Lake Superior Adventures Part II: Jay Cooke State Park

September 14th, 2022:

After enjoying a detour at St. Croix State Park, I followed the bucolic MN-23 byway from Hinckley to Jay Cooke State Park, which is located twenty minutes south of Duluth’s city center.

Jay Cooke State Park is one of the reasons I wanted to visit Minnesota’s Lake Country. I discovered the park in a wonderful photography book – 50 States 500 State Parks (available on Amazon). The stunning images of rugged rocks and rushing waterfalls was love at first glance.

As I neared the park entrance, I stopped briefly at the Fond du Lac (bottom of the Lake) Boat Launch. Located just before the turnoff of Jay Cooke SP (MN 210), this scenic recreation spot is a worth the stop.

Located on the St. Louis River, the boat launch gives paddlers a launching point for their journey on the St Louis River Estuary Water Trail. It is also a popular spot for fishing (several fishermen were enjoy the calm river waters as I took in the view).

A riverside exhibit gives an overview of the history of the area.

The St. Louis River is on of over 200 rivers that feed Lake Superior. The native Ojibwe tribe refer to the river as ‘Gichigami zibi,’ which means: the river that flows into the great waters.’

Since the dawn of time, rivers have served as arteries for transportation from canoe travel to riverboats…The St. Louis River was a key transportation vein for natives and European settlers alike as they navigated from the Mississippi to the Great Lake of Superior and beyond.

Humans first lived and used the St. Louis River estuary as early as 800 AD. Europeans settlers including French fur trappers navigated old Native American river routes along the St. Louis River for commerce and trade. It was an important route for transporting goods.

Much of Minnesota’s history is tied to the water and the ‘voyageurs’ – French fur traders who traveled deep into the frontier for trade. You can learn more about these ‘voyageurs’ here. *fact – voyageur means ‘traveler’ in French.*

The Native Americans and Europeans would traverse the waters of Minnesota rivers, including the St. Louis River with canoes. But many rivers included fierce rapids, waterfalls, shallows and not all the major lakes were not connected…this made it necessary to portage, or carry the boat between two navigable waters, from time to time.

As the St. Louis River meets the state park, a rocky thirteen mile gorge creates a series of intense rapids, shards of rocky outcroppings and gorgeous, but deadly waterfalls.

This area was a portage where travelers who have to navigate around the gorge to the end of the lake and end of the river in present day Duluth.

It helped me get a sense of perspective to see calm waters of the St. Louis before the whitewater ramble into the state park area. As much as I love exploration and the backcountry I think I’ll pass the canoe on this trip and stick to hiking trails of the highway road.

The St. Louis River Estuary Water Trail and Jay Cooke State Park are designed to protect the land and life giving river waters.

Unfortunately due to heavy industrialization by the 1970s the St. Louis River had become one of the most polluted waterways in the US. Conservationists and the river communities stepped up and today the St. Louis River has rebounded significantly.

After leaving the Fond du Lac area I turned left from MN 23 to MN 210, which runs through Jay Cooke State Park for nine miles. This scenic byway will BLOW YOU away! The rocky outcrops of bluffs emerge as the river cuts through the gorge. The scenery looks like something out of a fantasy, with uniquely shaped boulders of dark rock strewn throughout the river.

Yet the river persists. Not to get to philosophical here, but how awesome is it that so much natural beauty was carved simply because the rivers kept going through rock and extreme conditions – it keeps running and cutting and carving through rock and mud and muck. That gives me perspective to remember that no matter what the trial – we can find beauty and persist towards a better tomorrow.

I stopped at the main park bridge over look and took time to walk the off road trail towards the base of the river. I am disappointed in my photos because no camera can really do justice to the power of this place – it is rugged, wild and beautiful.

After returning to my car, I continued to a few more miles to the main visitor center and falls area. The visitor center has a number of exhibits on park history, flora and fauna and geology. In case you were wondering: The park is named for Pennsylvania financier Jay Cooke, who developed a nearby power plant that is still in use.

Jay Cooke has over fifty miles of hiking trails, but fortunately this is one part you don’t have to walk far to see the best views. While I’m an avid hiker, I’ve spent the past year recovering from a herniated disc, so I understand the importance of accessibility for all visitors if possible.

Jay Cooke’s Swinging Bridge is a short walk from the visitor center and allows access for most. It is a flat path leading to views that rival Eden.

The swinging bridge allows you to cross the St. Louis River right at as the rapids turn into a cascade of numerous waterfalls.

The sun bled through the riverfront birch and pine trees – creating an ethereal glow. I spent several minutes thanking God for HIS creation and the ability to experience the unbridled beauty of this rushing river.

I spent just over an hour at Jay Cooke – but could have enjoyed the entire day by the river and hiking the backcountry.

To plan your own state park adventure click here.

Leaving the state park, I following the GPS directions north to Duluth.

Located on the southern end (bottom of the lake) Duluth (Do-Luth) is a major port on Lake Superior with a long history of industry.

We’ll be exploring Duluth in a future post as I’m going to be visiting Canal Park in the heart of the city in a few days.

In my next entry we’ll head north on Highway 61 and traveling the scenic North Shore Drive…

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