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Happy Trails: Jay Cooke's Grand Portage Trail offers range of views, a workout

You won't be able to avoid the hills if you do the full loop, but they offer a great workout. Remember to bring the bug spray, too.

The Vandenhoutens' dog, Maverick, walks on the Grand Portage Trail
The Vandenhoutens' dog, Maverick, walks on the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park.
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten / Cloquet Pine Journal
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CARLTON — When most people visit Jay Cooke State Park, they head toward the swinging bridge and well-known trails connected to it, like the Silver Creek Trail or the Summer Trail.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

There's nothing wrong with that, but on a recent outing, my husband and I decided we wanted to explore a trail that might have a little less traffic.

We chose the Grand Portage Trail on the east side of the park because it looked — from the map, at least — to offer some variety. It also has its own parking lot at the trailhead, so we could avoid the hustle and bustle by the swinging bridge. When we pulled into the parking lot, there were only a few vehicles there.

After applying sunscreen and bug spray to ourselves and our toddler, we got the dog leashed up and headed out.

The Grand Portage Trail is a roughly 3-mile loop that requires hikers to cross the Little River and a smaller creek. That means bugs — lots of them.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Father and son at Jay Cooke State Park
Dan and Isaac Vandenhouten stand in the distance on the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park.
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten / Cloquet Pine Journal

We put on what I thought was a sufficient amount of bug spray, but I still heard mosquitoes buzzing around my head as we walked through the woods after crossing Minnesota Highway 210.

Thankfully, we didn't have any bites, and despite finding a dozen ticks crawling on our dog and around our house after the hike, none of them were attached. Thank you, Simparica Trio!

So this is your warning: If you can't handle dealing with mosquitoes or ticks, skip this trail entirely.

Bugs aside, the trail was beautiful. It took us along rolling hills filled with trees and through a few picturesque meadows.

There are benches stationed here and there along the trail if you want to stop for a rest or just to soak in your surroundings.

Dan Vandenhouten, Isaac Vandenhouten and Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten take a family selfie
From left, Dan Vandenhouten, Isaac Vandenhouten and Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten take a family selfie on the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park.
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten / Cloquet Pine Journal

Our son loved the view from the hiking backpack. We bought it a few weeks prior, and it was the first time he'd been in it for a hike.

Looking back, I wouldn't have brought him on this hike any other way. At 15 months old, he's been walking for a few months, but he's not quite an expert at it yet.

Furthermore, this trail was not made for strollers or wagons. The path narrows as it winds along hillsides and is full of rocks and roots to navigate. We had to climb over and under a few fallen trees.

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And then there were the hills. I consider myself a pretty active person, but the hills kicked my butt. Still, carrying a stroller would have been more torturous than having the extra 26 pounds on my back.

The Little River intersects with the Grand Portage Trail
The Little River intersects with the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park.
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten / Cloquet Pine Journal

Starting out from one direction on the trail doesn't mean you'll only have downhills to deal with either — you're going to hike up and down no matter where you start.

What about crossing the Little River?

It really was little. I'd describe it more like a stream than a river. There were large rocks for us to step on as we crossed, but we honestly could have walked through the few inches of water in the riverbed without a problem.

We heard lots of birds as we walked through the woods, and it was fun listening to Isaac try to imitate some of them.

The trail is for hikers only, but connects briefly with the multi-use Oak Trail. The 1.7-mile loop allows hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, and also meets up with the Munger Trail. There are several signs along the Grand Portage Trail to help mark your progress, including when it meets up with the Oak Trail.

A view of the St. Louis River from the Grand Portage Trail
A view of the St. Louis River from the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park.
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten / Cloquet Pine Journal

Three miles was about all we had time for, so we stuck to the Grand Portage Trail. We didn't see anyone riding a horse or mountain biking for the brief portion where the two trails overlapped.

Now that I think of it, we only ran into one other person while we were on the trail, and that was a man heading toward the river to fish. He passed us when we stopped at a bench to rest and drink some water. Other than him, we didn't see anyone else until we got back to the parking lot.

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My favorite part was the hike along the river. After going down a pretty steep hill, the path winds for just over 1 mile along the water. It was a bright, sunny day with a nice breeze. After exerting ourselves over the hills and through the woods, the stretch along the river felt relaxing and peaceful.

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The 3.8-mile multi-use trail was great for an endurance trek, but the in-trail traffic was a bit busy for this gal.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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