“We’re building a campground!” Christa Maxwell said as we drove past piles of gravel and muddy lanes. “Right there!”
At the top of Minnesota, just southwest of the Boundary Waters, the clear, crystal ripples of Lake Vermilion are at the heart of the state’s first new state parkland in 30 years. Rangers around these parts are giddy with excitement, even if the park’s development might feel as slow-moving as the glaciers that once carved out this picturesque region.
In 2010, the state purchased 3,000 acres adjacent to Soudan Underground Mine State Park to create Lake Vermilion State Park, in Soudan. Last year, the two parcels were merged.
Maxwell is project manager for the new park. In the winter months, she commutes an hour from home outside Ely in the pitch dark, both ways.
“Worth it,” she said.
The 4,000-acre park consists of rugged shoreline dotted with old-growth pine along Lake Vermilion’s southern and eastern stretches. The most developed portion is centered around the Soudan Underground Mine, which has been taking visitors beneath the Earth’s surface since U.S. Steel donated 1,200 acres to the state in 1963. When the steel company sold the mine’s surrounding land to the state in 2010, the state began planning a modern state park, with a visitor center, camper cabins and access to 10 miles of lakeshore.
“It’s kind of a dream come true,” said Jim Essig, park manager of the new Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. “The fact is, what we’ve been missing at Soudan forever is the connection to the lake. We had it, we just never really promoted it or did anything with it. So this gives us a chance to do that.”
Planners are calling it a park for “the next generation.” Roving rangers with iPads will check in visitors to campgrounds via park-wide wireless Internet. Dry educational dioramas found in other parks will be replaced here, one day, by a lodge. “It won’t be focused on static interpretative displays, like ‘Look at this stuffed wolf,’ ” Maxwell said.
But first, the park needs power, and roads, and campgrounds, and trails, all of which are in various stages of development. For now, visitors can boat in for the day to a dock and picnic shelter blanketed by sweet-smelling pines along Armstrong Bay, or drive into that area on weekends while construction still rages on during the week.
A launch at Stuntz Bay is the only access point for the public to get out onto the water in their own vessels. The access is just a sliver of a ramp located among one of the park’s most unique features — a row of more than 150 corrugated steel shacks, boathouses that were given as perks to the steel company’s workers around 1912 and remain in their families.
Unofficial trails along old logging roads and skid trails are open to anyone with the equipment needed to explore here year-round, mainly snowshoes and snowmobiles in the coming months. A fire tower with commanding views of Jasper Peak is technically open to hikers, though the trail leading there isn’t maintained yet.
Pull-offs onto the grass are the makeshift parking areas for cyclists who want to take off on the not-yet-complete Mesabi Bike Trail, which runs along old rail corridors and will eventually connect Ely to the park and farther on to Grand Rapids.
Visitors “shouldn’t expect a completed trail system,” Maxwell said. The logging roads “weren’t designed with hiking in mind, but you can go out there and hike them right now.”
Campgrounds are expected to open with the 2017 camping season, with camper cabins down the line.
Developing a new park is a long game, according to Maxwell. There are grand ideas for boat rides and rentals, archery and rope courses, but some of these dreams won’t, or can’t, come to fruition for many years. A lack of parking at Stuntz Bay, for instance, won’t be resolved for some 50 years, after the land with the privately owned shacks reverts back to the state.
But the feeling on the ground, among those pungent pines and under the gleaming new stone-columned picnic huts, is one of something that is about to begin.
There was a time when U.S. Steel considered selling the land to private developers, before the state got hold of it. “I just think about how different that would be if it happened,” said Maxwell, who drove us well past those piles of gravel and down to the glittering shore of Armstrong Bay, where a family had boated up and splashed around near the dock, a little girl chirping with a glee that seemed to match Maxwell’s own.
“This really is a legacy for future generations that we have an opportunity to build a park from scratch.”
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853