Warm weather brings plenty of outdoor opportunities
A guide to Carlton County
May 5, 2023
Whether you're looking for a way to while away an afternoon or plan an entire week's worth of activities - staycation style - there's plenty to do in Carlton County. Spring and summer are the perfect time to explore everything the area has to offer, from hiking in Jay Cooke State Park and whitewater rafting down the St. Louis River, to museums and other local attractions.
Established in 1857 and home to more than 35,000 citizens, Carlton County encompasses Cloquet, Esko, Carlton, Moose Lake, Wrenshall, Barnum, Mahtowa, Kettle River and Cromwell. Within these towns lie outdoor wonders, family-owned businesses, historical buildings and monuments and excursions fit to fill a summer's day.
Carlton is a small town with a lot to offer, especially for those who love the outdoors. In Carlton, there is access to the Willard Munger Trail, which is great for hiking, biking, inline skating and roller skiing. Jay Cooke State Park offers spectacular views of the St. Louis River and a wide variety of outdoor activities along with educational opportunities facilitated by park staff. Chub Lake is a local swimming and fishing spot located not far from Carlton and Wrenshall. There are also many locally owned restaurants to enjoy.
Hungry or thirsty? Visit the local restaurants and cafes including the Streetcar Kitchen & Pub, Magnolia Café and Red Dog Drive-Thru in Carlton, Mike's Cafe & Pizzeria in Esko or the Brickyard Restaurant and Bricks Pub & Grub in Wrenshall. Want to spend the night somewhere different? Check out the Oldenburg House Bed & Breakfast.
Jay Cooke State Park
Jay Cooke State Park is located off Highway 210 about 10 minutes away from downtown Carlton. It is home to the famous swinging bridge which hangs over the St. Louis River. There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails, with many attractions along the way, as well as biking trails, and cross country skiing. Free loaner equipment includes GPS units for geocaching, birding kits (binoculars, guide books and lists), fishing kits (rod, reel and stocked tackle box), and Kids Discovery Kits featuring activities, stories and tips for a fun visit. There are several camping opportunities at the park, including a group camp, backpack sites and more than 80 drive-in sites. Camper cabins hold up to six people, or up to five people in accessible cabins; electricity and heat are available year-round. Annual passes cost $35 and day passes are $7.
Carlton offers many hiking and biking trails, and the most popular is the Willard Munger Trail, a paved bike trail that runs from Hinckley to Duluth. Most locals enter the trail from the parking lot adjacent to the Little Caboose Playground, off Highway 45 near the railroad tracks in Carlton. Next to the playground, there is a pavilion, an ideal spot for taking a break from hiking or biking and having a picnic. There are maps of the trail near the pavilion, and a bike self-repair station on the corner of Third Street and North Avenue near the Streetcar Kitchen & Pub. Just off the trail in downtown Carlton, Carlton Bike Rental and Repair offers bike rental and repair, along with a range of bikes and accessories to purchase. The Munger Trail is also a popular inline skating, longboarding and roller skiing destination.
Chub Lake Park is located just outside of Carlton. Chub Lake features a public beach, perfect for relaxing and swimming. There's a handicapped-accessible dock offering fishing opportunities, and a boat launch for public use. A pavilion makes it easy to host a picnic by the lake. They have a small sand volleyball court, baseball and softball fields, and a lot of wide-open space for summer fun.
Disc golf, aka frolfing, is a sport basically combining Frisbee with golf, using specialized discs. Carlton County disc golf courses include the Carlton Disc Golf Sanctuary by South Terrace Elementary School in Carlton, a course on Pioneer Drive behind Wrenshall School in Wrenshall, and Hilltop Park in Cloquet. All of the courses are free to use. Discs are sold in most area sporting goods stores and at Carlton Bike Rental & Repair.
The neighboring cities of Cloquet and Scanlon offer a wide range of summertime activities. There's fun in the water and mountain biking for more active folks, along with mini golf, and a local history museum in Cloquet's former library for those who would rather not break a sweat. Downtown Cloquet offers shopping, parks and the local history museum. Cloquet's Spafford Park provides access to the St. Louis River and camping, while Veterans Park honors area veterans and serves as a large community gathering space for events such as the Fourth of July. Pinehurst Park has long been the gem in the heart of the city, while Pine Valley Park gives people a forest experience in the middle of town.
Up the hill on North Highway 33, there's mini golf on one side, and a small dog park at Gordy's Hi-Hat, Cloquet's most famous restaurant and a "must visit" for many out-of-town guests or northbound tourists passing through.
Speaking of ... Hungry? Thirsty? Stop for a bite at unique local restaurants including Carmen's, Gordy's Hi-Hat, Pedro's Grill and Cantina, Family Tradition, Hong Kong, Panda Buffet, Perkins, Heather's Cafe, Bearaboo Coffee Escape, Common Ground Coffee Bar & Deli, Gordy's Warming House and Sammy's Pizza in Cloquet, Trapper Pete's, River Inn or the Rendezvous in Scanlon or Mike's Cafe & Pizzeria in Esko. There are plenty of fast food restaurants as well.
The Northeastern Hotel, Saloon and Grille on Dunlap Island offers visitors an historic location to enjoy a beverage or spend the night.
Around the river bend in Scanlon, there's more river access, with fishing, boating and whitewater rafting trips down the St. Louis River.
No longer a site where unsupervised children can skip across log jams, the cleaned-up St. Louis River remains an important part of both industry and recreation for the area. Those looking to get outside will find opportunities for fishing, canoeing and kayaking, in addition to the campgrounds and walking and ATV trails that run across and parallel to the river.
There are multiple entry points to the river, with the main boat landing in Cloquet in Spafford Park, home to a public campground and the Voyageur statue. Boating, canoeing, and kayaking down the various stretches of flat water and Class I and II rapids are a few ways to cool down during the summer.
Around the river are walking/hiking and ATV trails connected by a walking bridge that crosses from Spafford Park to the trails below the Cloquet Chamber of Commerce building.
East of Spafford Park, on the other side of Highway 33 (connected by a walking trail or a roadway under the bridge) is the new and improved Dunlap Island Park, which features an elaborate destination playground for younger children, a picnic shelter and tables, public restrooms, paved walking trails and a view of the St. Louis River as it rolls by.
The river is also a fun place to fish. Catfish, trout, and bass are the most commonly caught, and the dock and benches alongside both river banks are great places to cast bait.
Up the hill from the river is Kendahl Miniature Golf, at 812 Sunnyside Drive. Putt your way through a lighthouse, a waterwheel, a large castle, a steamboat and more in 18 unique holes. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday through Saturday, the 18-hole mini-golf course provides a 20-45-minute outing suitable for all ages. After golfing, walk across the parking lot to Family Tradition Restaurant for a bite to eat.
The Beach at Pinehurst Park (601 Pinehurst Park Drive) is a popular family destination and one of only a handful of swimming ponds in the state, featuring a sand-bottom pool with chlorinated water and lifeguards. Opening day is set for June 12, with hours (weather permitting) 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and weekends noon-6 p.m. through Aug. 12, weather permitting. The sandy bottom gives it a lake-like feel, and the swim lanes and lifeguards make it safe for children. Additionally, the beach has changing rooms, two slides, a sand volleyball court, picnic areas, shade umbrellas with chairs, and concessions. Daily admission is $5 per person. A family pass is $89 ($109 after May 20) and a single pass is $49 ($59 after May 20). A licensed childcare or group home pass is $169.
Two playgrounds are located outside of the beach, just a short walk up from the entrance. Tennis and basketball courts, in front of the beach entrance, are lit after dark. There's an adjacent softball field that gets lots of use in the summer.
Pine Valley Park
While the ski jumps are the most distinctive feature of Cloquet's Pine Valley, the city's woodland park features 5.5 kilometers of unpaved trails for walking, trail running and Nordic skiing. There is no charge for use of the park, and the chalet there is available for party rentals through Community Ed. Dogs are welcome, but should be leashed.
In addition to the hiking trails, Pine Valley also boasts roughly 5 miles of relatively new mountain biking trails. Beginner-level bike trails are in the front of the park; intermediate- and advanced-level trails are deeper into the valley. No ATVs or electric bikes are allowed in the park.
Follow the signs from Armory Road next to Super One or search for 1554-1560 White Pine Trail electronically.
Cloquet skate park
Located on the corner of 14th Street and Prospect Avenue, the skate park in Athletic Park is open from 8 a.m. till dusk, Sunday through Saturday. Skateboards, in-line skates, scooters, and BMX bikes are allowed. The skate park features an open bowl, handrail, bank, stairs, flat rail, and more. The skate park is open to all ages, at no charge.
Carlton County Historical Society
The CCHS museum, located at 406 Carlton Avenue, includes the "Barns of Carlton County," "The Great 1918 Fire," and "Trains and the 1918 Fire" permanent exhibits along with special exhibits on a short-term basis, which includes a new maple syrup exhibit in partnership with the Fond du Lac Rez Historical Society. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Stop in to learn about or research Carlton County's history.
Or catch up on your history as you walk from one historic sign to another. Start at Fauley Park and the train, then walk down Broadway to USG, then on to the Voyageur statue and city campground or under Highway 33 to the playground at Dunlap Island park before heading back via the old City Hall building at Arch Street and Avenue B. There is also a historic sign outside the CCHS museum.
Esko: Just a couple miles down Highway 61 from Scanlon sits the Esko Historical Museum, open 2-5 p.m. Sundays in the summer or by appointment. Museum entry is free. There are eight buildings to visit in exploring the origins of rural northern Minnesota, including the 1897 one-room schoolhouse filled with historic documents and artifacts, a mill, log farmhouse and smoke sauna.
Fond du Lac: Drive up Big Lake Road from the Highway 33 intersection to the Fond du Lac Reservation Cultural Center & Museum at 1720 Big Lake Road. The museum features a wide range of Anishinaabe artifacts (baskets, a cradleboard, a moosehide drum) and cultural/historical information, including exhibits on clothing and accessories, plus poster-sized copies of important historic documents. Open 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 218-878-7582 with questions.
Paddling down the St. Louis river is one way to experience the flowing rapids and green scenery. No prior experience is needed; all rafters must be physically able to paddle. Minnesota Whitewater Rafting and Swiftwater Adventures are the two rafting companies in the area; both launch from near the River Inn Bar and Grill in Scanlon at 3214 River Gate Avenue. Call or check out their websites (minnesotawhitewater.com, swiftwatermn.com) to book a trip.
High Ropes Minnesota, sister company to Swiftwater Adventures, offers a high ropes course at 3200 River Gate Ave. in Scanlon. The aerial challenge course features 12 elements throughout two levels, including the Burma and Indian Jones bridges, and swinging vines. Call 218-451-4970 to find out more.
Hungry? Thirsty? While you're in the area, stop for a bite at unique local restaurants including Carmen's, Gordy's Hi-Hat, Pedro's Grill and Cantina, Family Tradition, Hong Kong, Panda Buffet, Perkins, Heather's Cafe, Bearaboo Coffee Escape, Common Ground Coffee Bar & Deli, Gordy's Warming House and Sammy's Pizza in Cloquet, Trapper Pete's, River Inn or the Rendezvous in Scanlon or Mike's Cafe & Pizzeria in Esko. There are plenty of fast food restaurants as well.
Moose Lake area
Moose Lake offers history, geology and plenty of small-town charm with its swimming beach and fishing piers. Known as the Agate Capital of the World, the small southern Carlton County city is home to the world's largest agate, weighing in at 108 pounds. Explore the local state park and history museum. The Willard Munger Trail runs through Moose Lake for easy access to biking and hiking trails. The Soo Line ATV trails also run through Moose Lake.
Moose Lake State Park
Moose Lake State Park is a beautiful place to hike and enjoy fishing, swimming and more. There are 5 miles of hiking trails and two miles of surfaced bike trail. Rent boats and canoes from the ranger office. Or head inside to the Moose Lake Agate and Geological Center to learn more about Minnesota's state gemstone, the Lake Superior Agate. There are also interpretive displays of Minnesota's rocks, minerals, and geology.
Moose Lake Depot & 1918 Fire Museum
The fires of October 1918 were the largest natural disaster in Minnesota history. The series of fires burned 250,000 acres, destroyed 38 towns, took 453 lives, and 52,000 people were either injured or displaced. The adjacent History Center has numerous displays related to the 1918 fire that change on a regular basis. The museum also features exhibits such as a 1920s-era kitchen, history of local area railroads, and much more. At Riverside Cemetery, located off of Highway 61 just a short drive from the museum, is a monument dedicated to those who were lost in the fire. About 200 victims of the fire were laid to rest here. The museum will reopen Memorial Day weekend for the 2023 summer season.
Hungry? Thirsty? Visit the nearby local restaurants and cafes including Lazy Moose Grill, Art's Cafe, Poor Gary's Pizza, Joe Jitters and Route 61 Lounge and Bowling (formerly Gampers) in Moose Lake, or Lazy Bear Grill, Lou's Rustic Diner or the Chickadee Coffeehouse & Deli in Barnum. The Rustic Spruce golf course in Mahtowa also offers food and music.