Leaf season is here, so it’s time to take a fall color road trip. One of the best (and shortest!) leaf peeping routes around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul can be found just down the road in the Saint Croix Valley.
It’s easy to spend a few hours or a full day exploring the Saint Croix Valley. You’ll find gorgeous fall colors, wonderful views over the Saint Croix River, and a couple of charming towns. There are even opportunities to get out on the water!
Leaf peeping in Minnesota’s Saint Croix Valley
This fall color road trip stays on the Minnesota side of the Saint Croix River. It includes the river valley from I-94 to Wild River State Park, and is intended to be a full day adventure.
Travelers with less time can follow 95 up to Interstate Park and still get an eyeful of fall color. If you have all day, do some hiking, take a cruise on the Saint Croix River, or rent a boat and explore the river on your own. Those with a couple of days can spend more time in the parks or cross the Saint Croix River to explore the equally scenic Wisconsin side of the valley.
Scenic state parks
All of the parks on this fall color road trip here have trails of various lengths. Park staff can direct you to the best color, as different parts of each park will reach their peak color at slightly different times.
Wild River State Park
It’s easy to feel as if you are very far from the city in Wild River State Park. With acres of maple, ash, birch, and aspen, Wild River literally glows during the fall.
Stop at the visitor center for sweeping views of the valley and tips on where to find the best fall color.
Interstate State Park
Located just outside Taylors Falls, Interstate Park is popular for the wide range of activities available. The park’s rocky cliffs are popular with climbers and boats of all kinds can be found on the river here during summer. But fall may be the park’s most beautiful season, when the trees along the river put on a fabulous fall show.
The park has a number of short, easy trails that let everyone enjoy the fall leaves. (And explore the rocky cliffs and potholes.)
For those with time to explore more, Wisconsin’s Interstate Park offers a wide range of trails just across the river.
William O’Brien State Park
Less spectacular than the other St. Croix Valley Parks, William O’Brien State Park offers a quiet place to enjoy fall colors in the prairies and woodlands along the river and Lake Alice.
The St. Croix River is home to a number of charming towns and villages. The smallest of these, like Scandia and Marine on St. Croix, are pleasant places to take a quick break.
For a more substantial break, Stillwater is best option. Although there are other towns worth visiting, Stillwater offers both the largest number of options for visitors and the most charming setting. Just don’t get lost in all the restaurants, bars, cafes, tasting rooms, antique shops, gift shops, clothing shops, and other diversions available if you want time see a few fall leaves too!
Chisago City and Lindström
Highway 8 winds past a number of lakes and through the small towns of Chisago City and Lindström. As you may have guessed from the spelling, this area was settled by Swedish immigrants and retains a fair amount of that history and culture. While there is a lot of ugly sprawl along the highway, it obscures a couple of pleasant little towns with some interesting Scandinavian shops and cafes. If you are in the area in the morning, be sure to stop in for a pastry!
Taylors Falls and St Croix Falls
Farther up the river, Taylors Falls, also retains much of its historic character, but lacks the dining and shopping options found in Stillwater.
Across the river in Wisconsin, St. Croix Falls is a pleasant place for a stroll. There is a nice park with an expansive view. However, there are few dining and shopping options in its historic heart.
I tried to explore Osceola, Wisconsin, the other year, but we got to town just as the parade for a big local festival was about to begin. That means we were directed away from what looks to be an interesting town with a good-sized historic business district. It looks like it is worth a stop – I know I’ll try to visit again.
When it comes to historic river towns, it doesn’t get any better than Stillwater.
Built along the bluffs above the St. Croix River, Stillwater is one of Minnesota’s oldest towns. It’s also a town where that history is easily seen in the architecture. Whether you wander the shops and restaurants along Main Street or climb the bluff to explore the historic residential area, you’ll be surrounded by 19th and early 20th century architecture built to impress.
And the food and shopping are great too, so this is a great place to stop for a bite to eat and a stroll through town.
Other stops along the way
Franconia Sculpture Park
Once you get a glimpse of the Franconia Sculpture Park, you’ll want to stop and take a closer look. This always evolving outdoor gallery has a fascinating collection of pieces.
Wild Mountain Winery
While a number of regional wines can be sampled in the tasting room in Stillwater, you can also taste wines right where they are made at Wild Mountain Winery. The winery is open for tastings on weekend afternoons. Visitors are also invited to come out and help with the harvest on select Saturdays in October.
The Gammelgården Museum preserves the history of Minnesota’s Swedish immigrants through exhibitions and historic buildings. The main exhibition is open daily, however, tours of the historic buildings are only held on weekends. I’ve never managed to work a visit into my schedule, but it looks like an interesting stop when the historic buildings are open.
Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway
I haven’t done this yet, but the Minnesota Transportation Museum runs a historic train between Osceola, Wisconsin, and Marine on St. Croix. This scenic 90-minute train ride begins and ends in Osceola. It only operates on weekends.
While this is a road trip, taking a little time for a cruise on the Saint Croix is a great way to enjoy the fall colors.
Both the Saint Croix Boat and Packet Company in Stillwater and Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours offer cruises on modern paddlewheel boats. This is a lovely, relaxing way to see some of the most dramatic scenery along the St. Croix River. Tours are available every day during the fall leaf season. Snacks are available on board and a number of tours with meals are also available.
- To get an idea of what you will see on the Taylors Falls cruise, check out my end of summer cruise.
There are several spots where you can rent a canoe or kayak for a few hours, but the handiest is probably Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak in Interstate Park or Muller Boat in William O’Brien State Park.
Tips for your Saint Croix Valley fall color road trip
When to go
Fall leaf color should reach its peak this weekend.
Generally you are likely to find some mix of fall color in this area from late-September through mid-October.
The most scenic route
For the best scenery on your fall color road trip, follow state highway 95 along the Saint Croix River between I-94 and the turn-off for Wild River State Park.
If you don’t have time to drive highway 95 in both directions, I’d recommend taking I-35 to the northernmost point you plan to visit (either Wild River or Taylors Falls) and work your way back to the Twin Cities on highway 95. Although not the shortest route, connecting to highway 95 via highway 8 through Lindström and Chisago City is the most interesting route.
Drive highway 95 in the afternoon to get the best light on the Wisconsin shoreline across the river.
State park permits
All three state parks on this route require a state park vehicle permit. Daily permits are available at each park and can be used at all three parks during the course of the day.