Hiking in William O’Brien State Park

Marine on St. Croix/Washington County • Minnesota State Park Pass needed

woman hiking in the autumn woods
Hiking into the “magical canopy section” of the Woodland Edge Trail (that’s what I call it!)

Hiking at William O’Brien State Park offers a wide variety of scenery and terrain, as well as a great workout on its good-size hills.

From flat marshland to rolling prairie to tall hardwood forest, past a beaver pond and a small lake. We went on a gorgeous fall day and enjoyed a gorgeous hike. And since it was a weekday there were just a handful of other folks out there.

There aren’t that many natural-surface hiking trails this long with this variety in the Twin Cities area. William O’Brien offers some of the best.

Hiking the Woodland Edge Trail

My tour guide for our hike, my sister-in-law Rochelle, knows this park well, as it’s practically in her backyard. She’s spent hours here over the years trail running and cross country skiing. (You’ll understand what a feat that is when you come here—it’s those hills again!)

She chose the Woodland Edge Trail for us—a good 5-mile hike in this 2,200-acre State Park.

The trailhead starts at the Interpretive Center (see the summer map) not far from the park entrance off Highway 95. You can see on the map the dotted trail overlaid with gray—that’s the route we took.

beaver lodge in a pond in William O'Brien State Park
The beaver lodge on a beautiful fall day

The Wetlands Trail passes the well-known beaver lodge and unites with the Woodland Edge Trail for a full circle around. Much of the trail is mowed grasses, some out in the open, some alongside and amidst woods.

The autumn colors were rich and varied. Sometimes it’s fun not just to notice the grandeur of everything, but also the little details. Like this birds’ nest, now abandoned for the season:

bird nest in a small tree with scarlet leaves
A tiny bird nest amid the scarlet leaves

As you get to the far west side of the trail loop, the elevation gains until you reach the highest point of the trail. Turn, and you’ll overlook William O’Brien. That’s got to be a beautiful sight any season of the year.

looking down from a hill over the woods and river valley
Looking over the park from the high spot

Coming back down and then east, we gradually entered my favorite part. I like to think of it as the “magical canopy section” (see the header photo at the top). Tall trees with their mostly-golden leaves bent over the trail on both sides forming a canopy of color. The trail below was covered with leaves, too, with a few more wafting gently down in the light breeze. The epitome of fall.

From the same parking area by the Interpretive Center, you can hike Riverside Trail. It loops through the campground and follows the shore of the river for quite a ways. Very beautiful, too.

What About Winter Hiking?

Because all the trails in this section of William O’Brien are groomed for cross country skiing in the winter, there isn’t as much opportunity for winter hiking here.

But there are a couple designated spots for winter hikers and snowshoers: The Riverside Trail on the eastern edge, right along the St. Croix River, and the Southern Trails loop. You can see both on the winter map.

What Else is at William O’Brien?

As I already mentioned, these great hiking trails are well-maintained and challenging cross country ski trails in the winter. The park is well-known for its skiing, actually.

There are a couple large and lovely campgrounds in the park. One is right along the St. Croix River on the east side of 95 (that’s on the map, too).

Of course canoeing and kayaking is an option at William O’Brien if you have your own boat(s). There’s a boat launch that’ll get you on the river by the Riverway Campground and picnic area.

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Sharon Brodin