Exploring the Mississippi and St. Croix National Rivers


Despite their proximity, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area are very different parks. 

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was established in 1968 as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It protects 252 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. The St. Croix River also serves as the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota until it joins with the Mississippi River south of Minneapolis. 

The St. Croix NSR preserves the natural beauty of this lengthy stretch of waterway. The park owns the land on either side of the rivers. Along the way, the National Park Service shares management with various state parks. That allows for several areas where you can experience the park, including plenty of campgrounds for overnight boating trips.

Floating on the St. Croix National Scenic River
The St. Croix River

By contrast, the Mississippi NRRA owns very little land along the 72-mile stretch of the upper Mississippi River. The park was established in 1988 as a partnership park, where the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the water but has very little presence on land. Instead, the National Park Service partners with local organizations to support various local parks and other recreation opportunities along the shore. 

The contrast of how these two parks are managed is quite interesting and it is good to see the National Park Service working to accommodate both the urban nature of the Mississippi River as it flows through Minneapolis-St. Paul and the undeveloped St. Croix River nearby.

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Visiting the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Visitor Centers

The National Park Service lists two visitor centers for the Mississippi NRRA: one in the Science Museum of Minnesota and one at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.

The visitor center inside the Science Museum of Minnesota is an excellent exhibit on the river. This visitor center definitely feels like a good addition to the museum and should definitely bring the attention of museum-goers to the mission of the park. In particular, we both enjoyed the motion capture simulator for a bald eagle on the river. 

That said, there wasn’t much else there other than a few cool exhibits.

Pro tip: Park on the street and walk to the visitor center. You will save a lot of money on parking.

The other “visitor center” is at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in Minneapolis. This was much more of a visitor contact station than a visitor center. It consisted of a canopy with a table, manned by a ranger. Still, we got a ranger-led tour of the lock and dam, which was really cool. 

The visitor contact station for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area at the St. Anthony Lock and Dam
There is no visitor center at the Lower Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam but there is a visitor contact station.

Touring the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam

We started our ranger-led tour of the lock and dam with a talk about the industrial background of this area of Minneapolis and how important St. Anthony Falls was for the various mills that were built on both sides of the river. The falls, however, were eroding at an alarming rate, in part due to logs breaking loose and pushing down the river. 

Eventually, the US Army Corps of Engineers built an apron to stabilize the falls and dissipate the energy of logs headed downriver. By the late 1950s, the apron was rebuilt and locks were installed to allow upriver traffic to pass the dam area. The Corps of Engineers operated the locks until they closed them down in 2015 due to lack of use.

Our tour walked us through the establishment of the dam, the uses to the growing flour industry and how the actual locks worked, which was really cool. The tour also gives folks a great view of the famous Stone Arch Bridge, a former railroad bridge and the only stone-arched bridge on the Mississippi River. 

There’s also an observation deck at the control building for the lock which has exhibits leftover from when the Corps of Engineers managed the site. Honestly, it would make for a great visitor center if the National Park Service can renovate the site and bring it up to modern standards. 

The observation deck at St. Anthony Lock and Falls
The lock and dam were operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, which had an observation deck that would be perfect for an NPS visitor center.

Going for a Hike at Coldwater Spring

The Coldwater Spring unit of the park is the only property the NPS actually owns, at least until the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam area is transferred by the Corps of Engineers. This small area is home to three walking trails that loop through restored prairie and by the titular spring. 

As we got close to the park unit, we grabbed a parking spot along the road leading up to it. The site only has handicapped parking by the trailhead. 

Coldwater Spring at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Coldwater Spring is a freshwater ground spring that flows into the Mississippi River.

The trail was relatively brief and had nice views of the spring and spring house. You can see the effort the National Park Service has put into rehabbing the prairie here.

If you are looking for something a bit more scenic, go to the nearby Minnehaha Regional Park and check out Minnehaha Falls. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the area and well worth the stop. 

Minnehaha Falls
Minnehaha Falls

Visiting St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

Visitor Centers

Like Mississippi NRRA, St. Croix River NSR has two visitor centers, one on the south end in the town of St. Croix Falls. The other is further north near the town of Trego on the Namekagon River. 

We stopped at the southern visitor center, where we were able to speak to a ranger about the best areas to do some hiking and where to do some tubing. The area is also close to the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. 

Inside the St. Croix National Riverways Visitor Center
Inside the St. Croix National Riverways Visitor Center

The park film was excellent in terms of explaining the efforts that went into creating this park and why it was preserved. The exhibits at the visitor center were good as well. 

Taking a Float Down the St. Croix River

The best way to experience this park is simple: get out on the river. Whether you decide to use a kayak, a canoe or float in a tube, the St. Croix River offers a lot of unspoiled beauty to experience. 

We rented tubes from Pardun’s Canoe Rental and Shuttle Service in Danbury, WI. We got two tubes and a cooler tube. The great folks from Pardun’s got us on the river quickly, starting our trip on Yellow River, which flowed right into the St. Croix River. 

Tubing on the Yellow River
Bonnie tubing on the Yellow River on our way to the St. Croix River.

We floated for five hours (lots of headwinds) on the placid St. Croix River, relaxing in the sun and enjoying the quiet. Seriously, other than a family paddling by us in canoes, we didn’t see anyone else on the river. There was no noise from nearby roads to speak of. It was simply peaceful. 

While we didn’t see a ton of wildlife, we did see an osprey and a whole bunch of turtles. We also seemed to have an entire squadron of dragonflies hanging around with us. We were perfectly content to have them land on us since they seemed to keep the mosquitos away. 

As the trip came to an end and we came upon the Lower Tamarac Landing, Pardun’s was waiting for us and got us back to the office quickly. We definitely had a good time and would rent from them again. 

Where to Stay and Eat

Where to Stay

Since we were a bit pressed for time due to a conference following this visit, we ended up staying in one campground south of Minneapolis in order to be close to both parks. This made for a longer drive to get to our tubing location on the St. Croix River. The proximity to Minneapolis was great, though.

A camper at the Town and Country RV Campground.
Our campsite at Town and Country RV Campground in Savage, MN. The site was anything but level and the tree dropped sticky liquid which covered just about everything.

We stayed at the Town and Country Campground in Savage, MN. The campground was comfortable, reasonably-priced and the folks running it were great. That said our site (#69) was not level at all. In fact, most of the sites were not level at all. Our site was also home to a tree that deposited gunky sap all over our truck and the front of our camper. Still, despite that, it was a good campground in the area and we would stay there again.

Read our full campground review on RV Life here.

Were I to return to the area, I would also look closer to either Danbury or Trego, WI for a place to stay for visiting the St. Croix NSR. There is a lot to do in the area but we were just not that convenient. That said, those towns are quite small and do not have much in the way of major hotels.

Where to Eat

In terms of where to eat, Minneapolis is a major city with plenty of great places to eat. We didn’t eat out a lot but we did find a nice pub not far from St. Anthony Falls called Maxwell’s American Pub. The service and lunch were great, and well worth a stop. 

Final Thoughts on Visiting the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

These parks present a challenge for anyone who is not a boater. Since the majority of these parks are the rivers themselves, you need to either rent a boat or have one of your own. 

The Mississippi NRRA, in particular, is challenging since the park has very little presence on the land. The St. Croix NSR does not have that problem and has a lot more to do for those who don’t want to get in the water. 

Tubing on the Yellow River
Tubing on the Yellow River on our way to the St. Croix River.

Still, we enjoyed our visit to both. While we don’t feel the need to come back to the Mississippi NRRA, we do want to return to the St. Croix River to explore more. This park is a great place to get out in a canoe and do an overnight trip. Indeed, I could definitely see working out a several-night canoe trip on the river, enjoying the solitude of the area. 

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