If you’re a typical Minnesota backpacker, sometime around March, you get tired of waiting for the northcountry to thaw. My advice: Stop waiting and head to Jay Cooke State Park, where trails often are snow-free in early spring.
When I arrived at the Silver Creek trailhead, the picnickers milling about initially dismayed me. But minutes after setting off down the trail, I was surrounded only by the tranquility of the woods. By the time I’d reached my backcountry camping site, with a clear trout stream flowing softly nearby and a few birds chattering in the distance, the park’s solitude had been mine for hours.
Sprawled in a gorge along the banks of the St. Louis River, Jay Cooke exhibits both the ruggedness and gentleness of the Northwoods. The sculpted rock of the gorge combines with delicate wildflowers, stands of paper-white birch, and serene backcountry lakes and streams.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century traders were forced to circumvent the gorge’s impassable rapids on the historic Grand Portage Trail. During my weekend visit, I crossed the St. Louis River on a swinging bridge, then made a beeline for the backcountry campsite at Silver Creek (one of four isolated pack-in sites on the south side of the river). The next day, I used the Spruce and High Trails to reach a spectacular bluff overlooking the river—a round-trip of about 18 miles from my tent.
Compared to the grand tracts of wilderness farther north, Jay Cooke is a shirt-pocket destination, with 8,800 acres to its name. But the park manages to pack 50 miles of trails into its boundaries, and in the spring you can have them all to yourself. The season’s new undergrowth and thin forest canopy open vistas of one of the most scenic stretches of river valley in the Midwest. Snow may linger in April, but you can still use the park’s groomed cross-country skiing trails to access the backcountry campsites. There’s no sense in waiting around.