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Four months after being devastated by floods, popular Northland state park to reopen Monday

While the entire span of the Swinging Bridge over the St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park was damaged by flooding in June, the northern approach to the bridge was particularly hard-hit, with metal twisted by the force of water and debris. The park hopes to reopen the bridge next year. (2012 file / News Tribune)

Jay Cooke State Park will reopen Monday, four months after flooding washed away roads, trails and bridges.

"We're excited to let people back into the park," park naturalist Kristine Hiller said. "We have been closed for four months, and I think we are all starting to go into visitor withdrawal. It's a big part of our job to be social."

Park visitors, however, will be restricted to driving into the park from the west, and only as far as park headquarters and the campground. It will be next year -- or even 2014 -- before Minnesota Highway 210 reopens to the public for its entire length through the park.

While getting into the park will be more difficult for the foreseeable future, on Monday the park will reopen its office, interpretive center, campground and camper cabins to the public. Campsites and cabins will be available first-come, first-served through the end of the month. On Nov. 1, the state will begin accepting lodging reservations. The park will offer its first post-flooding naturalist program on Nov. 3.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the park will reopen the bulk of its hiking trail system Monday.

"We are going to have 38 out of our 50 miles of trails open for visitors," Hiller said. "We were very surprised when we started adding it up."

Not all the reopened trails are connected, however, as damaged or missing bridges have created gaps in the system. Park workers will repair or replace as many bridges as possible yet this fall. The park plans on grooming at least some of its cross-country ski trails this winter.

One big gap in the system is at the St. Louis River, where floodwaters rose 5 or 6 feet over the deck of the iconic swing bridge on June 21 -- damaging cables, boardwalk, fencing and some smaller supports. The park hopes to reopen the bridge by late summer next year.

With the swinging bridge closed, "getting to the south side where there are open trails will be more difficult," Hiller said.

It also will be more difficult for visitors to reach trails along the still-closed Highway 210 between park headquarters and Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood.

"People can't just go park next to a trail like they use to," Hiller said.

When June's flooding hit the region, Highway 210 already was closed at the St. Louis River to allow for the renovation of the Thomson bridge. But visitors could enter the park via detours or from the east. The flooding washed out a 9-foot-diameter overflow pipe near the Thomson Bridge, as well as causing washouts and landslides along Highway 210, which is built on hills of unstable clay and silt in the park.

To reopen Highway 210 into the park from the west, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had to complete the in-progress bridge renovation, replace the washed-out culvert with a 100-foot-long bridge, and plug a 35-foot-deep, 100-foot-long gap in the highway between Thomson and the park's headquarters with a custom-built box culvert.

"We're glad that we have that new bridge built and Thomson bridge rehabilitation project finished on time so everyone can get into the park," MnDOT regional spokeswoman Beth Petrowske said. "There will be some ongoing work on the reopened section through the end of the year, but it will just require some brief temporary closures or shoulder closures. People just need to be aware that there is going to be some continued work and they may be driving on gravel in some areas."

The state is also making good progress on repairing Highway 210 into the park from the east, Petrowske said, but "there are going to be sections that won't be open until 2013 or 2014."

The biggest problem is between park headquarters and Oldenburg Point, where floodwaters tore a 50-foot-deep, 250-foot-wide gap through the highway after an earthen embankment on Forbay Lake -- part of Minnesota Power's reservoir/power generation system -- gave way. MnDOT engineers and consultants are working to develop a solution for reopening the road.

"We are discussing options, but it is looking more like we are going to be building a bridge," Petrowske said. "We are waiting to hear from Minnesota Power to see what they plan to do with their power plant and the Forbay Lake canal area. Whatever they do will affect what we do."

Minnesota Power is working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission planning the restoration of Forbay Lake. Minnesota Power and MnDOT officials will meet later this month, Allete spokeswoman Amy Rutledge said.

It's possible that Highway 210 between Fond du Lac and Oldenburg Point will reopen next year, with the section between Oldenburg and park headquarters remaining closed until 2014.