Photographing on the St. Croix: Place and Time
By Mike Chrun
I live in Taylors Falls, Minnesota, close to the St. Croix River, one of the first eight National Wild and Scenic Rivers. I’m also living by what I think is the most scenic part of the river, the 35 miles from Sunrise Landing in Wild River State Park to William O’Brien State Park. I’ve spent countless hours along that stretch hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing over the years. Now retired, I’m spending even more time along the river; but now my main hobby is photography. Although some areas along this part of the river are teeming with people at certain times, during the times I’m out, I see very few people.
I would like to emphasize two things before I get into the photography. First, I try to always protect myself from Lyme disease when I go out. I’ve sprayed a pair of jeans with permethrin and try to wear those pants from early spring to the onset of winter. But I also always have a tick repellent spray in the car to use just in case. Second, in the winter in some places I use spikes when hiking along the river. In several areas the trails go on sheer rock or I’m on a steep bank. My worst fall was on a sloped parking lot in Minnesota Interstate State Park. When I hit a layer of wet, snow-covered ice, I was very lucky that I only broke a camera and a lens as I hit the back of my head when I fell. I have a pair of Kahtoola MICROspikes and a hiking pole with me since then.
1. Sunrise Landing: Traveling north, right after you cross the Sunrise River in the little town of Sunrise, take a right on Ferry Road. It’s a gravel road that takes you down to the river. But before you get there, you come to one of my favorite winter shots in the river valley. It’s an overlook of a horseshoe bend in the Sunrise River. The road is plowed to this point in the winter and there is enough room to park, but you can’t go much beyond here in the winter. In the other seasons, other than early spring when the road might be soft, you can get to a large parking area. There’s a footbridge over the Sunrise River, some small rapids, and the confluence of the Sunrise with the St. Croix.
I really haven’t spent much time photographing in the area, other than it’s my go-to spot when the forecast for northern lights looks good. You are facing directly north standing on the bank of the St. Croix River here, and it’s an open area with no obstructions. Unless you’re at ease alone in the woods at night, you might want a companion or two here. About half the time there are people fishing in the dark here. The language may be rough and guys that catfish in the dark do seem to like their beer, but in over half a dozen times there’s never been a problem.
2. Reed Avenue (Bordering Wild River State Park): Take a right on Reed Avenue at the four-way stop at the entrance to Wild River State Park in the spring. If your timing is right, you will soon have about a half mile of trillium wildflowers to photograph. They are on both sides of the road under mature maple trees. There are also moss-covered rocks, decaying logs, and ferns to use in your composition. The area is quite hilly, adding to the possibilities and decreasing the need to get on your stomach for those certain shots. There are “No Parking” signs for a stretch, but it’s easy to park before or beyond them and walk along the road. The area to the west is private land, but on the east it is park land and it’s fun and easy to wander in that area. This is also a good stretch for fall color.
Also, right at the park entrance is another good spot for northern lights. You can park on the road just inside the park and use the pine trees in the shot as you are shooting the sky over them. With the car right there, you might feel more at ease here in the dark if you are by yourself.
3. Taylors Falls Lion’s Park: On Highway 95 coming out of Taylors Falls, take a right at the sign to Wild Mountain. About a mile and a half up the road you come to the first of two parking lots for Lion’s Park. This is a decent area for spring ephemerals, but the best time is in the fall. There is a nice variety of fall color in the trees and wonderful stands of golden ferns.
There is a trail to another parking area to the north and then a loop among the maples. When the river is low, you can walk along the bank and get some nice reflections. This area is one of the better areas for spring migrations of songbirds.
4. Indianhead Trail, St. Croix Falls: This is perhaps my favorite hike in the spring. North on Highway 87 out of St. Croix Falls, there is another Lion’s Park. Park in the northernmost area, and you can see the trailhead. It’s a good surface and on both sides of it you can find a wide variety of spring wildflowers. Maybe a third of a mile in you come to Indianhead Creek as it cascades over rocks down to the river. Marsh marigolds can be found in abundance here.
Continuing north, you can always see the river and you have an array of wildflowers nestled around moss-covered boulders. There are literally carpets of white anemone at the right time as well as an abundance of wild geranium. It is an enjoyable walk in the fall also, although the color is not as good as across the river. Avoid this trail on a hot summer day unless you’re wearing a head net, and even then the bugs might cut your excursion short.
5. Interstate Parks (The Dalles): The main parts of both parks where the Dalles and pothole areas are located are very scenic and overrun with people at times, especially in the summer through early October. However, on foggy mornings I often head there and encounter very few people. I find the best conditions are usually in the fall, although I’ve found great conditions from early June through December. No wind, a clear sky, and a significant dip in temperature means I’m usually somewhere down along the river. At sunrise the fog is often too thick, but if you can get a low sun peeking through, you can get some amazing light. Depending on the day, an hour or two after sunrise, the fog starts to break up and I hope that I am in the right spot.
Sometimes, it’s tough shooting in the Dalles area because the Wisconsin side can be heavily shaded while across the river you have bright, direct sun. Down by the river on the Wisconsin side there are two great areas for reflections. In the morning, by the boat landing you can get nice reflections of the rocks and trees across the river.
In the late afternoon, you can get great fall reflections on the west side of Lake O the Dalles. If you do not have a Wisconsin state park sticker, a federal Golden Age Pass or National Parks and Recreational Lands Senior Pass gets you in free since the federal Ice Age Trail passes through Wisconsin Interstate Park.
In the winter after a snowfall the Minnesota side of the Dalles is one of my favorite spots for winter scenes. In the winter, this is definitely an area where I always wear my spikes and carry a hiking pole.
6. Minnesota Interstate State Park (group camp area): The most southern part of Interstate Park is one of my favorite subjects along the river and a favorite spot for spring wildflowers. I probably have more photos of a solitary tree on a small island than any other subject I’ve photographed; other than my grandson, of course. I’ve taken so many photos of it that my camera club calls it “Mike’s Tree.” It’s not exactly on a par with Pike’s Peak or the Foshay Tower; but, hey, I’ll take the honor.
Early mornings with no wind and fog are perfect conditions but with the seasons and different conditions such as the river level, I find that “perfect conditions” is an always evolving term.
The area around and beyond the group camp is a prime area for spring wildflowers. As you start on the path to the open camping areas, you can find mini carpets of trout lilies. Beyond the camping areas are some prime grounds for marsh marigolds and many hepatica, bloodroot, trillium, anemone as well as an invasive iris. The best time for these flowers usually comes as April becomes May. Although hilly, the area can be quite wet, so appropriate footwear is advised. Toward the end of summer, the red cardinal flower blossoms contrast nicely with wild yellow sunflowers along the riverbank.
7. Wisconsin Interstate S.P. (Silverbrook area): At the most southern part of this park is a neat area much more peaceful than the crowded areas in St. Croix Falls. There is a small waterfall called Silverbrook Falls that’s a worthy subject, and a pond that is open all year round.
You can get to this area with a very nice hike that starts in the group camp area and is about 2.5 miles roundtrip. It’s good for wildflowers in spring and early summer and for fall color. However, if you’re not up for the hike, there is an easier alternative. Going north on Hwy. 35 out of Osceola, you’ll see a brown Wisconsin Rustic Road Sign. It’s a winding scenic road to drive (or bike). About a hundred yards north of 113 Street, you will see a short wall with a gate across from a house. There is parking room there for three or four cars. Go down the hill maybe 100 yards and bear left at a trail junction through another pair of stone pillars. This is the former grounds of the Silverbrook mansion. Following the loop to the right will bring you to an overlook of Silverbrook Falls.
You can, with care and a recommended hiking pole, get to the bottom of the falls. It’s a challenge to photograph because it’s always in shade and the contrast can be tough. I try to go there on cloudy days. In the winter, the falls are frozen; but the pond is open. After a snowfall it’s a great subject for me, especially at sunset. The path down the hill can be icy or the snow can be fairly deep, but most of the time there have been enough people on it to leave a packed trail. A hiking pole comes in handy here.
8. Osceola Loop (Ridgeview Trail): Out of Osceola going north on Hwy 35, take the first left on County C or the Wisconsin Rustic Road. In a little over a mile, you will come to the parking for the Osceola Loop and its many photo opportunities during all seasons. There are several different paths you can take. The first is to follow the trail to the left over a small creek. This Osceola Loop Trail is hikable in all seasons. Much of it goes through a mature maple forest with wildflowers, lichen-covered logs, mushrooms, and ferns depending on the season.
Early in the hike after going between the pines, you walk along the edge of a steep slope that goes down to a creek. Often you hear the cascading creek flowing towards the St. Croix River. In the fall on a sunny day one can easily imagine being on the Appalachian Trail. There is a path down to the creek right in the area where you first get a good view of it. The creek on that side has many large boulders.
In the spring are clumps of Dutchman’s breeches, and very early you can find emerging skunk cabbage in the wet spots. In the fall you can work with the fallen leaves.
In the winter I love to go there to capture the unique ice formations formed in the creek. To get to the other side of the creek, rather than taking that first left, simply go straight ahead. You quickly reach a bridge that crosses the creek. Right away there is a spot where quite easily you can get a shot looking straight down the creek. In the spring the many rocks in the creek are covered with bright green moss. In the winter the rocks are usually snow-covered. In both seasons they are a nice contrast to the water.
One can follow the creek all the way down to the St. Croix River on that side, although there is a steep grassy bank, a couple of narrow spots, and an area that can be a little muddy. But there are many places to set up a tripod.
If you want to see the stretch I’ve described, I recommend going to the bottom of it and working your way up. Instead of veering to the left after crossing that bridge, simply continue on the path. It’s an old road to the farmstead that was once there. As you reach the bottom of the trail, there is an open grassy area to the left. The trail isn’t marked, but enough people go on it that you can see it. You come to the creek where it goes over a little dam and cascades down. Simply follow the creek back up. In places it’s a little bit of a bushwhack but well worth it. To the right of the trail down is the Chisago Loop with lots of lichen-covered rocks and logs under mostly maple trees. Personally, I don’t think it comes close to the Osceola Loop.
9. Simenstad Trail (Eagle Bluff Overlook): This trail leads to the best view of the St. Croix River Valley. The easiest path is to park right behind the BP station on the corner of Hwy. 35 and Hwy. 243 in Osceola. The path is beyond a gate easily walked around. The uphill is gradual. The Simenstad Loop is about .5 mile through a mature maple forest. If you hike the trail counterclockwise you soon come to several overlooks a little past the tower. A couple of them have branches obscuring a clear shot. One overlook provides a wonderful view to the north. I love being there when the fog starts to clear in the valley.
In the morning, if you’re lucky, you also might have an opportunity to photograph swans at eye level as they make their way usually down the river. Another bonus up there might be a chance to get the sun coming through the fog and leaves and giving you a chance at foggy sunbursts. None of the overlooks has a barrier. You are on the edge, so please be careful!
10. Riverside Trail (William O’Brien State Park): William O’Brien State Park has multiple hiking trails, but my favorite for photography is the Riverside Trail in the spring. Follow the road signs to the lower area and there is a large parking lot by Lake Alice. The trail is a loop and it’s easy to get away from people despite a beach, a campground, and a large picnic area. The spring ephemerals, especially bloodroot and hepatica, can be quite profuse. At the northern end of the loop is a small creek that is an excellent spot for marsh marigolds.
In fall mornings, you can get great morning light, especially on foggy mornings. If there is no wind, Lake Alice has great fall color reflections.
11. Standing Cedars State Natural Area: This is a large park encompassing four separate areas along the St. Croix River south of Osceola. The main photo opportunities are prairie wildflowers. In a couple of the areas are solitary oak trees standing in the midst of prairie grasses. There is also a beautiful waterfall that can be accessed from one of the parking lots. However, it means a trip down a very poor road and a rather perilous approach, so I’ll let the reader find it for himself or herself. Rather than write detailed descriptions, I suggest visiting the Standing Cedars website: https://www.standingcedars.org where you will find a link to maps of the four areas, all with hiking trails.