stillwater islands area."
Galonska said the clean water can be attributed to a "legacy of protection" along the river for much of the 20th century, when people in the region began to use it for recreation and tourism, and limited development along its shores.
The St. Croix River was given its designation in 1968, when Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which greatly limits development along the river to protect the water quality and the scenic nature of the area.
The river's designation came as part of a deal to allow Northern States Power Co., which is now Xcel Energy, to build a new power plant near Bayport, Minn.
According to Galonska, NSP owned thousands of acres on both sides of the river. In exchange for permission to build the power plant, NSP donated a good portion of its land to the National Park Service, as well as the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, to be designated park land and protected from development.
What Galonska calls the "icon of the St. Croix Valley" is a stretch of river called the Dalles of the St. Croix, just south of St. Croix Falls, Wis. It's a deep gorge featuring towering rock formations on both sides of the river, where the river is at its deepest point.
Galonska says she would like to see more residents of the area take advantage of the river.
"I don't think most people realize that they have a national park in their backyard," she said. "This area is just as significant as a Yellowstone or a Yosemite. It's because of the great work of the people in this region who work to protect the St. Croix that we have it here today and will have it here in the future."