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Trail mix

For people on the go, the river town of St. Croix Falls is a crossroads.

Bicycling on the Gandy Dancer.

© Beth Gauper

Bicyclists ride the Gandy Dancer just north of St. Croix Falls.

In St. Croix Falls, Wis., all paths lead to enlightenment.

Hiking on the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail, bicycling the 48-mile Gandy Dancer State Trail or paddling on the 252-mile St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, people follow a path that was cut by a 600-foot-high wall of ice and traversed by woodland nomads, fur traders and railway laborers.

Visitors can soak up lore galore about ancient and natural history. But the real revelation here is St. Croix Falls, the unassuming river village that's at the start of it all.

It could have been a boom town during the logging era but lost out to Stillwater, which got the sawmills, the wealth and, later, the tourists.

Across the river, Taylors Falls also became a favorite of tourists, who board tour boats to see the famous rock formations on the St. Croix Falls side the Old Man of the Dalles, the Lion's Head and the Cross, for which French fur traders named the river.

Over the years, many tourists found no reason to cross the river into Wisconsin.

But lately, St. Croix Falls has become a destination for people who want to go places. It's the western terminus of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which traces the last glacier as it began to melt and retreat northward, leaving a marvelously lumpy patchwork of rock, rubble and river gorges.

It's the southern trailhead of the Gandy Dancer, a scenic crushed-limestone bicycle trail named for the rail workers who rhythmically swung pickaxes and hammers made by the Gandy Tool Co.

And it's the headquarters of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, with a new visitors center that helps paddlers plan trips from the Namekagon to the St. Croix's confluence with the Mississippi.

There are another 12 trails in Interstate State Park, which became Wisconsin's first state park in 1900 and is the start of the Ice Age Trail. South of town, two loops of the three-mile Ridge View Trail start from County Road S, a 4.3-mile stretch that is  Rustic Road 101.

Plan B for a rainy day

In fine weather, the trails are the place to be. But one Saturday in July, as I took shelter in a St. Croix Falls bookstore and watched floodwaters blow manhole covers off the streets, I was glad St. Croix Falls also has a shopping, theater and wine trail.

My husband and I had come to hike and bike, but as we watched greenish storm clouds approach, we switched to Plan B.

A pothole in Interstate State Park.

© Beth Gauper

In Interstate Park, potholes formed in rock.

The power was out at the Polk County Information Center, but clerk Ann Perszyk told us about the current production of the St. Croix Festival Theatre, which stages a full season of high-quality plays and brings in well-known musicians for concerts at its 1917 brick playhouse downtown.

She also mentioned the growing Earth Arts consortium of local artists, which holds a spring studio tour.

"We're getting quite bohemian here in St. Croix Falls, which is kind of neat," she said. "We're getting a lot of artists, and they're trying to bring in some different things, to broaden the horizons of this little town."

So we went a little farther afield than we'd planned, driving out to Centuria and the Orchard House Gallery.

Proprietors Kelly Green and ceramics artist Win Herberg had a houseful of shoppers in their gallery, across the drive from an orchard operated by Herberg's brother, and I was pleased to find a lovely tile from Stone Hollow Tile in St. Croix Falls, only $32.

From Centuria, we drove east to Balsam Lake, where the handsome Paradise Landing is the third incarnation of a longtime lakeside gathering spot; the inviting stone patio was waterlogged, and the power outage had put the cooks behind, but the mushroom-Swiss burger I eventually got was a masterpiece.

We made a loop by heading west to Chateau St. Croix, a winery that proprietors Troy and Laura Chamberlin built to replicate the atmosphere of vineyards in Europe and especially Germany's Rhine Valley, where they lived while Troy served in the U.S. Air Force.

With its classical statuary, peaked roofs and stone-look facade, it's an unusual but welcome sight in the rolling St. Croix countryside.

While we were there, a wedding party of young people was running in and out of the tasting room, designed to look like a 16th-century English hunting lodge.

At the door, the bride waited next to a knight in shining armor, and around a chess table, a foursome of older folks in high-backed carved chairs was having a great time sipping wine and people-watching.

"It's a good thing the wedding's starting, because the pastor's starting to stagger a little," cracked Casey Schultz of Amery, Wis., who with his wife, Marie, had brought friends who were celebrating their 40th anniversary.

By then, the sun had come out, but it was too late to hit the trails. So instead, we drove to the Ice Age Interpretive Center in Interstate State Park and walked the Pothole Trail, where whirlpools laced with sand and gravel drilled cylindrical holes in solid rock.

Chauteau St. Croix Winery.

© Torsten Muller

Chateau St. Croix Winery offers tours and holds events on its picturesque grounds.

Then we went down to Lake O' the Dalles, where longtime re-enactor Dennis Hoffa of Danbury had become Jacques for the evening program, "Voyageur Stories."

Paddling up to the shore in a canoe, Jacques explained that the year was 1800, when French-Canadian voyageurs paddled bales of beaver pelts and trade goods on the rivers between Montreal and the St. Croix, often lugging 180-pound packs over portages.

"You people will have Lewis and Clark and think they are great, and they were," he said. "However, the fur traders did that every year. It was nothing special, just our life."

For a Plan B, it was a pretty good day. But a few weeks later, we got to try Plan A.

Gliding on the Gandy Dancer

This time, we stayed at Wissahickon Farms Country Inn, a cottage whose proprietor, Steve Litzkow, knows the area's byways better than anybody. Because of a head injury suffered in the military, he has narcolepsy and can't drive, so he rides his bike everywhere and uses a horse and carriage when he needs to carry things.

"Around town here, I'm either known as the bike guy, because I repaired bikes for 17 years out of my house, or the Amish guy," Litzkow said. "When I'm in my buggy, it takes me 10 minutes to get up to Wal-Mart and 20 minutes to get into the store, because people have to stop me to talk and pet the horse."

His home, barn and cottage on 30 wooded acres adjoin the Gandy Dancer trail on the edge of town, so we got right on the trail and rode to Luck, through Centuria and Milltown.

The trail parallels Wisconsin 35, but we saw it only twice between towns; trees lining the trail have grown so tall they create a pleasing tunnel effect, with branches that arch over the trail.

Just short of the Wissahickon, Torsten blew a tire, and Arne Lagus of St. Croix Falls stopped to check on us.

The 1917 auditorium in St. Croix Falls.

© Beth Gauper

A 1917 former vaudeville playhouse is home to the St. Croix Festival Theatre.

"Oh, Steve'll fix you up," he said. He and his wife, Miriam, had just made the same 30-mile round trip to Luck, but Lagus said he preferred the northern section.

"This is OK, but I like Frederic to Danbury better because it goes over creeks and rivers," he said.

Litzkow did fix us up in his basement walk-out repair shop, and the next morning, we rode the other way on the trail, past the Polk County Information Center and up to Interstate State Park, past Lake O' the Dalles to the riverfront picnic grounds, where we watched the Taylors Falls Princess chug by with a load of tourists.

As we cruised past white pines and wildflowers, we started to think Litzkow's car-free lifestyle was not so bad.

"See, these people in cars are really missing out," Torsten said.

From the park, the first seven miles of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail head down the hill and into town, over Wellness Esker, up through Riegel Park and back down to Lions Park on the river.

I walked it once years ago but got lost on the Mindy Creek section, near a neighborhood of new homes.

Today, that's one of the best-marked and most scenic sections, next to the newly completed, -mile Zillmer Point loop, named for the Milwaukee lawyer who founded the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, now the Ice Age Trail Alliance, in 1958.

Near the end of Day Road, we easily found the beginning of the Mindy Creek trail and began following the yellow blazes and white Ice Age signs into a dark and rocky ravine, emerging to a meadow with outcroppings of volcanic rock and a view of Minnesota over the treetops.

From there, we descended through private woods thank you, Mr. or Ms. Landowner to Wisconsin 35 and Lions Park, from which the Indianhead section heads north.

Wissahickon Cottage in St. Croix Falls.

© Beth Gauper

Wissahickon Farms Country Inn adjoins the Gandy Dancer trail.

We walked on it for half a mile, which is how we discovered what has to be one of the sweetest campsites ever, a clearing right on the river with its own little sand beach, picnic table, tent pad, fire ring and vault toilet.

"Wow, it doesn't get any better than this," Torsten said. "The National Park Service: your tax dollars at work."

Someday, we'll come back to paddle the canoe route, too. Winter also is a good time to hit the trails; there's skiing at Interstate State Park and nearby Balsam Branch and snowmobiling on the Gandy Dancer.

No matter what the season, there's no reason to stay put in St. Croix Falls.

Trip Tips: St. Croix Falls

Getting there: It's an hour east of the Twin Cities, across from Taylors Falls, Minn.

Accommodations: Wissahickon Farms Country Inn is a replica of a frontier store in Pennsylvania, built largely of old barn planks, and started life as a country store in Chisago City.

It's a comfortable place to stay, with a kitchenette, double whirlpool and pullout sofa, and it's furnished with flea-market treasures. The rate includes continental breakfast. 715-483-3986.

Dining: In downtown St. Croix Falls, the Vegetarian serves Indian food.

Walking the Ice Age trail.

© Beth Gauper

A hiker walks the Ice Age Trail north of town.

In Balsam Lake, 15 miles east of St. Croix Falls, Paradise Landing serves comfort food with some interesting twists. From U.S. 8, take County Road 46 north to Balsam Lake, then County Road I for a mile; 715-485-3210.

St. Croix Festival Theatre: It stages plays and hosts concerts year-round.

In 2016, it's staging in repertory "Clue: The Musical,'' "Private Lives,'' and "Steel Magnolias'' in summer.

In fall, it's offering "On Golden Pond,'' and its holiday shows are "A Laura Ingalls Wilder Christmas'' and "The Santaland Diaries.'' Call 715-483-3387.

Wineries: Chateau St. Croix Winery & Vineyard is off Wisconsin 87 north of town. Tours are $6 and include a souvenir wine glass.

Dancing Dragonfly Winery is off U.S. 8 east of town. It offers walking tours and tastings.

Interstate State Park: In late October, it holds Halloween Fun in the Park, with games, contests, crafts and refreshments. The annual Candlelight Night in winter includes skiing, hiking and/or snowshoeing on three different trails.

Vehicle permits are $7 daily for residents, $25 annual and $10/$35 for nonresidents. There's also a $5 hourly pass. 715-483-3747.

Ice Age Trail: Get maps and information from the Polk County Information Center, at the intersection of U.S. 8 and Wisconsin 35.

Bicycling: Bicyclists can now ride straight on to the Gandy Dancer State Trail from the Polk County Information Center, which sells trail passes, $4 daily, $15 yearly (they're good on all of Wisconsin's state bike trails as well as ski trails). 

The western trailhead of the lovely Stower Seven Lakes State Trail is six miles south, near Dresser. For more, see Savoring the Seven Lakes.

Canoeing: Eric's Canoe Rental rents canoes and kayaks for the two- to three-hour trip to Osceola.

St. Croix River Visitor Center: The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway has a handsome center on the north edge of downtown that has paddling information and shows the 18-minute movie "St. Croix: A Northwoods Journey."

The center is open daily from Memorial Day to mid-October and weekdays the rest of the year.

Skiing: East of St. Croix Falls, the Balsam Branch trails have 11 kilometers groomed for classical and skate skiing. From U.S. 8, turn south on 150th Street, then east on 120th Avenue. There are also 20 kilometers of trails in Interstate State Park.

Information: St. Croix Falls-Taylor Falls tourism, 715-483-3580. Polk County tourism, 800-222-7655.

Last updated on January 15, 2016

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