Minnesota’s Interstate Park is both gorgeous and fascinating in any season. The park’s towering cliffs, mysterious potholes, dainty wildflowers, and colorful fall leaves make a visit to the scenic Saint Croix River all that much better. And, if all that isn’t enough, Wisconsin has another Interstate Park right across the river.
There’s always plenty to see (and do) in Interstate Park
Minnesota’s Interstate Park draws a wide variety of visitors, as its offerings range from rock climbing to cruising. No matter how active you want to be, you’ll find the perfect activity for you!
Explore the potholes and cliffs
Interstate State Park is most well-known for its geology. This includes the remains of ten lava flows and a couple of glacial deposits. All of this is part of the Saint Croix Dalles, an area famous for its array of rock formations and odd geology. Within Interstate Park, you can find deeply eroded potholes, convoluted outcrops, and sheer cliffs.
You can read more about Interstate Park’s geology (PDF) on the park website.
Peer into potholes
While they might not look like much to the casual visitor, the potholes here make Interstate Park very unusual.
The round holes we see today were carved into the stone by an ancient river as it carried melt-water from glaciers that once covered this region. Swirling water, sand, and loose rock wore holes deep into the hard basalt riverbed. Once the river receded, those holes were left high and dry.
Today park visitors can stand above these glacial potholes and look down into them. Since many are filled with rocks, dirt, and water, they may not seem that impressive. But take another look, as these are the deepest potholes found anywhere in the world, with some going down 60 feet or more. This is also the most concentrated group of potholes anywhere in the world, with over 100 of them in an area of less than twenty acres in size.
While you can’t see very far into most of the potholes, it’s impossible not to wonder what might lie hidden from view in their murky depths.
The park website includes a downloadable video that takes visitors on a walking tour of the potholes (MP4). It explains how they formed and includes stories about the Bottomless Pit, the Bake Oven, and others.
- Explore more of Interstate Park’s potholes with me at Pottery and potholes along the St Croix.
- For some very different potholes, explore Along the Panorama Route where the enormous Bourke’s Luck Potholes lie at the bottom of a canyon in South Africa.
Climb the cliffs
Casual hikers and river cruisers may be surprised to see folks hanging from the cliffs along the Saint Croix River gorge. However, Interstate Park is a popular spot for climbing, as its cliffs offer a range of challenges.
While rock climbing seems crazy to me (except for the great views you’d get up there), this is a very popular activity in the park. There are designated climbing and bouldering areas in the park, so you are likely to see climbers all along the way as you explore the park’s various rock formations.
Hike the trails
With less than 5 miles of hiking trail, Interstate Park doesn’t seem like a great destination for hiking. But the trails vary greatly in difficulty and there is a lot to see.
With the Saint Croix River and the park’s rugged geology, this is a beautiful park at any time of year.
Various trails meander along the top of the bluff. Some of these require navigating a bit of rough trail, steps, and even a bit of boulder hopping. However, they provide great views of the river, river boats, and the river gorge.
Most of the potholes are located near the visitor center, meaning you barely have to step out of your car to see a smattering of them. However, it’s worth following the short trails that wind through the most interesting of them.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to call this the “Riverside Trail,” since it winds through the woodland at the top of the bluff far. It’s nowhere near the river.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t spots where you can see the river far below!
This is one of the noisier trails in the park, as it is located on the top of the bluff between the river and a state highway. But it also offers beautiful fall leaves and a long season of spring flowers.
This is one of the easiest trails in the park and offers a mix of sun and shade.
Get out on the water
Interstate Park is an excellent spot to get out on the water. With a mix of rocky gorges and still backwaters, summer offers options that give everyone a chance to explore the river!
Paddle the river’s backwaters and rapids
Years and years ago I spent an afternoon canoeing on the Saint Croix here. Every time I get over this way I wonder why I haven’t done that again (but in a kayak this time), as it is a wonderful way to explore the river.
With lots of flooded backwaters at the south end of Interstate State Park, there are plenty of quiet spots out of the main traffic flow and that are perfect for bird watching or just floating along.
You can bring your own canoe or kayak, but you can also rent one in the park.
Fish or just enjoy the scenery on your own boat
The Saint Croix River is one the state’s most popular rivers for recreational boating of all types. On a beautiful summer day, there will be many small boats zipping around. Many others will be anchored at a particularly scenic spot, a good swimming hole, or wherever the fish are biting at the moment.
Boat owners can access this section of the river from a number of public boat landings south of the park. There is also a small boat launch area in the park, although it’s unclear from the park website if there are restrictions on the size or type of boats that can use it.
Relax on a river cruise
Looking for a completely relaxing way to view the Saint Croix’s gorgeous scenery?
Try a cruise on the Taylor’s Falls Queen or Princess.
These modern versions of classic paddlewheel-powered river boats take visitors through the dramatic Saint Croix River gorge and then south to where the river broadens out into a low-lying landscape that looks like a set from Huckleberry Finn.
These cruises depart from Interstate Park, but are operated by Wild Mountain. Tours are available daily throughout the boating season. Make your reservation in advance if you want to cruise on a holiday, weekend, or during fall leaf season.
- To get a look at what a cruise is like and find more information on planning your own cruise, explore more with me at End of the summer Saint Croix River cruise.
Seasonal highlights at Interstate Park
While Interstate Park is fairly small, the mix of habitat in the park makes it a good place for bird watchers. The park has a bird checklist (PDF) to guide your search and track your sightings.
With its mix of shady woodland and rocky cliffs, Interstate Park is home to a wide variety of wildflowers.
The wildflower season starts in April with bloodroot and a few other early bloomers. Wildflowers in the park are at their best in May and June, but there will be some throughout the summer. The park has a wildflower checklist (PDF) to guide your flower search.
Interstate Park has plenty of shaded trails (especially around the potholes) that make for pleasant summer hiking. However, summer is the season to skip the hike and get out on the water!
With a mix of maple, oak, and pine, fall is a spectacular season in the park. Expect to see a mix of colors both above the river gorge and in the floodplains. This is also the best time for a river cruise, as the fall colors are spectacular.
Winter is quiet in the park, as there are no ski trails or programmed activities. Individuals are allowed to snowshoe in the park, but should do so with caution.
Of course, visitors to Taylors Falls itself can get a look at the river gorge even in winter.
Plan your visit to Interstate Park
Despite its proximity to a major metropolitan area, Interstate Park has all the scenery one could ever want in a state park. And it offers fascinating geology, rock climbing, and boating as well!
Interstate Park is located about an hour northeast of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul metropolitan area. The fastest route to the park is along Interstate highway I-35 north to highway 8. For a slower, but more scenic trip, travel east first and then follow highway 95 north along the Saint Croix River to the park.
Park fees, permits and services
Minnesota State Park vehicle permit
A vehicle permit is needed to park in most of the Interstate Park. However, a vehicle permit is NOT required if you are taking a cruise on either the Taylors Fall Queen or Princess. And cruise passengers are allowed to explore the rest of the park before and after the cruise – just don’t move your car out of the riverboat cruise parking lot.
While I’d always thought that the Minnesota and Wisconsin Interstate Parks were part of the same park, they are completely separate. If you want to visit the Wisconsin side you will need a Wisconsin park permit or a national parks pass. (The Wisconsin side is part of the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve, which is why you can enter with a national parks pass.)
Climbing permits are required for all group and individual climbers. The permits are available in the park office at no cost, but must be renewed each year. Groups are required to request permits in advance and meet insurance requirements.
Canoe and kayak rentals
Canoes and kayaks can be rented in the park from Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental. They also offer shuttle service, which should be reserved in advance. You can also bring your own boat and put in at the boat launch in the park.
While beautiful at any time of year, high water can make the Saint Croix River dangerous. Always check water conditions before venturing out.
Camping and lodging
Interstate State Park has about 40 drive-in campsites and four walk-in group camp sites. All sites are open seasonally from April through late October. There are no camper cabins.
Because Interstate Park is so close to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, many visitors make it a day trip. However, this is a gorgeous area and would be a fun place to stay overnight. The challenge is finding a place to stay. Although there seem to be a couple of bed and breakfast places, TripAdvisor, Expedia (affiliate links) and Airbnb all show a few options in Taylors Falls or across the river in Saint Croix Falls. But lodging in the area is limited.
Interstate State Park is directly adjacent to the city of Taylors Falls, making it easy to stop in town for a bite to eat. Saint Croix Falls is just across the bridge in Wisconsin, which makes additional dining options available. Neither city has a wealth of restaurants, but there is food available.