Wisconsin Winter Getaway: Hudson, Osceola and St. Croix Falls

By Carla Waldemar
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

If Hudson were likened to a fairytale, she'd be the proverbial heroine in crone's disguise, ready to reveal her true beauty with a prince's kiss.

The town was founded in 1840 by a couple of fur traders who banked their canoes in the Willow River and named the town-to-be after the waterway. Another early settler with an eye for beauty rechristened it Buena Vista. Then, in 1852, the mayor pulled rank and renamed it Hudson because the drop-dead gorgeous St. Croix River bounding it reminded him of a similarly glorious river in New York.

The trees crowding its banks transformed it from trading post to boomtown as the Hudson Sawmill became the hamlet's active hub. Lumber barons built elegant mansions with the fortunes it afforded, and Second Street, downtown's main road, sported an elegant opera house.

Times changed; the boom went bust, and Hudson settled down to snooze. No one modernized those fetching facades, so today they pose as prettily as ever. Over the last few years some entreprenurial heroes have restored the buildings to their original beauty, reviving the town's vitality (and then some).

And what happens when intriguing new enterprises populate the once-vacant bricks of downtown, and spiffed-up mansions-now listed proudly on the National Register of Historic Places-welcome guests as bed and breakfasts? You become an intriguing destination, that's what.

I like to visit Hudson during the height of summer, when I can dip my weary hiker's feet into the cooling current of the river. I return in autumn, when its avenues of maples blind my eyes. But there's something extra-special about my winter visits, when the hiking trails are newly attired in white, when the crisp air requires-doesn't it?-that I snoop in my favorite boutiques for a brand-new scarf, when the quickening shadows provide every excuse to nurse an espresso in a cozy bookstore or coffeehouse.

On this winter's afternoon, I arrive at my downtown accommodations in time for a cup of cheer before heading out to dinner. The walk down Third Street, once the Park Avenue of its day, thrills my eyes and chills my toes in equal measure. My mission: the January-defeating Caribbean flavors of San Pedro Cafe's menu. What the culinary blaze in its wood-fired oven doesn't melt, the sweet tropical relish will.

Across the street at Agave Kitchen, cool jazz is warming the crowd. But the moon pulls me down the block to the river after dinner for a not-quite-midnight ramble along the old toll bridge, where those fools crossing to Minnesota paid the price. Today it ends its half-mile stretch in the middle of the river, still at liberty from the ice that struggles to tame its current. Then it's back to the fireplace waiting in my room.

Next morning, as the sun seeps through lacy curtains, I awake to the smell of what turns out to be the best coffee in Wisconsin, I'll submit. Julie from Eau Claire, a fellow guest, coaxes the parlor's piano into a waltz while Mitch, her husband, exhibits saintly patience in explaining the intricacies of the stock market. (Clearly I failed Econ 101, for I'm still writing stories for a living.)

They set out for Willow River State Park, five miles northeast of town, to survey the territory where Chippewa and Sioux once battled for ricing privileges in nearby lakes. Daniel Duluth, likely the first European to set eyes on the land, pioneered the way for fur traders to follow. Today, as Mitch and Julie glide cross-country skis along the park's nine miles of well-groomed trails, they might spot a descendant of those valued beavers, flashing a still-intact pelt, nose-diving beneath a snowdrift near the river's fabled waterfall. Or maybe they'll sight the deer that venture onto the hiking trails, or bald eagles, if they're truly fortunate, soaring silently above the serene snowscape.

Me, I'm postponing my assignation with the pines until the calm of Sunday. Today my scheme is to poke about the town, making my way to favorite venues and, like a modern-day Duluth, exploring unfamiliar outcroppings in the urban landscape.

St. Croix County Dry Goods draws me back in Hudson's history. No pelts for sale among the regional antiques on offer, but I find a vintage eggbeater to enhance my kitchen wall, a well-loved birdhouse, and scads of intricately patterned quilts. (Modern quilters can plot patterns and purchase materials here, too.)

Next I meander over to Lavender Thymes, whose cutting-edge designer wear would turn heads in SoHo, never mind along the St. Croix. The sassy purse I cannot live without will be the talk of the next cocktail party, and how could I walk away without my very own copy of 50 Best Mashed Potatoes?

After an espresso at the bar in the rear, I head to the chamber of commerce on the corner, where I pick up a free map and play voyeur to the lives of the once rich and famous via a self-guided walking tour that brings me by their mansions.

John Spooner, I learn, was a Civil War veteran, an attorney, a regent of the University of Wisconsin, and a U.S. Senator. He built the classically gabled Italianate mansion on Third Street in 1877. The nearby Octagon House (now a historical museum, open May-October) was designed, my pamphlet tells me, as a "working class residence." Nice work if you can get it! It was the first house to be built on Third Street, in 1855, along what was once a Native American trail.

Facing it is the grand Phipps residence (now a B&B), a Queen Anne charmer flaunting a witch's hat roof on its tower. The Courthouse, built in 1900, is a look-alike for Sleeping Beauty's castle; at the moment, it's glowing orange in the setting sun.

To melt the bit of a shiver in my bones, I head to Winzer Stube, a German restaurant as authentic as they come, sequestered below street level back on Second in what was once the opera house. Today the music tends toward the oompah variety. Marie Schmidt's on duty-she always is, dressed with a twinkle of a smile-in the restaurant she opened in 1999 to showcase recipes her mother taught her. I slide into a spacious booth and start the painful process of narrowing my choices: Homemade cream of mushroom soup? Potato pancakes? Sausages or schnitzel? When at last I order the Berliner-style liver, my waitress' hands fly to her heart. "My favorite!" she breathes.

Several pounds heftier than when I clambered down the stairs, I reach the sidewalk and turn toward The Nova, a wine bar that I-don't-know-how-many locals have whispered that I must not miss. It's a new kid on a little-trodden block up the hill from the river, where a chanteuse croons soft jazz as I settle back and sip a shiraz by the fireplace. On the brisk walk back to my room, I remind myself that a lounge in the whirlpool tub awaits.

The next day dawns overcast. My plan is to travel the 40 miles on Highway 35 that lead north to Interstate State Park, sandwiching the river at St. Croix Falls.

Osceola is where I like to pause to wonder at the massive icicles that transform Cascade Falls at this season. During the winter weeks when snow fails to cover the 156-step descent to Wilkie Glen, it's possible to stride along the short trail from the falls to the river. An old-timer in the public library tells me he likes to ski along the riverbed, too, if it's safely frozen over.

But today I'm set to glide along the 10-plus miles of groomed cross-country trails at Interstate State Park. Stopping to check in with naturalist Julie Fox at the park's Ice Age Interpretive Center-flush with replicas of the bones of mastodons that once roamed nearby-I learn that she leads snowshoe treks through the timber down to a pond, the domain of beaver and otters and often a passing family of deer. Next time. Today I'll also hike the loop of Horizon Rock Trail, past boulders bigger than a grand piano, to an overlook of the Dalles on the far side of the river.

Limbs protesting, I steer my vintage Honda back toward Hudson, arriving just before the sun sinks behind the hills across the river-in time to poke through the hand-selected volumes at Back to Books, whose very same shelves were lined with books when it opened its doors in 1866, as a bookstore with a different name. These days the horsepower that delivers regional authors for discussion groups and signings comes from under the hood of a car.

My dinner reservation is made at Pier 500, where I sit at a window table and catch my last glimpse of the St. Croix for the weekend. I celebrate over a pair of walleye cakes, followed by the chef's own way with meatloaf. With apologies to the former mayor, I'll bet folks on the shores of New York's Hudson would scramble for the recipe-and the setting. Maybe they'll beg to change the name of Poughkeepsie to St. Croix.

Don't Miss 

Head to Interstate State Park. Wisconsin's oldest state park provides scenic views of the river and the steep-sided gorge known as the Dalles of the St. Croix.

What To See & Do

  • Stroll the galleries and take in a play or musical performance at The Phipps Center for the Arts, located just across from the St. Croix River.
  • Pamper yourself-and let others help, too-at Ultimissimo, which offers deluxe spa services in a historic setting.
  • Feed your inner chocoholic at Knoke's Chocolates, known for its handcrafted candies.
  • Trollhaugen Winter Recreation Area offers 10 downhill ski runs, two-and-a-half kilometers of groomed cross-country trails, and tubing hills.
  • Willow River State Park is a veritable winter paradise, with cross-country ski and snowshoe trails, ice fishing, a sledding hill, and skating rink within its 2,800 acres.
  • Interstate State Park grooms several of its dozen trails for winter hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing (free rental on guided hikes). The pinnacle: a peek at the frozen falls.

Where to Dine 

  • The wine bar at The Nova brims with warmth and live music.
  • At Pier 500, don't miss the walleye cakes.
  • San Pedro Cafe's popular weekend-only breakfast menu includes a wood-fired breakfast pizza.
  • Have a craving for schnitzel? Try this and other Old World specialties at Winzer Stube.

Where to Stay