Chasing Fall Colors in Jay Cooke State Park

The air outside has a crisp edge to it, and the humidity and bugs have finally started to disappear. The first few yellow-tipped leaves are scattering across the grass, making the truth undeniable: like it or not, the fall season is comin' in hot.

In the Northwoods we take this time seriously, as it seems to come and go in a matter of days. And what better way to cherish the beautiful golds, burnt oranges, and bright reds of the season than by getting outside for a hike? There are many exceptional places to take in the fall scenery, but today we'd like to put in our plug for Jay Cooke State Park in northeastern Minnesota. 


Jay Cooke boasts 50 miles of hiking trails through thick hardwood forests and massive rock formations, with the beautiful St. Louis River running right through the middle of it all. The river has carved out a steep gorge that provides plenty of elevation for hikers' eager legs to climb. Jay Cooke is a place where, within the distance of one short hike, you'll experience both the distinct serenity and the craggy ruggedness of the Northwoods. The park is widespread and has multiple parking lots from which you can kick off your adventures, but many visitors head to the primary lot near the Park Headquarters, and for good reason. Many of the park's most popular trails begin from this central location:

The St. Louis River

  • Thompson Trail: this easy out-and-back heads immediately west from the lot, providing beautiful views as it follows along the north side of the river. At the end you'll reach the historical Pioneer Cemetery, with gravestones existing from the 1800s.
  • The Swinging Bridge: Heading south you'll quickly be greeted by the park's architectural hallmark. You'll feel a gentle swaying underfoot as you cross the bridge over the rushing St. Louis River below. If you're not too unnerved, pause here to breathe in the fantastic view.
  • Ridge Trails: Once on the south side, take your pick of the West Ridge or East Ridge Trail: both are fairly short but stunning loops that offer sections along the river's edge as well as sections through peaceful backwoods.
  • Gill Creek Trail + Triangle Trail: Conditions permitting, this combination of trails is a great choice if you're looking for a lesser-trafficked area of the park. Park in the eastern lot off of Munger State Trail, and do this loop clockwise. You'll hit a variety of landscapes from cushioned forest path with fiery fall colors to winding switchbacks over Gill Creek. (Note: there was some damage here from flooding at one point, so please check in with the Park staff to be sure it's safe to hike.)

Hiking Gill Creek Trail on the east side of Jay Cooke State Park

It must be mentioned that some trails are still closed, due to tremendous flooding in 2012 that caused widespread damage, including completely wiping out the Swinging Bridge. Much of the park has been wonderfully restored, but we recommend checking in with the staff at the Park Headquarters when you arrive for their suggestions. They are incredibly helpful, friendly, and will point you toward several hikes that definitely will not disappoint.

According to the Minnesota Fall Color Finder - a very helpful and very awesome tool provided by the Minnesota DNR - by late September Jay Cooke is usually about 25% of the way towards peak fall color. So if you don't have plans for early- to mid-October and you're within driving distance, consider making this beautiful outdoor haven your weekend itinerary.