Jay Cooke State Park
By Jim Umhoefer
When the voyageurs carried their canoes around the gorges of the Saint Louis River they could not have found tougher terrain to travel. The raging river, steep cliffs and marshy backwaters made the area of what now is Jay Cooke State Park an obstacle rather than a destination. Today, the iconic swinging bridge makes it easy for visitors to cross the river and its many miles of trails make Jay Cooke one of Minnesota’s most popular state parks. Jay Cooke State Park is located three miles east of Carlton in Minnesota’s Carlton County.
The St. Louis River
The mood of the St. Louis River changes from season to season. At times, the water thunders over the ancient slabs of bedrock; at other times it trickles and splits around rocky outcrops.
Oldenburg Point, a popular picnic area with an open shelter, offers good views of the snarled mass of rock.The river is not safe for swimming or boating, although it is a state-designated canoe route above Cloquet. There are two dams on the St. Louis River near the park; the Thomson Dam near the northwest boundary and the Fond du Lac Dam near the northeast boundary.
Plants and Wildlife
The 7-mile-long trail that bypassed the spectacular rocky gorge of the lower St. Louis River was called the Grand Portage. It was a rough trail of steep hills and swamps that began at the foot of the rapids above Fond du Lac and ended near Maple Island. It was divided into 19 pauses (rest stops) spaced one-third to one-half mile apart. To portage the freight, each voyageur carried two or three packs weighing up to 90 pounds each. These were supported by a portage strap, which passed around the voyageur’s forehead and reached to the small of his back. Once he reached a pause with his load, the voyageur would jog back to the last stop for more packs. It took an average of three to five days for a crew to complete the Grand Portage, sometimes longer under bad conditions. It was backbreaking labor, and the voyageurs would be plastered with mud and covered with mosquito and fly bites.
Once past the portage, the fur traders paddled up the St. Louis River to the Savanna Portage, another grueling trail that provided access to the Mississippi River. Or they continued on the St. Louis to Lake Vermillion and the Rainy River. Native Americans used these routes for thousands of years before explorers and fur traders came from Europe. The Grand Portage was still in use as late as 1870, but a new railroad meant the end of the old passage.
Jay Cooke State Park has space for long winter hikes or ski outings, and trails to challenge all abilities. The park has 32 miles of designated ski loops and several side spurs that lead to overlooks of the snowy hills and valleys. At least 20 miles are groomed by park staff. An additional 12 miles are groomed when snow conditions allow. Snowshoeing is allowed throughout the park except on groomed ski trails. Jay Cooke maintains a few miles of packed snowshoe trails. 12 campsites are available for winter camping.
More about skiing at Jay Cooke State Park