Jay Cooke State Park gives you a piece of rugged Minnesota you didn’t even know we had

All photos courtesy of Cassie Bauman

By Lianna Matt

At Jay Cooke State Park, the St. Louis River flows smoothly over and around the rocks.In her 23 years as a park naturalist, Kristine Hiller has been at Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park for 17 of them. As the state’s seventh largest park, more than 300,000 people visit it year-round with almost 35,000 making overnight camping trips. With the park’s location about 23 miles southwest of Duluth, it’s the perfect highlight for a weekend trip out of the cities or even a Duluth day trip.

If you have your doubts about the two hour drive up, the first impression you get of Jay Cooke will make them go away. Depending on your route, you’ll catch alluring glimpses of the St. Louis River from the road, but when you cross the swinging bridge near the entrance of the park, well … The view will take your breath away.

“You know, the first time I drove in—and I think to a lot of our first time visitors—it’s an unexpected place,” Hiller says. “The river, because of the rapids and the slanted rocks that look so rugged. … People don’t expect to see something like that in Minnesota. There is also lots of terrain, and we think of Minnesota as being a flat state.”

As the St. Louis swirls over hidden and unhidden rocks, its liquid glass surface wrinkles and flows in between a valley of flat, slanted slate and greywacke rocks that are all tilted toward the sky. While the rocks are not technically on the trail, when you’re near the swinging bridge, you’ll always find a few hikers making their way carefully among the flatter rocks to get closer to the water.

Here are some of Hiller’s insider tips from almost two decades at the 8,938-acre state park:

For Hiking:

“Everybody comes to the swinging bridge; that is our landmark feature,” says Hiller. “Either way that you go from the bridge—you can be on the north side or the south side across the river—and there’s at least 25 miles of trails to choose from on either side.”

For an easier trail, Hiller recommends the 1.8 miles along the CCC Trail. For about half of the hike, you follow the river and catch beautiful glimpses of it through the park’s foliage, and the rest of the path is underneath the forest canopy.

The Carlton Trail Trip is a favorite of visitors who want more of an intermediate to advanced hike. Beautiful views of the river, hills, roots, the occasional mud puddle and even some places where you may need to cling to a rock or to make this trail a true adventure through the park. The 5-mile trail branches out so hikers can take easier trails through a pioneer cemetery and shaded forest on the return route.

Horseback riding and mountain biking are also common ways to explore the park, and in the the winter, people often bring out the cross country skis, snow shoes and fat bikes.

For Wildlife:

Jay Cooke State Park has more than 45 animal species wandering around, including black bears, timber wolves and coyotes. If you’re walking the more populated trails in the summer, you probably won’t see any of these magnificent creatures, but you will see some adorable red squirrels and chipmunks. In general, diurnal animals tend to be more active in the morning or in the early evening when it’s cool out to avoid the summer heat.

Birding is best done in May through the first week of July. Hiller usually sends people up the paved Forbray Trail that’s connected to the main parking lot; there, she can pick out 25-30 different bird species—a lot of warblers, apparently—from just that one spot.

While some animals hibernate in the winter, there is still plenty of activity on the parkland, even if the blanket of snow muffles it. You’re more likely to run into foxes or bobcats on the trail, says Hiller, because they, like you, want the path of least resistance, and the flat, groomed paths seem easier than traipsing through the snow. You can also see the otters.

In the summer, otters have full run of the river, slipping in and out of it as they please. When the winter hits, though, parts of the river freezes up, creating specific pockets of rushing open water that limits the otters’ normal freedom. “A lot of time just before the bridge, we’ll see their tracks and we’ll see them sliding down the rocks,” Hiller says.

For Wildflowers:

Springtime is the best for wildflowers, and Hiller would send you straight to the West Ridge Trail. After an initial hill, the 1.8-mile trail is easy walking, and in the spring, naturalists frequently lead guided wildflower walks along it. Wildflowers are one of Hiller’s favorite parts about nature, and she loves the variety that Jay Cooke has. Although she can’t single out just one species, she does love spotting the first hepatica for the season—seeing the small plant poke its lobed leaves and miniature lavender, pink and white flowers always means that winter is ending.

For New Experiences:

Jay Cooke State Park’s naturalists offer programming year round for all ages and groups. Simply visit their online calendar for the most up to date information on events like geocaching how-to’s, guided walks, fishing excursions and interactive teachings about animals, astronomy and more. They’re great ways to learn more about the outdoors, and with the naturalists’ knowledge, you’ll find new things to discover at Jay Cooke each and every time.

To be fair to Mother Nature, even without the naturalists’ healthy list of events, repeat visitors always love going to Jay Cooke. The park is eternally changing and showing new parts of itself, and this fall people will be able to see all of it once again.

Since 2012, half of the roads in the park have been more difficult to reach because of flooding damage. In October, the road is opening up again, and Hiller couldn’t be more excited. “It’s what I like about the park—if you visit one side, it looks one way. If you visit the other side, it’s a very different look just because of how big the park is.”


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