On a sunny but windy Saturday in late February, I put the dogs in the car and we hit the road for a mini-adventure. A day trip up highway 35 from Minneapolis to Duluth with three well-researched stops planned out: Banning State Park, Jay Cooke State Park, and Park Point Duluth. Most of my research came from these books: Hiking Minnesota and Camping the North Shore.
In the back of my mind, I was prepared to do car camping -- and by that I mean actually camping in one's car -- overnight at a yet-to-be-determined campsite somewhere on the North Shore. What actually happened was a sunny nap in the car at Jay Cooke and a long drive home to sleep in my own bed. I still plan on trying it sometime this year, though! It was quite comfy in the back of my hatchback with my fur kids snuggled up with me. Blame it on Instagram!!
Anywho, this is easily a trip to replicate, and I encourage you to do so! Pick one destination or all three; you can make a day or a weekend of it. The best part? All are very close to the Twin Cities, but it still feels like a vacation. Join me on my mini-adventure!
Banning State Park
Stop number one was a hiking destination: Banning State Park. I desperately needed to unwind and get away from it all, and I could not have picked a better place. The trails were wonderful, and I only saw a handful of people. Not only that, but the Kettle River was powerful and captivating with all the snowmelt. You can find my detailed Trail Guide here. We took the Skunk Cabbage Trail (oh yeah, you know you want to try it now!). The best thing about this park? Quiet. It was quiet, peaceful, even tranquil. Exactly the escape into nature I needed. If you need a similar experience, it's worth the drive to get out of the Twin Cities and have a little "me" time.
Jay Cooke State Park
Stop number 2 on this day trip was Jay Cooke State Park. I'd read all sorts of good things about this state park and was very eager to visit. It did not disappoint! Even though it was February, there were still plenty of people in the parking lot. The trails were completely covered in ice, so we just stuck to the warming house and the suspension bridge. Even though we didn't venture far, we were there for an hour and a half. Ok, part of that was a relaxing nap in the sunshine in the back of my hatchback, but it still counts.
At fist, I wasn't sure that we had the correct road, but eventually we saw the sign. Before we reached the park, we passed an incredible dam and bridge. I actually said, "Damn!" as we passed the dam. Unfortunately, it didn't look like there were any pull-outs nearby or places for viewing. So, we just drove really slowly and looked out over the gorge below and the impressive raging water. Continuing on, we at last saw the sign for the state park. The visitor center is actually several miles up the road, winding along the river. I saw one or two pull-outs, but didn't stop.
Since we had a pass, we cruised past the information center and found a parking spot near the bridge. The suspension bridge hangs out over the St. Louis River, and I must say it's not for the faint of heart! My dogs definitely looked twice before committing to crossing. There is some movement in the bridge as people walk back and forth. Even though there is chain link fencing all the way to the bridge surface, it still seems like you're dangling out over the water with nothing but a few wooden boards between you and the rapids below.
If you have a nervous dog, I'd highly recommend waiting until there are no other dogs or people on the bridge before attempting a crossing. Other travelers will put pressure on your dog, and other dogs may not be friendly. Once you're out there, it's pretty tight to try to pass someone. This was a big first for River. She had been over bridges before, but none that moved this much or had this much noise. Mica was nervous, too, but this was not his first rodeo. He was steady for River, and we went at her pace. Characteristically, they both got really low and went step by step across the bridge.
River was none too please when I begged her to stop for pictures in the middle. I just had to pause and take in the view, if only for a minute! Another tip: if you have a nervous dog or one that just does not want to go over the bridge - don't force them and DO NOT carry them across. A dog in your arms would be at the level of the rail, and it would be all too easy for a thrashing, panicked dog to squirm out of your arms and fall over the edge. I shudder just thinking about it. If your dog is putting on the brakes, take a moment to wait for them, but if they are upset it's best to just let them wait in the car rather than force a traumatic experience on them.
On the other side at last, both dogs felt a lot better. We did a little rock scrambling and saw other parts of the river from an incredible vantage point. The trails on the map looked awesome, but I had left my ice grips for my shoes back in the car so we opted out. Very icy, very slippery! After a couple more photos, we made our way back across the bridge. Much easier for River the second time.
There is a neat trail running along the warming house side of the river. We found a little rock ledge to sit on, and I wished I had a picnic with me. Perfect place to read a book. There. were. red. squirrels. EVERYWHERE. They have many bird feeders, and there were tiny red squirrels all over the place. River just about lost her mind not being able to chase them as they crossed the trail. They are crazy cute, but do not feed them please.
Another thing I liked was the warming house. There is a HUGE stone fireplace inside and lots of tables. This is where the restrooms are actually located; don't believe what the confusing signs try to tell you. They keep the fire going until 2pm every day, and I sat for a time in front of the embers. So perfect on this windy day!
I'd highly recommend making this a stop on your next trip north. Pack a picnic and schedule a family gathering in the warming house. Or hike out past the rapids and follow the river. Super dog-friendly and a really unique destination.
Park Point Duluth
Last on this trip was getting to the beach at Park Point in Duluth. I selected this location from one of my books: Hiking Minnesota. What a fun drive to get there! Pulling off of I-35 at the Lake Avenue exit, I drove through downtown Duluth, saw the sights, and found the aerial lift bridge. The park and the trail are at the end of the point. Going over the lift bridge (cool!) then driving all the way to the end of the point, I saw so many neat beach houses. When you finally reach the seaplane airport, there's a small bit of parking along one side of the road.
We found a spot, watched the sun begin to set over the bay, geared up and hit the beach. It reminded me so much of the sand dunes of South Carolina. We took the furthest set of stairs over a boardwalk and onto the sand. It was a very windy day, so I was glad for my winter wear, even though it seemed very out of place on a beach. When there's no snow, it's hard to tell what season it is on the water. There was a bit of ice built up at the water's edge, but the waves crashing against the shore were breathtaking. Lake Superior is so huge, it often seems like the edge of the ocean.
The sunset here was the perfect conclusion to our day of adventures. We only saw a couple of people and had the beach to ourselves. Because of that, I did go against the rules and let the dogs off leash to chase some sticks and investigate the waves. They posed for some stunning photos. We walked up the beach for about half a mile and then came back. The trail goes much further; my book says it's a 4 mile trek round trip. I'd love to come back in better weather.
River found a cherished piece of driftwood and tried to entice Mica to play with her. I sat on a log and just watched them kick up sand and surf, enjoying the moment. Finally, after losing feeling in my hands from taking pictures with my phone in the freezing wind, we headed back to the car. Back over the bridge, through Duluth, and to the highway, we drove all the way back to Minneapolis in the darkening night.