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Minnesota’s Iron Range provides an opportunity for many out-of-the-ordinary travel adventures on your next road trip. Whether you’d like to take a stroll half-a-mile below the earth’s surface in an historic mine, or explore hundreds of miles of off-road trails with your ATVs, OHVs and dirt bikes, or gaze out over the Grand Canyon of the North, northern Minnesota is the place for adventure!

What is the Iron Range? Contrary to what the name suggests, the Iron Range isn’t a single mountain range, but a collective name given to a number of iron-ore mining districts around Lake Superior in the United States and Canada. And, as you might expect, this kind of geography provides lots of adventure opportunities for visitors. Below, I’ll start this amazing road trip through the Iron Range with the ore itself, at the historic Soudan Mine. The destinations are mainly in the Vermilion and Mesabi Iron Ranges.

What’s in this article?

(This article is a 15-minute read.)
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Soudan Mine Tour
Soudan Secrets of the Deep Science Tour
Minnesota Discovery Center
Ghost Town Trolley Tour (Chisholm)
Grand Canyon of the North – Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing
Northern Minnesota OHV & ATV Park
Hiking & Biking
Things to do on Lake Vermilion
Places to Eat
Plan your visit (includes a Google map)

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Now part of the State Park system, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park is Minnesota’s oldest, deepest, and richest iron ore mine site. The mine operated from 1882 to 1962. However, the first years were an open pit mine that you can still see from a boardwalk on the West Tower Mine Trail right next to the mine.

You can take a free self-guided tour of the historic buildings and their displays at the park visitor center. There’s also a free MP3 player with additional information, if you want to check one out. Even if you don’t have time for one of the underground tours, the free tour is well worth a stop.

The photo above shows the headhouse, where the ore fell through a series of chutes to drop into railroad cars. As well as the headhouse, you can follow the journey of the ore from extraction through a ride on the “Larry Car” to the crusher house. Various artifacts and information panels inside the buildings help you see what life as a miner was like at the turn of the 20th century.

Travel Tip: State park permits aren’t required at the Visitor Center (where the mine entrance is located) parking lot. From here, you can explore all the free above-ground attractions or take one of the mining tours.

Soudan Underground Mine Tour

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park mine tour.

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park mine tour.

The Soudan Iron Mine opened in 1882. Train transportation, on the other hand, didn’t arrive until 1884 to transport workers in and the ore out. And there was lots of ore! Indeed, the Soudan is one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world. While these extremely rich veins of hematite at this site often contain more than 65% iron, the mine closed in 1962 due to the costs of extraction. In 1963, the mine was donated to the state of Minnesota to become a state park, and it was designated a National Historic Site in 1966.

As fascinating as it is, touring an underground mine, like the Soudan, isn’t for everyone. In fact, my first ten seconds or so in the “cage” down were a cross between exhilaration and claustrophobia and panic. And there is no stopping the cage’s descent, so be sure that feeling of exhilaration will win out before you start down.

The cage travels at about 11 mph and takes around three very long minutes to descend the 27 levels to the bottom. Reid, our guide, explained that while we were traveling in safety, cage door closed, a century ago miners would have had just a chain across the opening in order to hold more people. While I’d have never guessed it, the cage travels at an angle that moves it 500′ over during the ride down the mine shaft.

When you leave the cage, you’re standing in a damp underground world, although as both David (who did an eight-week underground mechanical job) and the guide assured me, the Soudan was very dry compared to other mines. Overhead, the sign read 2341 feet below the surface. As you might expect, that means it’s chilly, so remember to wear a sweatshirt or jacket.

Exploring the Underground Mine

Underground at the Soudan Underground Mine.

Underground at the Soudan Underground Mine.

We boarded the tour rail cars and took off through the tunnels. While the mine contains 54 miles of underground tunnels, our ride only took us another half-mile further over the twisting, turning train tracks. Then, we arrived at the final section miners had been digging when the mine closed.

The Soudan mine used a cut and fill mining method. What’s that? Well, a rather fascinating system of extracting what’s overhead instead of under your feet. To facilitate the work, the floor and ceiling were always 10 – 20 feet apart. Miners used Ely Greenstone, and other waste rock, to artificially raise the floor at the same rate as the ceiling was being mined out. As a result, the waste rock never had to be hauled to the surface, since it was recycled to stand on.

Workers, back in the day, had very little light to see what they were doing in the harsh environment so far below ground. They were paired on up with another miner on their first day, to help navigate the depths and share a single candle to light the way. Odds were high that partners might not speak the same language either, to make sure they focused on work. Be ready for your own opportunity to experience that very black dark.

Travel Tip: Make sure your guide gives you a “miner’s sunrise” on your way back to the surface after exploring the mine. What’s that? Letting light into the dark cage. At 1900 ft there’s just a glimmer, which gradually increases as the you near the surface.

Soudan Mine Secrets of the Deep Science Tour

Lake Vermilion-Soudan Secrets of the Deep Science Tour

Soudan Secrets of the Deep Science Tour – mural “life of a neutrino”

On our visit to Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, we arrived in time for the first scheduled tours of the day. In order to get both in, we started with the Soudan Secrets of the Deep Science Tour. There’s also a third tour, the walking drift tour, which didn’t run the day we visited. While all tours are done in the mine, each one is very different.

The science tour takes visitors into what was once the Soudan Underground Laboratory. And if you’re wondering, as I did, what scientists would be doing underground — it’s not geology. Rather, think bigger, like black holes. Or, think smaller, like neutrinos. According to Scientific American, a ” neutrino is a subatomic particle that is very similar to an electron, but has no electrical charge and a very small mass, which might even be zero.” The gist of the research, though, according to our guide, is that scientists want to make a molecule absolutely still to see if dark matter will hit it.

While all of the information was fascinating, I found it particularly interesting that the mural (see the photo above) artwork of scientists’ faces, will last 10,000 years in the now-closed lab, due to the conditions of the underground environment!

Travel Tip: If you want to know more before you take the tour, check out the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search [CDMS] projects, which included the CDMS2 experiments at the Soudan Mine.

Minnesota Discovery Center

Sami camp dwelling at the Minnesota Discovery Center

Sami camp dwelling at the Minnesota Discovery Center

The Minnesota Discover Center is located in Chisholm, Minnesota, about 45 miles south of Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Originally called the Iron Range Interpretative Center, it became a non-profit museum in 2007.

As you might imagine since it started life focused on the Iron Range, many exhibits relate to the history of iron. However, the displays start with the area’s earliest inhabitants — don’t miss the Wild Rice display (and tasting a local favorite, wild rice soup) or the price lists for beaver pelts from the fur trade era. Then, of course, comes emigration and the growth of mining and mining towns, along with the fight for safe conditions in the industry. In fact, the museum is a great place to get all the facts about the development and importance of the iron industry.

Some of my favorite exhibits were outside, as there’s a long walking trail through the grounds. In particular, I found the Sami Camp dwelling pictured above fascinating. The Sami were a group of people from the far north of Russia, Sweden, Finland and Norway, many of whom ended up on the Iron Range.

Travel Tip: Getting to the right door to enter the Minnesota Discovery Center can be confusing, as there are different winter and summer entrances. Park in the first large parking lot and you’ll find the summer entrance to the far left side of the main building, along with the trolley tracks.

Ghost Town Trolley Tour

Ghost Town Trolley Tour

Ghost Town Trolley Tour

Who can resist a ghost town? Not me! Especially when it’s an inexpensive add-on to the museum’s admission and features a narrated tour that sheds a lot of light on the area’s history.

Taking around an hour-and-a-half, the trolley takes passengers on a scenic ride through the Iron Range with vistas of the forests and lakes and former open pit mining sites. Our guide, while young, had answers for all our questions, as well as lots of neat things to share. Midway, there’s a stop with ample time to get out and investigate the now-deserted historic mining community of Glen Location.

When you get off the trolley at the historic station, you can walk through the furnished buildings: a 1903 location house, bunk house and 1905 Finnish boarding house. Inside, you can almost imagine the workers will be rolling in at the end of their shifts. Outside, though, it’s apparent that you’re in a ghost town, as the mining equipment sits abandoned, seemingly with no purpose other than decorating the grassy expanse of yard.

Travel Tip: Don’t miss the Iron Man statue located at the entrance to the Minnesota Discovery Center — I got some good photos from the trolley. The Iron Man is 36 ft tall and balances on a 49 ft steel structure; it’s a tribute to open pit miners.

Northern Minnesota OHV & ATV Park

Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Area, Minnesota

Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Area, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster. Reused under a CC2.0 license.

If you take your motorized “fun” with you when you travel, you’ll want to take a day or two off from hitting the highways on your road trip, to hitting the trails.

With 36 miles of trails, this OHV park is considered a premier stop in Minnesota. Trails range from easy right through to difficult, so there’s something to challenge riders at their own skill levels. All off-road vehicles are allowed, whether you have two or four wheels!

When you arrive at the park, you’ll need to check in the office before entering, and check out when you leave. All OHV vehicles must be registered, but if your state or province doesn’t have a registration system, you’ll need to purchase a Minnesota non-resident state trail pass Minnesota OHV registration. Vehicle owners from outside Minnesota will also need to purchase a trail pass. Regulations are enforced by on-site DNR staff.

Travel Tip: You’ll find all facilities from restrooms to food and lodging all available in the nearby town of Gilbert.

Hiking & Biking

Lake Vermilion-Soudan boardwalk overlook of the original open pit mine.

Lake Vermilion-Soudan boardwalk overlook of the original open pit mine.

The only trail we had time to walk on our road trip was the Lake Vermilion-Soudan boardwalk at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. But it was certainly one not to miss! The boardwalk takes you out to the deepest mine pit on the site. It’s so far down that even in June, on our visit, I could still see snow in the bottom with my camera’s zoom!

However, there are many trails throughout the Iron Range. Whether you want a full day of challenging hiking and biking, or a family picnic with some great scenery, you’ll have several to choose from. Check out seven at the Iron Range website.

Travel Tip: The Mesabi Trail™ that winds through some of Minnesota’s most beautiful landscapes is a premier bicycle trail over 135 miles long. There are many access and staging points.

Things to Do on Lake Vermilion

Vermilion Ridge Campground & boat ramp on on the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion in Minnesota.

Vermilion Ridge Campground & Boat Launch on on the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion in Minnesota.

Lake Vermilion is a focal point for outdoor activities in Northern Minnesota. And with 300+ miles of shoreline, it’s easy to see why! Boaters and paddlers will find all kinds of opportunities to explore the 40,000 acres of water and 350 visible islands.

Fishing, as you might expect, is one of the most popular. In fact, some call Lake Vermilion a one-in-a-million fishing destination. Favorite catch? Walleye. However, lots fish Lake Vermilion looking for the big muskies, as they come in at 50 inch plus lengths.

You can also try wind surfing, paddleboats, water bikes, water skiing, tubing and more. Most any needed watercraft is available to rent at area resorts or marinas.

Travel Tip: There are dozens of lodges and resorts available on Lake Vermilion, as well as camping facilities. There are also half a dozen marinas.

Grand Canyon of the North – Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing

Shovel bucket that holds 18 cubic yards on display at the Grand Canyon of the North - Hibbing Visitor Center.

Shovel bucket that holds 18 cubic yards on display at the Grand Canyon of the North – Hibbing Visitor Center.

One of the last stops you’ll likely make in the Iron Range as you head south on your road trip is at the Grand Canyon of the North — the Hull Rust Mahonig Mine. While it’s man-made, it’s still something to see. Established in 1895, this Hibbing site was one of the world’s first open-pit mines.

The mine is so significant to Hibbing’s history, that the Hibbing Visitor Center moved up the hill to the overlook. When you reach the lookout, you’ll find a display of mining equipment and a viewing area. How far can you see? Up to 40 miles! The pit itself is more than three miles (5 km) long, two miles (3 km) wide, and 535 feet (163 m) deep.

Travel Tip: Hibbing is also the birthplace of Greyhound buses. Greyhound’s first passengers were Hibbing area miners in 1914. The Greyhound Bus Museum, which is near the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, is open from mid-May through September. See the website for full details.

Places to Eat on Your Iron Range Road Trip

Pies at the Village Inn Restaurant in Virginia, Minnesota.

Pies at the Village Inn Restaurant in Virginia, Minnesota.

Food is important on every trip! And we found some interesting spots on this part of the Iron Range. Our first meal at the Village Inn Restaurant in Virginia was lunch. I sampled — of course — their wild rice soup, which is a Minnesota favorite of mine.

Wild rice is Minnesota’s official grain and the soup, an unofficial, but should-be-official dish. While there are many variations to the recipe, Village Inn’s version followed a traditional one of adding it to a delicious creamy chicken soup base.

However, the signs throughout the restaurant, declaring it the home of the best pie in America, took center stage when we went back for dinner. In fact, we just ate pie: Hawaiian strawberry, French silk, and peanut butter. And I have to agree, each one was mouth-watering!

The Good Ol' Days Bar & Grill in Tower, Minnesota.

The Good Ol’ Days Bar & Grill in Tower, Minnesota.

The next day, after we finished our tours of Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, we stopped in nearby Tower, Minnesota. Our choice? The Good Ol’ Days Bar & Grill. Their claim to fame? Serving Northern Minnesota’s #1 Bloody Mary in a nationwide Absolut Vodka contest, and second state-wide.

Travel Tip: When you’re in Virginia, check out the world’s largest floating loon. It’s 21 ft long, 8 ft wide, and 9 ft high. See it from the Silver Lake and Olcott Park parking lot.

Plan Your Minnesota Iron Range Road Trip

Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle State Recreation Area – Gilbert

Soudan Underground Mine Tours

Mesabi Iron Range Outdoor Activities & More

Lake Vermilion Resorts & Tourism

Fishing Lake Vermilion

Minnesota Discovery Center

Travel Tip: Check out the fall foliage on these two Minnesota drives.

  • Laurentian Divide Tour: A 70-mile loop through the communities of Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik and Aurora, then north to Tower and back again.
  • Mines and Pines Tour: A 102-mile loop from Hibbing to Chisholm, Buhl, Mountain Iron and Virginia, north to Cook, east to McCarthy Beach State Park and back to Hibbing.

 

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Road Trip Adventures in Minnesota: Discover Minnesota’s Iron Range

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About the Photo

The photo in the header above was taken in Hibbing, Minnesota, of the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine from the viewing area at the Hibbing Visitor Center. Photo by Linda Aksomitis.

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Road trip adventures in Minnesota: Discover Minnesota's Iron Range

Road trip adventures in Minnesota: Discover Minnesota's Iron Range

Road trip adventures in Minnesota: Discover Minnesota's Iron Range

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