Afton State Park
Location: Hastings, MN
Management: Minnesota State Parks and Trails
Trail Surface: Paved and Natural. Dirt, grass.
Environment: Prairie, Deciduous Forest, St Croix River, Bluffs
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Cell Phone Reception: Excellent
Parking: Plentiful, no charge
Dog Rules: Dogs on Leash, 6 foot maximum
Recommended Gear: A GOOD pair of hiking boots, harnesses and short leashes for the dogs, a daypack, water, and multiple layers.
Afton State Park is one of my favorites in Minnesota. Close enough to the Twin Cities to be convenient, far enough away to escape the metro, and the perfect place to reconnect with nature. It really is unique from the other state parks, and the hiking is fantastic. There terrain is ever-changing and there are trails for every skill level. In one hike, you can watch the landscape transition from beautiful golden plains to vibrant, diverse forests to stunning bluffs overlooking the St Croix River. Lastly, the backpacking campground – located less than a mile from the parking lot – is an amazing experience not to be missed. Add it to your list!
The trail I’m going to describe in this guide is real, rugged, invigorating hiking. It’s a great opportunity to use your lungs and your legs and feel the thrill of adventure. It takes about two hours to complete if you include a stop down at the river bank to let your dogs swim (and you should!). That being said, this is still a completely doable hike even for the novice adventurer. Just follow the map provided and my detailed guide, stop when you need to at one of the many benches strewn about the park, and you will have a great time enjoying the outdoors!
Entering the Park
If you’re not completely excited after driving through the rolling hills on your approach to the park, you’ll definitely start to feel the thrill once you reach the park entrance. Stop at the visitor center to pick up your day pass ($5) and a trial map. If you LOVE Minnesota State Parks like I do, you’ll already have an annual park pass ($25)! You will love the winding road into the park; go slow and soak up the views! Drive 1.6 miles until you reach the very last parking lot at the end. This is closest to the trailhead, and a good place to launch your adventure.
Gear up with harnesses for your dogs, a daypack for you with snacks, water, and a water bowl for Fido, and keep your trial map handy. Don’t forget your camera! You’ll want to snap some pictures like the ones I’ve featured below. This state park has #selfie written all over it! Make sure your leash is 6 foot or less, as per park rules, and bring a couple poop bags to clean up after your dog. Sunglasses in the summer are also a must! Ready to go? Let’s hit the trail!
Prelude to the Trail
To get to the trail, you’ll have to go past a few picnic areas, down a really fun set of stairs, across a neat wooden bridge, and past the river access. This is part of the journey, though! This is usually where the majority of visitors congregate, so don’t worry if it seems crowded. Once you get to the trail, you’ll leave everyone behind and be able to enjoy nature in peace and quiet.
There are pit-style toilets and water fountains, picnic tables and places to relax in the forward section of the park. Head downhill and make a stop at the overlook to your right. Stunning views of the St Croix River and a cute little wooden bench for a photo op.
Next up are the stairs. Take your time, and be courteous to those traveling uphill. You will most likely see hikers and backpackers, laden with heavy gear, plodding their way up the steps. Yield by stepping to the side and letting them keep their rhythm. Keep your dogs close, and use this opportunity to work on your “easy” cue.
Once you reach the bottom, the trail flattens out and leads to a wooden bridge. Keep going, and you’ll soon come to a crossroads. To your right, the river and beach picnic areas. You want to go straight ahead towards the sign that says, “Campground.” That’s where your real hiking adventure will begin!
Leave the world behind as you begin ascending the trail to the campground. It is a dirt surface with tree roots and other shallow obstacles. Mind your footing and pause to breathe if you need to. There are also a couple benches along the way if you’re packing gear and need to rest. It is about a quarter mile – really not that far – and you can do it!
Note: in the spring, this can be pure mud and ice. A real risk for injury. Check the park homepage for updates about trail safety before heading out.
This is where it is really important to have a good pair of hiking boots. You will want the full support they provide and the ability to grip the trail. Don’t have any? I recommend heading to the nearest REI for a huge range of options and the ability to try on several brands.
At long last, you will reach the top and feel the thrill of accomplishment. Pause for a moment and look back over your shoulder at the river valley far below. The trail transitions to gravel as you wind through the campground, and you may encounter some campers or other hikers. Every site here is perfect; beautiful, secluded, and homey. There are pit-style restrooms, a solar-powered water pump, and a place to cut your own firewood. It’s backpack camping but with some luxuries.
Take a break on top of the bluff to recharge, rehydrate, and snap some pictures. As you continue on, you’ll reach another crossroads underneath the pine trees. The left-hand trail will take you to the Prairie Loop, which is a nice easy trail on open grasslands. I opted to take a hard right to make a smaller loop and head back down the bluff. Enjoy the hush of walking on pine needles until you break out of the trees to a small meadow.
The trail plunges back into the trees and begins rapidly descending. Pick your way carefully among the rocks as you navigate the steep path. Downhill is no easier than uphill, but it feels like a real adventure! Keep your dogs close and take small steps.
If you’re still training “easy,” use some treats to encourage your dog to stay with you and go slow rather than pulling you downhill. Another great way to achieve “easy” is to stop frequently. Communicate that we are in no hurry to race down the hill by stopping, breathing, and then taking a few small steps together.
The St Croix River
The best is yet to come! Finish the last of the downhill segments, and you’ll be at the river before you know it. This is my dogs’ favorite part of the trail. You’ll go underneath a bridge and then hit the sandy beach. If it’s a quiet day, you can let your pups off leash to go splashing through the waves. There are plenty of sticks to throw for a fun water retrieve! I love sitting on a downed tree far to the left, eating a snack, and watching my crazy Border Collies frolic in the river. So peaceful and serene.
Once you’ve got two completely soaking wet dogs, meet back up with the main trail and head back to the parking lot. Yes, you have to go UP the stairs this time, but I promise it’s not that bad.
If this trail seemed too daunting for you, there are several easier trails at the southern end of the park. Trails branch off from the multiple parking lots and meander across the prairie. These are more popular, and you’re likely to encounter more people. On a summer day, though, the bugs are likely less obnoxious away from the trees.
Whichever trail you choose, this park has so many options for enjoying the great outdoors. In the fall, the copper, gold, and peridot colors completely surround you and brighten the day. In the winter, there are numerous snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails.
So get out there! Hit the trail!
How To Get There
Photos From the Trail