Growth and change at William O’Brien State Park

Each Sunday in winter, I drive north to William O’Brien State Park, leave my son near the visitor center with a gaggle of children on skis, and head off over the rolling hills to enjoy an hour and a half of step and glide, peace and solitude. Were it not for the forethought of numerous local families, as well as the Minnesota Legislature and members of the Parks and Trails Council, the prairie and woods of William O’Brien might instead be a subdivision, and my skis, a winter decoration.

Itasca State Park is headwaters to the Mississippi River and was the first state park established in Minnesota in 1891.

Minnesota holds claim to the second oldest state park system in the country, marked by the establishment of Itasca State Park on April 20, 1891. (New York beat us by six years when they created Niagara Falls State Park in 1885.) The second park added to the system was Interstate State Park in 1895, which was closely followed by Wisconsin Interstate State Park in 1900; it was the first inter-state (get it?) park in the nation.

By 1947, there were 30 state parks in Minnesota but none located close to the Twin Cities area. That’s when Alice O’Brien stepped up to donate 180 acres of land near Marine on St. Croix, which formed the seed for a new park to grow.

If you hike along the Riverside Trail at William O’Brien, you’ll undoubtedly notice the majestic white pines that tower over the banks of the St. Croix River. These trees are remnants of a four million acre pine forest that once blanketed the St. Croix River watershed before European-American settlers arrived and began logging in 1839. The Mill Stream, which originates in the park and flows through the village of Marine on St. Croix, was the site of Minnesota’s first commercial saw mill. Today, you can enjoy fish fry at the Brookside Bar & Grill as you watch the stream flow right through the basement of the restaurant, over a small waterfall on the opposite side of the street, and down to the St. Croix River.

William O’Brien, Alice’s father, was a lumber baron who purchased land owned by timber companies after they had finished logging the region. Today, when you visit the park, you can fish and swim in Alice Lake or enjoy hiking, camping, cross-country skiing, boating, and nature exploration amidst 1653 acres of prairies, wetlands, and second-growth woods.

The first major land expansion for William O’Brien State Park happened in 1972-73, when a housing developer began to buy parcels of farmland in the surrounding area. The Minnesota Parks and Trails Council raced to line up purchase agreements for 750 acres of land, which now contains most of the upland trail system in the park. Later purchases in 1988, 1994, and 2007 added another 169 acres.

In 2010, Joan Grant and her children Hendrie and Ann sold 97 acres of land, once known as “17 Springs Farm,” to be added to William O’Brien State Park. It includes numerous springs and a trout stream that is a natural spawning area for native brook trout, as well as woods and a high-quality remnant prairie. The family originally purchased the land in 1940 and operated it as a trout farm for many years.  

Most recently, the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council acquired 60 acres of land owned by Myron Lindgren in December 2021. Lindgren lived and farmed on the land for more than 80 years and says that his family actually used wood from the surrounding forest to heat their home prior to getting electricity in 1947.  

Looking toward the future, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource (DNR) is now planning major changes to the riverside area of the park in order to improve accessibility for wheelchair users and people with limited mobility. It is one of three state parks where retrofits are planned and the DNR hopes that it will serve as a showcase for accessible outdoor recreation. To complete this work, the riverside area of the park, including the boat launch, Riverside Trail, Lake Alice, Riverway Campground, and Riverside Group Camp, will be closed from September 2023 through October 2024. More information, including a final design, will be forthcoming later this year.

To learn more about William O’Brien State Park and find trail maps, camping, and recreation information, visit

You can learn about the history of the park at