Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Afton State Park: River Trail: October 24th, 2015

Hello again! This is Joe- Elly has offered me an exciting opportunity to intern as a staff writer at TotWoN, so I'll be your guide to Afton State Park today.

After wrapping up the Hiking Club at Itasca, we took some time off from hiking to focus more on training for our first 5k (which we successfully completed October 10th- yay!). We were taking my dad to Wisconsin to visit my brother for a week, and figured that would be a good opportunity to get the hiking boots back into action. The day started out cloudy and cold, but by the time we arrived back at the St. Croix in mid afternoon the clouds had disappeared and it was a lovely fall day.

We wound our way down the long, hilly entrance road to the trail center and then faced a rare dilemma- where to hike? Having the Hiking Club as a guide was helpful for me in that we always had something to accomplish... now I felt cast adrift! We thought about hiking up into the prairie restoration area, but in the end decided to head for the South River Trail. The descent was fairly significant (about 200 feet) and part of the Hiking Club trail. Once we reached the river, we had a nice view of some past-peak but still pleasant colors along the St. Croix.

Hello, Wisconsin

The river trail looked awfully level, and I began to wonder if it was perhaps an old rail line. We found an old culvert that looked (and sounded) like it was made out of cast iron, and later found another with old school stone work around it, which confirmed our suspicions. There was an amazing echo in the pipe.

Helloooooo in thereeeee

It turns out this was a line built in the early 1880s from Hastings to Stillwater by the Milwaukee Road, and it was abandoned in 1979. There are plans to incorporate it into a longer bike route along the St. Coix; currently the trail map indicates it dead ends at the north and south boundaries of the park. We're big fans of rail trails so hopefully this comes to fruition. It's always enjoyable to imagine rumbling along through the scenery in an old locomotive as you hike or bike!

Water level route

We intended to hike to the south boundary of the park, but noticed an old set of stairs heading up off the path. We were close to the end of the trail anyway so we figured we might as well explore. Well.

Can you see the trail?

We made it to the top, and there definitely was a trail (including some extremely decrepit stair work at the very top), but we can see why this route was no longer on the trail map. Climbing 200 feet on a narrow footpath through thick piles of wet and slippery leaves is probably something the park wants to avoid for liability reasons if nothing else. We also had the awkward experience of breaking out of the bushes at the back of a very crowded group campsite and having to scuttle along the edges of the gathering back to the road.

Barely visible steps

The rest of the hike back to the trail center was along roads and paved trails (some of them part of the Hiking Club trail), and the late afternoon was nearly perfect for an autumn day.

Dancin' in the dead leaves

We even saw one last reminder of summer - a bright yellow flower - and a very photogenic beetle.

Hello, what's this?

Hello!  I am a Cucumber Beetle - I'm a pest, but a very photogenic pest

Overall, this was a great return visit and with Afton being only 45 minutes from home, I'm sure we'll be back many times in the future.


  1. Afton is great! It is my favorite state park for a day trip in this section of the state. I love the variety of trails that it offers! I think my favorite trail is Trout Brook.

    1. We'll have to try the Trout Brook trail next time! After so many years of Hiking Club Trails, it was both refreshing and kind of overwhelming to have a choice of trail. Afton is so close by that we'll definitely be back.

  2. It would be fantastic to have a bike trail along the river like that. It seems to me that in the not too distant past, there was talk of extending the Gateway trail to Stillwater, and building a trail from Stillwater north to the southern end of the Willard Munger trail. How great would it be to be able to bike on dedicated trails from one end of the state to the other?

    1. I've biked the Gateway to the eastern terminus, and then gone into Stillwater. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The ride TO the St Croix was easy enough, but once we turned around to head home we realized that we'd have to go uphill almost the entire way back to the Gateway. And what an uphill it was, up the bluffs to flat land. We wound up pooping out and having to flag down a car for a ride. It was terrible!

      Even so, I would still advocate for the Gateway to go into Stillwater. Maybe with a warning sign. :-)

      Minnesota is so good at Rail Trails and creating designated bike trails. I think it's just a matter of time and $$. And advocacy!