To the North Woods and Back in a Day

With more than 50 trails of hiking, gorgeous views of the St. Louis River, and more, Jay Cooke State Park gives a taste of the North Woods despite being close enough for a Twin Cities day trip.

The St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park.

photo by jacob – fotolia

In her 24 years as a park naturalist, Kristine Hiller has been at Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park for 18 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.”

St. Louis River rapids at Jay Cooke State Park.

photo by johnsroad7 – fotolia

As the St. Louis River 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 after spending 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.”

The rope bridge at Jay Cooke State Park in northern Minnesota.

photo by sharon day – fotolia

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 two 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.

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. (Try to spot the otters—they have full run of the river in the summer, according to Hiller.)

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.

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.