Summer is a magical season. Clouds part and the earth comes alive around us. I felt it this morning, sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee and a very large German Shepard, listening to the chirping birds and looking out at the sculptures currently shaping the park’s landscape. It was a brief peaceful moment before the chaos that is a summer day at Franconia began. Here at the park it is our busiest time of the year – which means it is also the perfect time to pay us a visit! Fellowship Artists are working away on their pieces, the Hot Metal Artists are starting to roll in, the Intern Artists are in the groove, and the July sun is shining overhead.
But we are not the only ones keeping busy here in the beautiful St. Croix River Valley. The area is flourishing with summertime activity, so why not pack up the car, pack up the kids, and have yourself a little weekend staycation, just an hour outside of the Twin Cities. Not sure where to go? Fear not, we are here to be your River Valley guides. Last month we looked at things to do in the St. Croix and Taylors Falls regions (check out that post here). Today we will be taking a trip south to follow the St. Croix River itself, highlighting the fun there is to be had in Osceola, Stillwater, and everywhere in between.
The river is only a fifteen-minute walk from the sculpture park. On especially hot days we like to throw on our suits and head down to Franconia Township’s Landing for a dip, but you don’t have to get wet to enjoy this beautiful site. Franconia Bluffs, a newly-established Scientific and Natural Area, is a great place to observe the river’s surrounding ecosystem, and is home to at least 88 different bird species (an eager bird-watcher can print off a checklist here). State Natural Areas such as this are dotted along the entire river, and are always good for a hike or picnic. We recommend, in particular, the Osceola Bedrock Glades and Standing Cedars. If you prefer your nature to be a little more controlled, the Osceola State Fish Hatchery rears 300,000 Rainbow Trout annually and can be toured by appointment. Ten minutes south of Franconia on Highway 95 and you are in downtown Osceola, Wisconsin. Situated directly on the river, there is no shortage of outdoor fun to be had in this charming town. Go for a swim or relax on the beach at Osceola Landing.
Cascade Falls, a 25-foot waterfall just off the town’s main drag, is a must-see (come at night to see the falls illuminated with colorful lights!). If you are looking for something a little more active, head out for a hike – with over 1,000 miles of trail in the area you will have plenty of choices, but we recommend the Osceola Loop of the Ridgeview Trail for an adventure both children and adults will enjoy. Explore the river even further by renting a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard from Riverwood Canoe.
Just a few minutes out of downtown is one of our favorite organic farms in the area, Crystal Ball Farms. Their cheese curds and chocolate milk will rock your world. Outdoor adventures got you beat? Rest your legs while taking a ride on the Osceola & St. Croix Valley Railway. This heritage railroad takes you along 20 miles of the river’s sandstone bluffs, or through ten miles of Wisconsin farmland. They also offer special themed rides, like the Murder Mystery Dinner Train, so be sure to check their website for dates. Tickets can be purchased at the SOO Line Depot building, built in 1916.
After that, search for treasures at Osceola Antiques, a large antique mall with reasonable prices and a huge variety of offerings. You could also get creative at the St. Croix ArtBarn, which houses a gallery and hosts plenty of special events and classes. While you are in downtown, refuel at one of Osceola’s many eateries. The WaterShed Café is a local favorite, go there for breakfast and a patio view of Geiger Falls. Nosh on some pizza at BrickFire Pizza, then grab a drink at PY’s or Tippy Canoes. If you are planning to make your visit a multiple-day affair, book a room at the St. Croix River Inn – they’ve got in-room gourmet breakfast, a fireplace in every suite, and unbeatable views of the river.
For the history lovers out there, a visit to Scandia, MN, slightly west of the river, could be worth the detour. Here you will find the Gammelgården Museum, an open-air space that examines the lives of early Swedish immigrants. Take a tour with a guide in period-appropriate garb, take a peek at the oldest Lutheran church in the state, and pick up some authentic Swedish goods at the Butik gift shop while you’re there. Scandia is also home to the Hay Lake School and the Erickson Log House, which were both built in the late 1800s and now operate as museums.
Travel a little further south and you will hit William O’Brien State Park. Hiking, camping, fishing, canoeing – these 1,520 acres have a little something for everyone. You could spend an afternoon paddling down the river and trying your hand at catching a walleye or trout, or make it a weeklong affair of exploring the forests, marshes and prairies. If the kids are dragging or you are craving a little something sweet, the St. Croix Chocolate Co., just five minutes further south in Marine on St. Croix, has got you covered. Their small-batch, handmade chocolates are truly special, and often incorporate fruits and herbs foraged that morning. Maybe ice cream is more your thing? Well lucky you, the General Scoop (part of the Marine General Store) is right down the street. Indulge in some black cherry flavor while relaxing on their new patio overlooking Marine’s Old Mill Stream.
Finally, if you are headed to the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Stillwater on your way home. One of Minnesota’s oldest towns, Stillwater is chock full of things to see and do. A few of my favorites are strolling through Teddy Bear Park (a great place to take kids) and wine and beer tastings at Saint Croix Vineyards and Lift Bridge Brewing Company, respectively (not so good for the little ones). For an entire afternoon of fun (much of it free), check out Aamodt’s Apple Farm. Aamodt’s offers apple picking, of course, but they’ve also got hay wagon tours, a goat farm, and even hot air balloon rides!
Lastly, if you want even more ice cream, beloved local haunt Nelson’s is known for their comically huge portions. So come visit the neighborhood! We at Franconia are lucky to be surrounded by such wonderful nature and friendly communities. It is beautiful out and there is so much to do, simply follow Highway 95 along the river for a weekends-worth of sights and activities.
For extra fun, be sure to stop by the park this Saturday, July 11th – it is the second concert of our Music @ Franconia series, and we will be dancing and dining with the Roe Family Singers, Duck for the Oyster, and August Blues. See you there!
Stay tuned for Part 3 in our summer staycation series where we will explore the fantastic Lakes Area communities along Highway 8!