It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the North Shore of Lake Superior is a crowded place in the summer. When planning our Duluth adventure, The Adventuress and I looked at each of the state parks, but only found one that 1.) had a campsite available for two nights, and 2.) did not involve a long hike from the car to the campsite. The park that we found ended up not being on the North Shore, but was close enough.
Jay Cooke State Park is a heavily forested park on the St. Louis River south of Duluth. It is at the eastern most end of Minnesota Highway 210, which made it easy for us to navigate there. Historically, the river made navigation not as easy here. The park is home to the Grand Portage of the St. Louis River, used first by Native Americans for who knows how long, and then by French fur traders in the 1700’s and up until the rail road built a bridge through the area in the mid 1800’s. Pennsylvania financier Jay Cooke donated the initial plot of land for the park as part of a rail road deal. He had originally intended for Duluth to be a “new Chicago”, though the financial panic of 1873 and his subsequent bankruptcy scaled those plans back.
The towns of Thompson and Carlton are right outside the park. The Black Bear Casino and Resort is nearby, if you’re into that sort of thing. We arrived in Carlton just at the tail end of Carlton Daze, which appears to be the local version of a small town block party. The main street had been closed off to traffic for a street dance type event. A couple of local bars were keeping the celebration going through the evening, after the food trucks and other tents had closed down. Carlton is also on a number of trails through the area, such as the William Munger State Trail and St. Louis River State Water Trail.
We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at Jay Cooke. As we drove into the park, outstanding views of the St. Louis River were presented around every corner. We were used to the wide muddy scene of the Missouri. The St. Louis turned out to be wide and rocky. Each rock formed a rapid, and the river continuously roared, making the necessity of the Grand Portage readily apparent.
After setting up camp, we went for a walk. The Swinging Bridge is the most famous man-made feature of the park. This incarnation of the bridge was recently opened, as the previous bridge had been swept away in a flood in 2012. This same storm took out a section of Highway 210 in the eastern side of the park. The bridge isn’t nearly as treacherous as the memorabilia at the visitor’s center made out. Fellow park goers did seem to enjoy making the span bounce by jumping up and down in the middle.
On the other side of the bridge are a number of trails. The Superior Trail and the North Country National Scenic Trail run through this area. There are also a number of local park trails. The area immediately by the bridge, and on the rocks upstream of the bridge were busy, but a short hike downstream provided some much needed solitude.
A short drive up 210 brought us to Oldenburg Point, a nice picnic area with tremendous views of the river valley. Sizable stone picnic shelters are also found here, a remnant of the CCC work that took place in the 1930’s.
The campground was compact, but the trees provided privacy for each campsite. Wood was available at the visitor’s center, along with various sundries. A gas station and grocery store can be found in Carlton, though the hours of the grocery seemed to be limited.
The weather was cooperative, until it was time to break camp. We ended up taking down the tent in between rain showers. Not long after pulling out of the campsite, the real downpour started. We ended up going to the River Inn, which is an indoor picnic shelter with a large fireplace and nature center. Rain must be a common occurrence here, there were a number of rainy day activities for the kiddos available in the shelter.
We found Jay Cooke State Park to be a pleasant place to stay and explore. I hope next time to stay longer to further explore the trails and historic features in the park.