Jay Cooke State Park: Rugged River Trails and a Swinging Bridge
Halloween has come and gone, which means the evening’s daylight has done the same. I try to think positively about the upcoming dark days. When long winter nights arrive, it’s the perfect time to get cozy with a book. It’s also a time for bonding with friends over potlucks, board games, movie nights, and craft parties. And my favorite, it’s the time to catch up on video games that you’ve set aside, such as Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
Well, enough about Halloween and dark nights, let’s talk about hiking in Minnesota! In my last post, I finished off my road trip series; I wrote about Monterey, CA and hiking at Big Sur National Sea Shore. In this post, I’ll catch you up with some of the hiking I’ve done while back in Minnesota. The first of my hiking adventures was exploring Jay Cooke State Park with my friend Lisa!
Two hours north of the Twin Cities and housing the official start of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park. The park is bisected by the roaring St. Louis River, which results in rugged river trails and north woods vibes. If you want to go to the Boundary Waters, but don’t have the time to take a long weekend, I’d recommend going to Jay Cooke. The trails are rugged and sometimes hard to follow, just like the trails I remember up north. Also, the thick mixed hardwood-confier forest is a welcome reminder that you can get a north woods feel only two hours away from the city.
After a two-hour drive, Lisa and I arrived at the visitor center. We retrieved a map and got great trail advice from a local park ranger. We told him we wanted to be on trail for the whole day, so he gave us a 6-7 mile loop trail to check out. From the visitor center, we headed towards the iconic swinging suspension bridge. The wind cradled us back and forth as we walked to the middle. From there, we peered down and got a good look of the glacially-etched rock formations below. Oddly enough, the large boulders and bedrock were slanted, at least by 45 degrees or higher. I’d never seen something like that before. It’s amazing how diverse the geology can be from state park to state park.
We crossed the bridge and I saw the familiar SHT symbol on a trail marker. I didn’t realize that we were on the SHT when we had first started walking. Knowing this made me smile as we walked along the wide dirt path. Soon enough though, our planned loop veered us right, off the SHT, towards the river. In my mind, I said “see you later,” because I knew I’d be back hopefully when doing a thru-hike.
We followed the trail till it took us down to the river itself. We went off trail and climbed up one of the large slanted slate boulders. It was tricky because it was slick and there weren’t many footholds. It was well worth it though, the view of the river was fantastic. (photo taken by Lisa)
As I mentioned before, Jay Cooke’s trails really reminded me of the national forest way up in Northern Minnesota. This is because there were century’s old white oak, the trail was rugged and sometimes a little dangerous, especially due to the muddy patches and scrambling rock sections, and there were no other people on the trail. Though we were not far from a town and a bustling road, when on trail we felt secluded and alone; now that was my favorite part.
We had learned from informational signs that there was a flood within the last 5 years, which resulted in closed off hiking trails and roads. I could see the destruction while we walked on the river’s edge. There was a definite line where the river had been flowing when the water was really high. There were uprooted trees, exposed roots, and uneven ground. It’s obvious to see that the park staff have been working hard to get the trails back to tip-top shape because there was fresh wood chip trails from time to time. It will be cool to come back to this section of the trail to see if instead of North Woods forest, maybe a floodplain forest will take root.
The trail took us inland (Photo taken by Lisa)
The serpentine River Trail (Carlton Trail) wound us inland and dropped us off in a birch forest. The leaves were at peak color, resulting in a yellow glow that engulfed our view of the sky. From above, we could appreciate the yellows, reds, and oranges of the falling leaves, while below we could appreciate the sounds of crunching leaf-liter and the feeling of ferns caressing our pant legs. It is these sounds and feelings that reaffirm my love for hiking. After about two hours, we reached the halfway point of our hike, which was a bridge that crossed Otter Creek. Before crossing, we climbed to the top of a slanted rock way up above the riverbed. From there we got a breathtaking view of the park.
On the North side of the St. Louis River, we followed a paved bike trail, wide ski trails, and even the side of the road at certain sections. Though the rest of the hike was less secluded, it still had some great things to offer. The Thomson Cemetery welcomed you with a century old hand drawn sign, there were patches of large white oak, which is always a treat to see (since almost all of the Minnesota white oak was cut down in the 1800’s), and there were river trails that hugged the river’s cliff edge. Our hike back to the visitor center was full of good conversation and laughter and was accompanied by stellar fall colors and the sound of the roaring river.
Overall, I really liked Jay Cooke State Park. I plan on coming back again and exploring all the different trail sections. And, hopefully, I’ll be back in Jay Cooke soon with my backpacking backpack, prepared to walk 296-miles through Minnesota’s diverse landscapes.
Till next time. Much love,
Lisa saying goodbye to the St. Louis River