Last updated on August 16th, 2019
Along the North Shore has some of the most iconic State Parks. Jay Cooke is right up there next to the likes of Gooseberry Falls for its fun sights. This park is home to some epic waterfalls. However, the only way to get to the waterfalls is by crossing a Swinging bridge adding another element to its popularity for visitors heading north. Most people stop their journey here. I, on the other hand, decided to conquer the Jay Cook State Park Hiking Club Trail.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Minnesota State Parks Hiking Club, its a series of designated trails at each state park providing guests with the most scenic views of the park. I’ve been on a mission to do them all as I track the passwords at each one.
The Jay Cooke State Park Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 3.5 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 29.5 miles
The swinging bridge overlooking the Upper River Gorge is a fun way to start Jay Cooke State Park Hiking Club Trail. Floodwaters destroyed the bridge during the summer of 2012. It just reopened up in 2017. Walking over it today, it’s hard to imagine how the waters could get that high. Mother Nature is just crazy. But this bridge is back to its old grandeur. The new design no longer allows visitors to look through the grated floor, calming the fears of people like my mom. But it still maintains is swing and bounce as you walk across.
A Muddy Mess
After the bridge, the real hike begins. The only portion that maintains its rocky climbing is directly after the bridge and near the Falls a few feet ahead. It is an easy hike with little in the way of hills and different grades. The challenge with this hike was in the wet conditions of early summer. Every quarter mile we faced a new mud pile to traverse. Thankfully, this hike is one that many others have done, several times, they had already bushwhacked a path around the muddy mess. I was never more thankful that I took my convertible pants on this hike. The only thing that would have made the trip better was bringing my waterproof boots. I can only imagine what the dogs would have looked like if we brought them.
Rounding up the trip, we found the password easy to find on a trail map sign. The trail didn’t have much for benches or scenic overlooks beyond the falls. We did find one picnic shelter on the entire trail that made for a perfect place to rest. It was in the middle of a big hill toward at the end of the hike and provided some much-needed relief to everyone. We also found a small stream, wildflowers and other fun stuff. If you go off just the pictures, you’ll see most of our fun was with the mud puddles. I’ll explain why in a little bit.
We opted to take the trail clockwise, leaving our favorite part for the end, the waterfalls. The waterfalls at Jay Cooke State Park are just on the other side of the Swinging bridge. But what makes these fun, is that it’s almost impossible to view them directly. The only way would be to get ground level with the fall below the swinging bridge. Even then you may end up with just rapids. The real falls require a little boulder climbing, then peering over an edge at the waterfalls. The falls come from every direction. As a parent, this is one of the most terrifying things to do with your kids.
As a kid camping here, I remember going over to the falls all by myself. My parents must have been crazy to let us anywhere near them without supervision. If the boulder hopping is too intense for you, you can also get to the headwaters of the falls from the shoreline.
Side Notes about the Hiking Club Trail
The trailhead for the Superior Hiking Trail is located 1.9 miles south of the hiking club trail. You may see a few through hikers on their way on their way to Duluth.
Start your hike early. This is normally a mantra of mine but we got off to a late start this time. You may be close to the North Shore, but you are not there yet. At noon, the temperature at the park skyrockets. Add that with a 3.5 mile hike and you’ll be thinking about taking a dip in the falls.
Other Fun Things to Do
Jay Cooke State Park has some great camping spots located in their loop. They cater more to people who tent. There are limited amounts of sites with electric. I’ve stayed many times here growing up and even after I was married. It’s one of my favorites because of its location to Duluth. If you want a spot here, I recommend staying during the week or planning 3-6 months in advance. Otherwise, you will be looking for alternatives, like I did.
There is actually a KOA about 3 miles down the road that had plenty of space. I would recommend them if you have a camper. The only problem we faced was it was right next to a very active train track. It didn’t cause too many problems.
Jay Cooke State Park has a few other trails in the area to explore along with some paved trails open to rollerblades. If you continue on the trails towards the town of Carlton, you’ll reach the Thomas Dam. This Dam is a fun stopping point and can be reached from the road too in case you’re done hiking for the day.
Being so close to the rapids, you can bet there is also rafting and kayaking in the area. The U of M has their Kayak Center near the Thomas Dam, with rates for everyone, including non-students. If you haven’t been on rapids before, I highly recommend going with a guide like the Minnesota Whitewater Rafting Company. They start their trips in the neighboring town of Cloquet and have trips for all skill levels.
For other fun things in the area, stop up in Duluth. It 10 minutes north of Jay Cooke State Park. Between the Lift Bridge, Lake Superior and the great dining there is so much to do. Another blogger friend of mine, Jen from Travel with a Plan, just got back from a trip to Duluth and has some great tips for your trip. Check it out: The Perfect 2 Day Family Getaway in Duluth, Minnesota
If you only have an hour
If you are short on time, park at the visitor’s center and cross the swinging bridge. Then take a peak at the waterfalls. You will only need about 30 minutes but it’s a lot of fun. If you are looking for a good restaurant nearby, you have to check out Gordy’s Hi-Hat. Great food made quick.
Fun Fact. About 85% of the pictures featured on this post were all taken by my 5-year-old son. One of my readers was nice enough to donate their old camera to him so he could start using them on our adventures. We were having so much fun watching him take pictures; I decided to see what he would come up with!