Tales From the Trail
William O’Brien State Park
You may have read my trail guide for Afton State Park, also on the St Croix River in eastern Minnesota. You may have said, that’s really rugged and a little intimidating; I just want a moderate hike with an interesting landscape. This trail at William O’Brien State Park is going to be just the right fit for you, then.
When I go to William O’Brien State Park, I really feel like I’m getting away from it all. Sure, you’ll run into some nice folks on the trail, but for the most part it seems like a solo adventure. Just you and nature. It’s different than just parking at a trailhead and going out on a prescribed loop. There are discrete segments and multiple options for your trek. You can be spontaneous without adding hours to your hike.
The other cool thing about this state park is the railroad. You can go over or under or both, and I think it’s neat to see the tracks disappearing into the distance. It adds an element of adventure to your hike that you don’t find other places.
Location: Marine on the St Croix, MN
Management: Minnesota State Parks and Trails
Trail Surface: Natural Surface. Dirt, grass, gravel.
Environment: Prairie, Deciduous Forest, Wetland
Degree of Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Cell Phone Reception: Excellent
Parking: Small lots, 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.
There are three trailheads I’m going to mention in this article, and each provide a slightly different experience: easy, medium, and long. For you, I’ve made a separate map for each one! You can reach two of them from the main park entrance, but the Prairie Overlook Trial has its own parking area accessed from Ostrum Trail N (road).
This trail is almost entirely level and a great option for those hiking with small children. It’s only 2 miles to complete the loop, and there’s some great scenery along the way. After stopping by the visitor center to pick up a map, take a right toward the Savanna Campground. Before you reach the campground, there will be a small road off to your right leading to a recreation area. You’ll also see an outhouse. Take this turn and park anywhere in the area.
You should see the beginning of the Wetland Trail to the north. This is a nice, straight stretch of grassland trail that gets you away from the hustle and bustle of the campground. It’s so quiet out here, and I love listening to all of the prairie songbirds. Rarely have I encountered anyone else on this section of trail; it’s the perfect spot to get away from it all. You can even bring a picnic and just soak in the peace and quiet of nature.
After about a mile, you’ll come to one of the main intersections near “the tunnel.” This is an underpass for the railroad, and honestly really cool looking. Here’s where you can be spontaneous. You can take one of the other segments (just keep checking your map) or even go out on my elaborate trail featured in the next section.
If you want to keep your hike short and just complete the loop, take a left. You’ll wander by a unique wetland area where you can see beaver and muskrat houses. Keep your dog close if they love water because they will certainly be tempted to get full of mud on the trail border. Enjoy the cattails and frog songs as you wind your way through.
Soon enough you’ll enter an oak forest that borders the Savanna Campground. Stay on the trail until it meets up with the park road, then take a left back to the main road. You’ll see the pulloff over to your right, and just a few minutes later you’ll be back at your car.
This trail is great when it’s really busy in the summer and you just want to be in, out, and on your way without having to deal with all the people in the campgrounds.
Prairie Overlook Trail
My favorite! Other than my crazy 3 mile route described below, which includes this loop. I love the rolling hills, varied scenery, and the opportunity to stretch my legs and do some good hiking on this loop. If you want to just stick to the loop, there is a separate parking area shown in the map. You’ll get to avoid the craziness of the main park entrance and the campground parking.
There are even some amenities on this trail like a picnic table near the parking area, an outhouse on the western half of the loop, and a lean-to shelter right next to the outhouse where you can enjoy a picnic overlooking the lake. This is a really short loop at only 1.6 miles, but it is connected to several other trails if you want to extend your adventure.
This loop contains a couple steep sections, so be sure to keep your dog close, go slow, and use your “easy” cue to avoid taking a tumble. If there has been rain, watch your step near the lake because there is likely to be mud. The best part of this loop, though, is the northwest corner.
If you’ve parked in the dedicated lot, take the eastern (right) side first so that you can enjoy the awesome views over the prairie (cough, prairie overlook trail!) coming from the north onto the western half of the loop.
Basically, that was a lot of descriptive words to say, “this trial rocks.” Go check it out! Keep an eye on my Facebook page or sign up for my newsletter to be notified when I do my next guided hike on this loop.
Danielle’s Best Route
When I go to William O’Brien State Park, I do this route. It allows me to get the best of everything, and I always have a fantastic time with both of my dogs. 3 miles with all kinds of scenery, unique features, and a couple fun surprises (spoiler: I’m going to tell you all about the surprises in this post).
If you are considering camping here, stay in the Savanna Campground. It’s quieter, and you’ll have direct access to this route from your tent. Not camping? No problem. From the Visitor Center, take a right towards the Savanna Campground. There is a parking area on the righthand side after the dumpsters. Park here. Plus, you’ll get to scope out the campground for future visits.
Now, to get to the trail, it’s a bit sneaky. Roll with me here. Walk up the road into the campground and head towards campsite 120. Hopefully it’s empty. If so, there’s a cut through to the trail. If the campsite is occupied, look to the left and the right of the site for a cut through to the trail. They are everywhere.
Once you’ve broken through and gotten to the trail, take a right and enjoy a stroll under the trees. This trail will wind around a wetland area and terminate at an intersection. Here’s one of the surprises! There is a really cool tunnel that goes underneath the railroad. Check it out, take some pictures, but sorry, we’re not going under it.
Instead, take a left and head up a slight rise onto the next segment of this adventure. You’ll get a great view over the prairie and wetland as you slowly climb up towards the railroad. Guess what? Another surprise! You’ll encounter an intersection; take a HARD right and take the gravel path straight uphill.
Ta da! Railroad crossing! Super cool, and an awesome place for a photo op. Mica was a bit dramatic, but I love this picture.
Watch the railroad tracks disappear in the distance, then continue on across the tracks. Skip the next intersection (trust me) and keep going a half mile until you see another intersection with a posted map. You want to take the western half of the Prairie Overlook Trail.
This is the great part! Take a left, walk a ways, then stop and just drink in the views. This is my favorite. The tall grass waving in the breeze, prairie stretching out in front of you. This is usually where we stop for a picnic and water break. If you need to use the restroom, there is a pit-style toilet at the bottom of the hill. There’s also a lean-to shelter overlooking the lake which is another great spot for a rest and a snack. You’ve already read about this loop above, so I won’t repeat all the details. Once you finish and reach the main trail again, take a right and you’ll head back the same way you went out.
All in all, a great workout for me and my dogs, a variety of terrains and scenery, special spots to stop and rest, and a really great adventure overall. Have questions or want more information? Just shoot me an email, and I'd be happy to help you plan your adventure.
Pictures from the Trail