Contributed by Greg Seitz of St. Croix 360
The St. Croix Valley is home to many fascinating plants and animals, and great parks and preserves where you can see them. Make Stillwater your base camp for nature exploration.
The only species that might love the St. Croix Valley more than humans are birds. The area surrounding Stillwater, Minnesota is an oasis for plants, animals, and people, with diverse natural habitat at the many parks and nature preserves.
I love exploring the nooks and crannies of the St. Croix Valley, from the channels where the river weaves between floodplain forests, to the seeping springs and white pines of the bluffs, to the prairies, forests, and marshes of the uplands. Each hosts its own unique web of wildlife, which is one reason there are so many great opportunities to enjoy nature near Stillwater.
Observing these creatures is not just for serious birders and naturalists, but easily experienced by anyone willing to explore a little. So, in honor of Earth Day, let’s learn more!
The locations below are just a sample of the public lands in the area, and the wildlife you might see. Almost everything included is free. Please be a good steward when you visit special areas: Leave No Trace and Recreate Responsibly. Many parks have suffered from overuse and crowding recently. Please do your part so we don’t “love nature to death.”
1. The St. Croix River
The river and its bluffs burst with life during the breeding season and the luxurious summer days that follow. Bring your own boat, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, or work with a local rental company or guide service.
Five minutes from downtown Stillwater, a rookery is within view from the Boom Site Boat Landing, and much more beckons beyond. The parking lot for boat trailers is usually full, but there’s another parking lot perfect for paddlers immediately south hidden in the trees.
I’ve seen killdeer right at the landing, and kingfisher chattering from tree to tree. On the scraggly island in the middle of the river, great blue herons, egrets, and double-crested cormorants nest together in a raucous community.
Upstream is “Little Venice,” where the river is braided among long, skinny islands. On the sandstone banks on the Minnesota side, cliff swallows swarm around nests in the soft rock. I’ve also seen one of my favorite birds, the bright yellow and blue-gray prothonotary warbler, in the area. This is about as far north as that floodplain species will nest.
Local silent sport guiding service Wahoo! Adventures offers kayak outings to the rookery every Friday morning from May to August, or you can schedule a private trip. I’m also partnering with Wahoo! to lead four Saturday morning kayak trips this summer.
If you prefer a prop over a paddle, pontoon boats are available for rent nearby from Stillwater Boat Club and Rentals.
2. St. Croix Savanna Scientific and Natural Area, Bayport
This highly-protected place not only offers prairie and oak savanna, and the plants and animals that depend on these natural habitats, but also one heck of a view of the St. Croix River. The site is perched atop a steep south-facing bluff near Bayport, protecting a rare example of a hill prairie. The 150 acres are home to sprawling old bur oaks, singing meadowlarks, and whimsical prairie smoke flowers.
In just two weeks last June, community scientists observed 170 species as part of a self-guided “bioblitz” sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources. Ninety-six species of birds have been recorded at the site including some of my favorites: eastern towhees, least flycatchers, and scarlet tanagers. Osprey nest nearby — I saw one at a nest site already this spring — and they can be seen hunting above the river.
During migration, you may see waterfowl flying up the river, from trumpeter swans to pelicans. Two rare plants are found here: kittentails and James’ polanisia, which are designated as threatened and endangered, respectively. Kittentails is one of the special plants that define the St. Croix Valley, thriving on its warmest, driest, most protected prairies.
While you can access the site by parking next to Highway 95 and scrambling up the hill, I prefer the north trailhead, which takes you through the heart of the habitat without the busy highway or the climb. This parking lot is accessed from Stagecoach Trail, please drive safely through the Inspiration neighborhood. More information about St. Croix Savanna.
3. St. Croix Wetland Management District, New Richmond
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and active volunteer supporters manage 7,500 acres in 41 sites just across the river from Stillwater, restoring and maintaining wetlands, prairie, and oak savanna, primarily for waterfowl breeding. This area was the eastern extremity of prairie before European settlement, with a lobe of dry soils, pothole lakes, and grasslands extending into Wisconsin from the Great Plains.
Many of the properties are lakes and marshes that waterfowl use for breeding, and can be difficult to access because of the wet terrain. But, a few spots let the nature-lover get a glimpse into the wild world. There is an excellent and easy-to-find trail right at the Wetland Management District’s headquarters in New Richmond. It loops through 75 acres of hilly prairie with a few ponds and wetlands.
In past years, birders have sighted sedge wrens, great-crested flycatchers, clay-colored sparrows, and many more grassland birds here. There are wildflowers like harebell and long-lived leadplant, and a bounty of butterflies, dragonflies, and bumblebees.
To get there, cross the St. Croix Crossing bridge to Wisconsin and follow Highway 64 for 12 miles, then turn right on 95th Street. The parking area and trailhead is a half-mile down on the right. Maps of all properties are available from the Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District.
4. Jackson Meadow, Marine on St. Croix
To see habitat restoration in progress, and unique land protection strategies, visit Jackson Meadow, a cluster of unique homes set among 190-acres of permanently protected lands open to the public. This perpetual preservation was a key part of the neighborhood’s development. A major restoration project is underway on part of the site, with the removal of woody plants to provide more grassland habitat. It can look intense and destructive, but disturbance through fire or other means is part of this area’s natural history.
Wildflowers to be found include pale gentian and jack-in-the-pulpit. The wooded parts of the preserve are home to a wide variety of fungus. Something about this sunny area on top of the bluff always seems to attract a lot of monarchs. Other butterflies seen here include silver-spotted skipper, painted lady, and eastern tiger swallowtail. The rare smooth greensnake has been sighted in past years. Birds include eastern kingbird, northern flicker, bluebirds, scarlet tanagers, and many more.
Visit the Jackson Meadow website for a trail map.
5. Belwin Conservancy, Afton
This nonprofit protects more than 10 percent of the watershed of Valley Creek, with a mix of broad prairies, forests, savanna, and significant stretches of the trout stream at its heart. The 1,400 acres are actively managed to remove invasive species and restore natural ecosystems. Not all of it is open to the public, but there are great areas that are.
The popular Stagecoach Prairie trailhead offers looping trails through more than 200 acres of rolling prairie, where I’ve seen many monarchs and a diverse array of dragonflies. The endangered rusty-patched bumblebee has also been observed in the area.
The 280-acre Education Center property is usually in use by St. Paul Public Schools students and closed to the public. But, this summer it will be open every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are great views of Valley Creek’s valley, steep prairies, and a wetland complex where there are beavers and, one day, more turtles basking in the sun than I could believe.
Right from the road by the Bison Prairie, I’ve seen eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, and savannah sparrows. The prairie will host a herd of bison again this summer, with a new and improved observation tower nearing completion. It’s breathtaking to see these creatures in their native tallgrass prairie habitat. Across Division Street from the bison, public trails wind through prairie and forest near a large complex of athletic fields. I’ve even seen killdeer nesting right by a fence around a baseball field.
Maps and more:
I encourage you to use maps and other sources to discover your own special spots. Here are some places to start:
- St. Croix National Scenic Riverway Maps
- Recreation Compass – Minnesota DNR
- Park & Trail Maps – Washington County
- Stillwater Area Observations – iNaturalist
- Washington County Bird Sightings – eBird
- Stillwater Tourism Bureau – Things to Do, Places to Stay and Events!
Greg Seitz is the founder of St. Croix 360, an online publication that shares river stories to inspire stewardship. He grew up in Stillwater, and today lives in the woods north of town with his wife and two children.