Little-Known St. Croix Valley hikes

Off-the-beaten-path hikes perfect for a winter weekend day-trip from the Twin Cities.

Snow, melt, rain, deep freeze -- not a recipe for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. But that's no reason to stay on the couch.

Now is a good time to do some exploring on foot. The midday sun will warm the woods up a little, so put on a few layers and a sturdy pair of boots and take a walk.

Here are two destinations for this weekend along the St. Croix River north of Stillwater. Both are somewhat strenuous and the icy trail can be treacherous, so proceed with caution and an adventurous spirit.

Arcola High Bridge

Arcola High Bridge in winter

This hike is a short and steep trail to the banks of the St. Croix -- about a half-mile each way. It will seem longer on the way back up. From the parking area, find the narrow path heading into the woods and start walking. After a few hundred yards, it will meet a wider path -- turn left.

As you descend the trail, you'll get a look at the amazing Arcola High Bridge, a 100-year-old train bridge which towers over the river valley, and a chance to enjoy the sounds of free-flowing water in spring-fed creeks. The advantage of doing this hike in the winter is you can catch glimpses of the bridge much earlier in the hike than during the summer.

Dilapidated bridge

Near the bottom, there is a pretty grove of cedars overlooking a deep ravine, with a spring-fed creek flowing through it. Right after this, there is a fork in the trail -- straight ahead is a narrow and steep trail which goes straight down to the bottom, but it's pretty icy so you're better off taking the slow, more gradual trail to the right.

Read more about the history of the High Bridge.

Getting there:

  • Drive out of downtown Stillwater north on Highway 95.
  • Go about 3.5 miles and turn right on Arcola Trail
  • Go 2.3 miles and park at the pull-off. There is no sign marking the trailhead.

Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area

Scientific and Natural Area sign

Ten miles north on Highway 95 from Arcola will bring you to what the Department of Natural Resources describe as "one of the most diverse natural areas remaining in Washington County." The Falls Creek SNA is a delicate ecosystem on the St. Croix River bluffs, and visitors are urged to tread lightly.

There are two parking lots along Highway 95 -- one of which is maintained by the city of Scandia and one by the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR lot is not plowed in the winter, so park at the southernmost lots, which is well-marked with a sign on the highway which says "Nature Park."

Spring-fed creek

Follow the trail from the lot and you will end up in a pretty meadow, ringed by pines. The trail loops through the meadow and the pines for a short hike. There is more to the SNA, for those who are feeling adventurous.

There aren't many trails maintained or easy to follow, but the frozen snow is actually pretty easy to walk on right now. You might consider bringing snowshoes if you want to really explore.

Trail marker at Falls Creek SNA

From where the main trail enters the meadow, head roughly north and east and you'll find some amazing ravines, with narrow ridges and eskers inbetween. Visiting in the winter really gives you good views of this unique topography.

Getting there (from the Twin Cities):

  • Drive north on I-35 to the Highway 97 exit and go east 11 miles
  • Turn north (left) on Highway 95 and go about 1 mile.

Make a day of it

You could definitely combine the two walks -- if you do, consider a stop in Marine on St. Croix for lunch, as it might be a little cold for a picnic in the woods. The Brookside Bar and Grill features good burgers and a nice selection of beers on tap. Meister's in Scandia is another good option.

View a map of the locations of the two hikes.

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