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.
EXPEDITION PLANNER: Jay Cooke State Park, MN
Drive Time: Jay Cooke State Park is about 140 miles (2½ hours) north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and 15 miles (20 minutes) southwest of Duluth.
The Way: Take I-35 north from Minneapolis-St. Paul to exit 235, then go east on MN 210 for 5 miles to the park. From Duluth, take I-35 south to the Thompson exit, then follow signs on County Highway 1 to the park.
Trails: Jay Cooke has 50 miles of marked trails; in winter, 32 miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails are available. Pack-in campsites are on the south side of the river, which is also the best area for wildflowers from May to mid-July. The overlook from the bluff at the end of the High Trail is 12 miles from the trailhead, or 7 miles from the Lost Lake pack-in camping site.
Elevation: Trail elevation varies only slightly, from about 650 feet by the river to a bit over 900 feet on the ridges. However, many of the trails bearing north or south of the river involve substantial up-and-down hiking.
Can't Miss: A scenic detour along the river gorge, proceeding west on Carlton Trail from the south side of the Swinging Bridge.
Crowd Control: Dayhikers flock to the park on summer weekends and during peak fall weeks. The longer trails and backcountry sites are almost always quiet, however. Reservations are recommended on weekends.
Guides: Hiking Minnesota, by Mike Link and Kathleen Crowley (Human Kinetics, 800-747-4457; $19.95). Wildflowers of Minnesota Field Guide, by Stan Tekiela (BowTie Press, 888-738-2665; $16.95). Both books are available at www.backpacker.com/bookstore. A trail map is available at the Visitor Center and downloadable at the park's Web site (see Contact below).
Walk Softly: Stay on designated trails to minimize impact. Use latrines at pack-in sites.
Contact: Jay Cooke State Park, (218) 384-4610; www.dnr.state.mn.us.