Follow the NPS Arrowhead

Every time you enter the entrance gate of a National Park, a historic site or walk in the serene beauty of an area preserved by the National Park Service, you will see this arrowhead sign.  The sign tells you, of course, that this is a site operated and maintained by the National Park Service.  Yet, it also tells you that you are about to explore something that has been deemed worthy of protection and also so intriguing that it needs to be shared.  I have reached the point with so many NPS Parks and site visits, that my enthusiasm for all things NPS related bubbles over when I first see the arrowhead sign…I know I am in for a treat! However, not only a treat, but also the surprise of discovering new and different things.  The variety of places to visit within the scope of the National Park Service never ceases to amaze me. There is always something new to explore.

There are currently 62 National Parks in the United States, but actually 419 protected sites which include such areas as lake shores, forested areas and significant historical sites. So many times, travelers think they need to visit the “big” Parks to really experience what the National Park Service has to offer. The well known Parks are incredible….no denying that, but it is nice to explore some of the intriguing sites in your own back yard. When I first moved to Wisconsin, I was delighted to find out that a Visitors Center for a NPS protected site was only about 20 miles from my home: the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

I have been there several times and I always learn something new. A trip to the Visitors Center is a great way to learn how the St. Croix and the Namekagon rivers have had an incredible influence on this area of the upper Midwest.  In addition to learning about the fascinating geologic and historical information of the area, one can also get information here on hiking, canoeing and fishing these beautiful waters. The rivers have provided commerce, recreation and also abundant resources to support a diversity of wildlife.  The rivers of the St. Croix and Namekagon together make up 252 miles of protected waterway in the St. Croix National Scenic Waterway.

St. Croix River-border between Wisconsin & Minnesota

The geologic history of the area began millions of years ago when the glaciers carved out the river valleys and rugged bluffs overlooking the flowing rivers.  The first human inhabitants of the rivers were the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwa (Chippewa) that found this area to have plentiful resources for an abundant life.  The next to explore this area were the French and later the English fur trappers.

The logging industry in the area took the St. Croix river valley by storm and the peak of the logging industry was the 1890’s. Log jams in the river frequently occurred, not only hindering the progress of lumber to the mills, but also damaging the fragile ecosystems of the rivers.  The life of the lumberjacks was challenging on the river, to say the least, and many lost their lives in this profession.

NPS photo (circa early 1900’s) Logging on the St. Croix River with Wannigan house

They built small shanties that floated in the river to help carry supplies and were sometimes used to sleep in as they were “steering” the lumber downstream. The shanty was called a Wannigan as shown is this photo. The last major log drive was in 1914.  It is interesting that in St. Croix Falls, WI.  and Taylors Falls, MN. the lumber industry and the rich heritage of the river  is still celebrated today with “Wannigan Days”.  Now that is neat! I learned that new tidbit of trivia when moving to this area….I bet not that many people know what a Wannigan is, well know you know.

The St.Croix River Visitor Center is easily found at 401 N. Hamilton Street, St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.  It is just off the main road (87), 2 blocks north of the deck of the St. Croix  Overlook.

Another example of an NPS site very close to my own “backyard” that I discovered is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior.  Located near Bayfield, Wisconsin they are a series of 21 islands in Lake Superior that are protected by the National Park Service.

“Sea Stack” in the Apostle Islands


Sea Caves, Lighthouses, Shipwrecks and breathtaking Sunsets…..all these amazing attributes are found among the islands. They are located above the northern tip of Wisconsin in the chilly waters of Lake Superior. These unique islands were sculpted out of sandstone and were formed towards the end of the glacial period 10,000 years ago. The amazing colored agates and rocks found in the area were deposited as the glaciers melted.

Many stories surround how the Apostle Islands got their names, but the commonly agreed upon one, involves the biblical parallel to the 12 Apostles.  Early explorers to the area were missionaries and tended to name new areas based on Biblical names. Counting the islands loosely, many believed that there were only 12, so the name: the Twelve Apostle Islands seemed appropriate.  Even though there are 22, the name Apostle Islands remained.

It’s interesting that there are only four areas protected by the National Park Service as “national lakeshores” and the Apostle Islands is one of them. President Nixon signed the bill establishing the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. There are 22 islands in the Apostle Islands, but one is omitted from the inclusion in the National Park protection: Madeline Island. This island is the largest of the islands and was omitted due to extensive residential and commercial development already existing on the island.

President Nixon established the Apostle Islands as a National Lakeshore in 1970, making 2020 the 50th anniversary year of being a protected site by the National Park Service.  I am glad our recent trip there was during the commemoration of the 50th year. It was interesting to learn more about the history of the islands.  Visitors here are lured by the mystic and might of Gichigami  (Ojibwe for Lake Superior) and what is offered here.  There are miles of beautiful shoreline with both sandy beaches and rocky overlooks.  The rocks that have been weathered and carved by time display the unique formations found amongst the sea caves.

Additionally, since I have an interest in lighthouses, I really came to the right place: The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has a larger concentration of lighthouses than any other National Park Service site.  There are six lighthouses within the Apostle Islands, but there are even more in that area of Lake Superior, including Ashland Harbor.

Devils Island Lighthouse- the Apostle Islands

Whether you explore with a hike, in a kayak or climb aboard one of the day cruises available out of Bayfield, it is an area that truly warrants discovery.

When you visit one of the landmark “big” parks of the National Park Service, it is easy to find a favorite…one that you want to go back to time and again. The same holds true for the perhaps lesser known Park sites.  It is easy to find a favorite among those places bearing the NPS Arrowhead sign.  I found one of my favorites in the Apostle Islands.

Put your traveling shoes on.….Julie E. Smith

2 thoughts on “Follow the NPS Arrowhead

  1. christy smith November 27, 2020 / 7:28 pm

    Interesting Julie. It’s fun to go traveling with you :o)..


  2. Geri Lawhon March 17, 2021 / 7:04 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful information, especially Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.


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