Nine scenic spots along the Minnesota and Wisconsin border

A person stands near an observation area on cliffs above a river.
A visitor stands along the cliffs at Interstate State Park on Sep 17. The park is located on the St. Croix River in Taylor's Falls, Minn.
Christine T. Nguyem | MPR News 2019

By Darby Ottoson | The Current

Save for a small stretch south of Lake Superior, the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin is defined by a few powerful rivers. During the spring, the waterways that wind along the length of Minnesota’s eastern edge carry melting snow downstream, making for lively waterfalls and refreshing scenery.

As we lumber out of winter, make a run for the eastern border. Here is a roundup of public lands for your next adventure.

Jay Cooke State Park (Carlton, Minn.)

If you’re just passing through the area, you’ll find a sweeping view not far from the parking lot on the Swinging Bridge. It sways above the St. Louis River tumbling across a landscape of massive weathered boulders on its way south from Lake Superior. To hike non-stop for a few weeks straight, hop on the 300-plus-mile Superior Hiking Trail, which starts just south of the park in Wrenshall, Minn. 

St. Croix River flows over rock outcroppings, with a cloudy dark sky above
Jay Cooke State Park.
Darby Ottoson | MPR

St. Croix State Park (Pine County, Minn.)

As soon as the St. Croix River crosses over from Wisconsin, it’s celebrated at Minnesota’s largest state park. The 34,000 acres of St. Croix State Park create a sanctuary for wildlife, and it’s an exciting scene as the woods wake up after a long winter. Roads and trails cut through the park, offering views of the St. Croix as well as Kettle River – known by whitewater rafters for its rough waters, which pour into the St. Croix at the south end of the park. 

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Interstate State Park (St. Croix Falls, Wis.)

1.1 billion years ago, the continent started pulling itself apart along the Midcontinent Rift, spewing loads of lava that eventually hardened in dark basalt rock. Half a billion years later, sand and minerals from an inland sea built up a layer of sandstone on top of that basalt. Recently, in geologic terms, glacier movement and meltwater carved the St. Croix’s course, which runs right through Interstate State Park. Here unique rock formations, like a pothole named “Bottomless Pit,” tell the story of this dramatic saga.

Rocky outcropping on the St. Croix River covered in trees
Interstate State Park.
Darby Ottoson | MPR

Franconia (Shafer, Minn.)

A few miles inland, find outdoor sculptures and year-round art festivities at Franconia Sculpture Park. Roam for free through prairie and forest in search of the many unique art installations scattered throughout, most of which are located on level walking paths. When the weather warms, keep an eye out for concerts, plays and other scheduled performances at the sculpture park.

Belwin Conservancy (Lakeland, Minn.)

The tallgrass trails at Belwin Conservancy weave through protected wetland, mixed forest and restored prairie in the picturesque St. Croix Valley. There’s a party planned on May 20 to celebrate the return of Belwin’s bison herd, who spend half the year grazing the prairie here. The Bison Festival agenda includes eco-arts, food trucks, music from Imniza Ska Dakota Drum Group, and a 5k run (frolic) through the prairie.

Walking alone
Hope Lea walks through the woods during an orienteering exercise at Belwin Conservancy in Afton, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

Afton State Park (Afton, Minn.)

Just 30 minutes east of St. Paul, Afton State Park is the city-slickers’ friend. The terrain varies from paved paths ending at river outlooks to prairie loops to steep and sometimes muddy forest trails. Afton also offers spacious backpacking campsites located a mile from the parking lot, a short distance compared to those who chose the Superior Hiking Trail. 

Great River Road Visitor and Learning Center (Prescott, Wis.)

Less than 10 miles south of Afton, the clear waters of the St. Croix meet the muddied waters of the Mississippi. A short, paved path outside of the Great River Road Visitor Center brings you to a 400-foot bluff, where you can watch the two rivers tangle.

Kellogg Weaver Dunes SNA (Wabasha County, Minn.)

In Minnesota, shifting sand dunes are rare and relatively low key. You could easily pass these rolling hills without seeing the sand below the prairie plants, deposited 14,000-18,000 years ago as a wide glacial river receded. Today, it hosts specialized birds and turtles, as well as a mix of wildflowers like goat’s rue, sea-beach needlegrass, and rough-seeded fameflower – an endangered species which blooms for a few hours a day each summer, starting around 4:30 p.m. To protect this mythical landscape and its inhabitants, reference these guidelines before visiting. 

A sand terrace
One of the most unique landscapes in southeast Minnesota is the Weaver Dunes SNA near Kellogg, Minn.
Brian Peterson | State of Wonders

Driftless Region (Winona County, Minn.)

Unscathed by glaciers that scraped most of Minnesota, distinct features differentiate the Driftless region, including dramatic bluffs and a high concentration of cold water streams. The 500-foot bluffs in Great River Bluffs State Park feel massive to most Minnesotans and offer sweeping views of the Mississippi. Music buffs ought to plan a May visit in accordance with Mid West Music Fest, a two-day local music bonanza happening just north of Great River Bluffs in Winona. 

This feature is part of The Current’s 89 Days series, helping you enjoy the best of the season with weekly guides to events, entertainment, and recreation in the Twin Cities.