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, it’s 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
Jay Cooke State Park Swinging Bridge
The most iconic part of Jay Cooke State Park is the swinging bridge overlooking the upper river gorge and the St Louis River.
It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and is the start of the Jay Cooke State Park Hiking Club Trail. Floodwaters destroyed the bridge during the summer of 2012. It reopened in 2017 stronger than ever.
Walking over it today, it’s hard to imagine how the waters could get that high. Mother Nature is just crazy.
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 its swing and bounce as you walk across.
If you are looking to just see the Swinging Bridge, it’s a quick stop on your way to all things north. From highway 35, swing a right at exit 235 for MN-210 about 3.5 miles.
From the parking lot, you’ll see the swinging bridge. It’s a 5-minute detour and totally worth it.
Make sure you check out the Second Largest Candy Store in MN while in the area. The candy store is hidden behind the Gas Station on exit 235 on your way to Jay Cooke State Park!
A Muddy Mess
After the bridge, the real hike begins. The only portion that maintains its rocky climb is the small section after the bridge and near the Falls.
The rest of the Carlton Trail (aka hiking club trail) is through the dirt-packed forest. 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.
The Hiking Club Password is…
Did you really think I was just going to give away the password? Don’t worry, the password is easy to find on a trail map sign. They didn’t hide it in obscure places like I’ve seen elsewhere.
The trail didn’t have much for benches or scenic overlooks beyond the falls. We did find one picnic shelter midway up one of the only hills on the trail. It 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. But what makes these waterfalls fun, is that it’s almost impossible to view them directly.
The waterfalls are fed by the St Louis River. The real falls require a little boulder climbing, then peering over an edge. 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.
Love waterfall hikes? There are a few that you need to check out in the area!
Where to find Waterfalls in Duluth
Gooseberry Falls Hiking Trails
Tettegouche State Park
Temperance River State Park
Cascade Falls State Park
Grand Portage State Park
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 thru-hikers on their way to Duluth, Grand Marais, and eventually Grand Portage. The Superior Hiking Trial is part of the much larger North Country Trail.
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 its loop. They cater more to people who tent. There are limited amounts of sites with electricity.
I’ve stayed many times here growing up and even spent my honeymoon here. It’s one of my favorites because of its close proximity to Duluth.
If you want a spot here, I recommend staying during the week and 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 is that its right next to a very active train track. It didn’t cause too many problems.
Other Jay Cooke State Park Trails
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.
Oldenburg Point is another great trail. It has a 1.8 mile loop with multiple scenic views. What I love about the trail is the spectacular view looking back at the Saint Louis River. Fall is a great time, just make sure it’s not hunting season. They close portions of the park then.
Being so close to the rapids, you can bet there is also rafting and kayaking in the area. The U of M has its 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 Swiftwater Adventures. They start their trips in the neighboring town of Cloquet and have trips for all skill levels.
The Willard Munger State Trail makes its way through the middle of the State Park. The northern section of the trail is a trail is of 70 miles that is completely paved between Hinkley and Duluth.
Don’t forget to come back in winter. The park has some of the most dramatic rock formations. Add snow to the mix, and it’s unforgettable. There are also cross-country ski trails and snowshoeing.
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.
Duluth has a bunch of fun things to do any time of year. Make sure to check out:
5 BEST Christmas Lights in Duluth MN
28 Amazing Family Friendly Things to do in Duluth MN | The Perfect Getaway
26 BEST Things To Do in Canal Park in Duluth, MN
Other Questions about the Park
Can you drive through Jay Cook State Park?
Yes, you can drive all the way through Jay Cooke State Park. Highway 210 passes through the park and eventually ends up in Wisconsin. Only those stopping at the park will need a permit.
Can you swim at Jay Cooke State Park?
No. The St Louis River moves too fast to support swimming in the park. If you are looking to swim, consider staying at the nearby KOA and use their pool. Then spend the day in the park.
What animals are in Jay Cooke State Park?
Jay Cooke State Park is home to many different animals, including white-tailed deer, black bears, and timber wolves. During late fall, the park closes for deer hunting.
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 peek at the waterfalls. You will only need about 30 minutes but it’s a lot of fun.
The swinging bridge is easy to find. From the south, Take exit 235 from I-35 N. Take a right and keep going. Seriously, don’t turn. About 3.8 miles down the road, you’ll see the park office on the right. The bridge is on the path next to the visitor’s center.
If you are looking for a good restaurant nearby, you have to check out Gordy’s Hi-Hat. They have great food made quickly.
If you have more time, drive north along Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive | Over 28 Different Stops Along Hwy 61 and see some of the great things in this part of the state.
Fun Fact. About 80% 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 cameras 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!