SOUDAN, Minn. -- In a conference room inside the State Capitol, in the final hours of a state legislative session in the late 2000s, the birth of Lake Vermilion State Park was mentioned, almost as an afterthought.
It was early in the morning when Larry Pogemiller, a Democrat from Minneapolis who served as the Senate Majority Leader at the time, was recounting to other senators and staff the details of the negotiating session. His talks with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and representatives from the Minnesota House had gone on all night.
Pogemiller, looking every bit like a person who had missed a night of sleep, recounted the compromises that had been reached on things like health care, taxes, transportation and other areas of importance to most Minnesotans. Then at the end he added, “Oh, and we’re getting a new state park.”
The newest state park in Minnesota was officially dedicated as such in 2014 when the far eastern end of Lake Vermilion was first opened to the public, featuring hiking trails to some stunning views of the lake, and a campground near Cable Bay. The new park is in the heart of what, a century ago, was one of the busiest mining areas in Minnesota. In the mid-2000s, US Steel announced its intent to sell the land that today is the new state park, no longer needing it for mining, and for $18 million taxpayer dollars, the people of Minnesota got a new place to access the 365 islands of Lake Vermilion.
While the mining, which first brought European settlers to this region in the 1800s, stopped when John F. Kennedy was still in the White House, visitors and hikers can see why this was the place people came looking for the raw materials to make iron and steel. The banded iron formation is a popular sight, and the nearby Onamani Overlook brings hikers to a spot high on a rocky point overlooking the islands of the lake which is one of the most photo-worthy places in northern Minnesota.
While much of the park can be explored on dry land, those with access to watercraft can launch them here and even enjoy one of the more unique lodging options in the state park system. Lake Vermilion has a rental cabin available on Blue Heron Island, and nearby is a shore lunch area accessible only from the water.
Just a few miles away from all of these wonders available on the land and on the water sits perhaps the most memorable and unique state park experience available in the state. The tour at Soudan Underground Mine, which is part of the state park system, takes visitors on a normal day in the life of a miner from decades ago. The tour starts with an elevator ride to a subterranean world a half mile below the surface, and a train deep underground whisks visitors off to see where the men (it was an almost entirely male profession) working the mines would come to work, eat their lunch (often a pasty, heated up over an open flame) and make their living, mining the ore that became steel and built so much of America.
The tours cost $15 for adults and last about 90 minutes. For the claustrophobic folks out there, it might be best to skip, but if you have a sense of adventure and an interest in what northern Minnesotans did for a living in 1892, this tour is a must-see.