Weekend Guide: what to do at Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park

The rocky outlooks of this Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park are unbelievable! If you are looking for amazing views and enjoy traversing uneven terrain, look no further! Interstate State Park is also an amazing place for paddling and boating as it is on the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway. If the views from the trails aren’t enough for you, there are certainly ways to get closer. Try rock climbing to really get you up close and personal! This park is especially great for those looking for short, beautiful, and challenging hikes, rock climbers, paddlers, and fishermen. It is a popular park so if you plan to camp, reserve early. If you are looking for solitude try Straight Lake State Park instead. It is about 30 minutes north. Bikes and horses are not allowed in Wisconsin Interstate State Park.

A Little Background

Interstate State Park is over 1,300 acres and is Wisconsin’s oldest State park. It was established in 1900s, a quick 5 years later than its neighbor, Minnesota’s Interstate state park which is only about 300 acres. Check out the Ice Age Interpretive Center near the entrance of Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park for more history and information about how the park came to have the rocky formations and potholes.

As a brief explanation for the amazing geology, Wisconsin and much of the North use to be covered in ice during various periods of history. These ice sheets carried rocks from areas farther north such as Isle Royal National park, the Gogebic Range, and the Canadian Shield. During periods of high water flow, certain rocks, called Grinders, would spin into the basalt rock and form deep depressions which are called Potholes. These can be seen on the Potholes Trail on both the Wisconsin and Minnesota side.

The Ice age Interpretive center is run by the Friends of Interstate Park and Straight Lake Park. They also run a small store and manage various events such as canoe lessons, scavenger hunts, and trail runs through out the year. Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park is a popular park likely because it’s only an hour from Minneapolis-St Paul.

Hiking for views

Pothole Trail at Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park

My two favorite hikes at Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park were the Pothole Trail and Summit Rock trail. Both of these trails are a half mile or less and boast AMAZING views of the river. They have rocky uneven terrain. For some this may be a deterrent but for others it really adds to the fun of the trail. Lots of rocks to climb over and jump on make this an exciting hike. There are many unmarked trails and multiple routes to the same over looks. While this can get confusing while looking at the map, generally they all seem to loop around and end in the same place.

Both the Pothole and Summit Rock trails have steep drops at the river’s edge. We saw rock climbers setting up rope on both trails. I kept a close eye on my kiddos but was comfortable with us enjoying the views, my husband is a bit nervous around heights and was less keen on letting the kids out of arms reach. Regardless, keep a close eye on your kids and watch out for ledges and rimrocks.

Pothole Trail has the best example of the pothole geologic features on the Wisconsin side. These potholes are depressions, some are shallow while some are up to 80 feet deep! The Minnesota Interstate State Park also has an excellent trail to see the Potholes including some trails that allow you to hike into the larger potholes themselves. There used to be one with a stairwell that went into the hole however it is currently flooded and inaccessible.

General Hiking

There are over 9 miles of hiking trails in Interstate State Park. Most of the individual trails are between between a half mile and a full mile long. You can easily put them together for a longer hike or you can pick and choose which trails to go on depending on the motivation and skill of your group.

The trail recommended for pets by the office is the Skyline trail as it is shaded and keeps away from the rocky bluffs. The longest trail is the Silverbrook trail and the Silverbrook loop. Towards the southern part of the trail is a waterfall and the remains of an old copper mine.

If you want to see the waterfall but aren’t up for the longer hike, there is a parking area labeled “Copper Mine Trail” at the southern edge of the park. You do not go into the park’s main entrance to get here. The trails to the waterfall are level and easily accommodate walking a couple hikers wide. Once you get to the viewpoint of the waterfall there is a VERY steep trail to the base. My 4 year old made it with the help of my husband but it was way too steep to consider carrying my two year so we waited on the main trail.

A section of the Ice Age Trail crosses Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park. This is one of only 11 National Scenic Trails. It showcases some of the amazing geology in Wisconsin from the glaciers that once covered parts of the state. Check out the Ice Age Trail Alliance for more details.

Rock Climbing

Rappel right off that edge!

Interstate State Park in Wisconsin offers rock climbing and bouldering. Individuals don’t need permits but instructors need a permit from the park office. We saw many climbers at various parts of the park hiking in with either ropes or crash pads. If you watch the rocks you will see areas with chalk covering the rocks which climbers use to keep their hands from getting slippery. Click here for more information from The Mountain Project about climbing at the park. It provides bouldering and climbing routes. For guided tours check out Devil’s Lake Climbing Guides or check out this site for more information about difficulty levels.

Swimming and Playground

The sandy beach at Dalles Lake in Interstate State Park

Dalles Lake is in the middle of Interstate Park on the Wisconsin side. It is perfect for swimming and there is a large sandy beach there. There is a large stone beach house which was closed when I was there. You have to walk a few hundred yards from the parking lot to the beach. You walk right past a simple playground. There is a single slide, a few swings, and a REAL rock to climb on surrounded by the soft landing of wood chips in the playground area. The playground looked fun but we had more fun climbing all over the rocky trails.

You cannot swim in the St Croix River North of the boat launch. No cliff diving allowed. They have this posted all over and it doesn’t surprise me. Jumping off looks very tempting especially on a hot day!

Paddling and boating

You have two choices here, the Lake O’ the Dalles or the St Croix River. For the lake, only non motorized crafts are allowed. The lake is fairly small and very calm. There is a small kayak launch at the southwest corner of the lake which is right next to the road. You will have to park just past the launch between River Bottoms Picnic area and the River Bluff Trail.

Paddling the St Croix River

If you don’t mind some current and would like more magnificent views then check out the river! You can use the boat launch in Interstate State Park just north of the River Bottoms Picnic Area. Check out the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway for more information about routes and the best place to put in and get out. There are lots of options! There are also lots of touring companies as well. It is a bit more costly than bringing your own boat but sometimes it is worth having someone there who knows the area and can ferry your group between put in and take out points.


Fishing is considered “top-notch” for a variety of fish. There is a nice fishing pier on the Lake O’ the Dalles in the middle of the park. It is a handicap accessible pier on the North west side of the Lake. There is a fish hatchery just to the North of the park that offers free self guided tours during the week and helps stock trout in various areas of Wisconsin.

Camping and Picnics

Camping is available at two sites, one on the north end and one on the south. There is a total of 82 sites for families as well as two primitive group sites. There are showers and flush toilets at the north campground. In contrast, if you are looking to get farther from the highway sounds and for more rustic feel, stick to the south campground. The south campground has pit toilets only. Interstate State Park is a very popular park, I recommend reserving your site early.

River Bottoms Picnic Area

River Bottoms Picnic Area is a great spot to have a picnic lunch. There are large grassy areas all with river views and plenty of picnic tables. It’s a great place to relax without having to worry about the rocky terrain that is found in many other areas of the park.

Minnesota Interstate State Park

If you liked the Wisconsin Interstate State Park, be sure to check out the Minnesota side of Interstate State Park. It is a much smaller park but with many of the same great features. The Pothole Trail on the Minnesota side is more developed than the Wisconsin side and has stairs that take you down into the largest Pothole. There is also water access, camping, and more rock climbing. Check out the Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours for a water view without the need for paddling. If you are looking for biking, check out the Gandy Dancer State Trail.

Nearby Activities

Trollhaugen Outdoor Recreation has high ropes courses and zip lines. Another touristy adventure place is Wild Mountain. It has go-karts, an alpine slide, water slides, and a lazy river. If you have animal lovers then you should check out Fawn-Doe-Rosa. It’s a wildlife education park and has a petting zoo. To to check out a local art scene, go to the Franconia Sculpture Park. If you like single track, check out the Wooly Mountain Bike Trails.

Nearby Food

Both St Croix Wisconsin and Taylor Falls Minnesota have small downtowns each with some restaurants. Let’s start with the Wisconsin side. There is an Indian place called The Vegetarian or if you are looking for a steak house try Dalles House Restaurant and Lounge. Just up the road to the East you will find Logger’s Bar and Grill and Our Place. If you are interested in morning sweets check out Uncle’s Donuts. I couldn’t find a website but they are on google maps and near Logger’s and certainly worth a stop. There is a local brewery called Trap Rock Brewing Company right next to the mountain bike trails that sometimes hosts food trucks. For coffee, check out 3 Arrows Coffee. Valley Sweets is the place to go for ice cream.

On the Minnesota side we had fun at The Drive in Restaurant. It was opened in 1956 and has the same feel, the music, the poodle skirts and dang good burgers and root beer. They have a mini golf course next store and give coupons with your check. Other places to check out are the The JuneBerry Cafe which can make sandwiches to go, picnic anyone? There is a traditional appearing pub called The Goat Saloon and across the street is Schooney’s Malt Shop and Pizzeria.

In Conclusion

All things considered, Wisconsin’s Interstate State Park is absolutely worth a stop. Like many great state parks in Wisconsin, it has great hikes. They views at the top of the trails are certainly amazing! The water is beautiful and getting out on it, whether by paddling, boating, or swimming, is well worth it. Climbing on the rocks and potholes was our favorite part. I’m looking forward to going back when I can participate in some of the legit rock climbing with crash pads or ropes. The towns of St Croix Falls, Wisconsin and Taylor Falls, Minnesota had plenty to do to keep us busy for the weekend.

If you love Wisconsin State Parks check out some of the other parks I’ve written about here.

Published by Jamie

I was raised on a Christmas tree farm in Wisconsin. I have always been an adventurer, and lover of the great outdoors. I like to enjoy the amazing state of Wisconsin in all weather and share the experience with my kiddos, my husband, my parents, or just my dog.

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