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Minnesota's Backyard: River views, billion-year-old rock formations draw visitors to Interstate State Park

The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.

Interstate State Park
Naturalist Jenni Webster leads a tour tour of the Bake Oven pothole at Interstate State Park. The park offers daily 45-minute tours of the potholes, which were formed by the swirling motion of water and sand amid the rock cliffs.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
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TAYLORS FALLS, Minn. — In roughly 99% of Minnesota, potholes are something people try to avoid, in spite of what that guy down at the new tire showroom might tell you.

Welcome to the 1%.

At Interstate State Park there are seemingly always improvements being made, but the primary attraction, namely the solid rock cliffs along the St. Croix River are roughly one billion (with a ‘b’) years old, formed when molten lava poked up through a fissure in the planet’s crust and hardened along what would become the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

By contrast the river — which today divides the Land of 10,000 Lakes from America’s Dairyland — is a relatively new addition to the landscape, as it started flowing and carving a stunningly scenic trench in that solid rock only about 10,000 years ago. Like so much of the water that defines the state’s landscape, the St. Croix came along when melting glaciers helped create the valley.

As the river flowed, fast-moving eddies and whirlpools of water, sand and rock carved deep holes into the rock. Known today as “potholes,” these natural phenomena are far different than the road hazards that mean getting a front-end alignment job every spring. There are plenty of signs explaining the geology of the site and how these attractions formed, and naturalists on site offer daily 45-minute tours of the pothole area, for a deeper dive into the hows and whys.


“We’re one of the smaller state parks in the system but we’re one of the busiest because there are a lot of different attractions that people access, and the glacial potholes are definitely among the most popular,” said Jenni Webster, an interpretive naturalist at Interstate. Webster noted the surrounding landscape is dominated by rolling prairie until the river valley appears suddenly and dramatically.

Minnesota's backyard logo

“For a lot of people, maybe they’re coming from the Twin Cities and they’re driving down Highway 8 and you get just a mile away from the park and all of a sudden this valley opens up with rock outcrops as you get closer to the river,” she said. “It’s kind of a whole different world than the landscape around it and I think that’s kind of the appeal for some folks.”

While signs caution against swimming in the river and the dangers of jumping from the cliffs into the water, no matter how tempting that might seem on a hot day, there is water access in the form of tour boats and a private canoe rental outfitter that can set visitors up for a seven-mile paddle down the St. Croix, then pick them up in Osceola, Wisconsin, for a ride back to their vehicles.

History happens

Dedicated in 1895, just four years after Itasca became the flagship in the state park system, Interstate is Minnesota’s second-oldest such public park. On the other side of the St. Croix, Wisconsin’s sister state park (also named “Interstate”) is the oldest park in that state’s system. While there is a separate admission charge to visit both parks, it is common for hikers to get the view from both sides of the river on a nice day.

Notable nearby

From the natural wonders in the St. Croix valley, it is less than a five-minute drive to a chance to hike among some of Minnesota’s most notable man-made wonders. At the Franconia Sculpture Park , visitors can wander and browse more than 100 large-scale works of art. This 50-acre outdoor museum was founded in 1996 and has golf carts for rent, offering those with limited mobility an easier way to see all that is on display there.

Located not far from the more popular parks along Lake Superior, George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is home to wilderness, challenging terrain and real solitude on the wooded trails that reach cascades and waterfalls along the Manitou River.
At 500 square miles, Minnesota is home to the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states, and a mile-long boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area allows visitors to explore this unique and vital ecosystem.
It's a far cry and a long plane ride from California, but at Tettegouche State Park, visitors to the North Shore can find both the water and as close as we get to the mountains in Minnesota.
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
Our summer tour of Minnesota's public spaces continues in a southeastern Minnesota oasis that can take visitors up onto the bluffs, into the trout streams deep underneath the ground and back in time, as Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a little bit of something to appeal to a wide range of interests.
The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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