Eight years into the development of Minnesota’s “next generation’’ state park, officials last week christened the main campground on Lake Vermilion and announced plans for continued expansion.
Next in line for construction are eight sleek camper cabins to be placed amid the pines on the state’s fifth-largest inland lake. When coupled with a visitor center expected to look and act like a traditional, northwoods lake lodge, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park will more closely resemble the people’s “place on the lake’’ envisioned in the park’s master plan.
Progress has been marginally slower and more costly than anticipated, but the project is starting to deliver on a range of goals developed almost as soon as Minnesota purchased 5.1 miles of lush, rugged Lake Vermilion shoreline from U.S. Steel in 2010.
Weekend bookings for the RV-friendly, internet-connected campground are nearly maxed out for the summer and new trails in and around the park are open. The ridge-top campground includes three sites for large groups along with a boat launch, dockage, paved parking, screened-in shelters, picnic areas, a fishing pier, remote tent sites, boat-in tent sites and solar-powered lavatories and showers.
“We’ve been really waiting to get to this point,’’ said Marshall Helmberger, a charter member of the state park’s citizen advisory committee. “There’s really broad support and excitement.’’
Jim Essig, the Tower area supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the “hard opening’’ of the main campground was celebrated Thursday with a ribbon cutting and a ceremonial Ojibwe blessing performed by members of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa — residents of the Lake Vermilion area for centuries.
The naming of park facilities and some of the park’s signage use Ojibwe words, including Mooz (moose), Maang (loon) and Ojiig (fisher).
Archaeologists have found evidence of mining and trading on the park’s grounds, but no village.
Essig and Helmberger said delays in the start-up have been caused mostly by the site’s difficult geology and sensitive border lakes ecology. Topsoil will be imported to help with plantings on the site, and naturally occurring arsenic in the groundwater forced construction of a more expensive water system that draws from the lake.
Helmberger, publisher of the regional Timberjay newspaper, said local residents were hoping for the campground and other components to be built closer to the towns of Tower and Soudan. The park is projected to draw 250,000 new visitors a year to the area that includes Cook, Ely and Biwabik. As it turned out, the main campground had to be built at the end of a 4-mile driveway.
Still, Helmberger said, the park’s development is “pretty close to plan.’’
The first $50 million spent on the new park, including $18.2 million for the land, will run out when the camper cabins open in 2020. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it could take another $50 million to complete it.
Essig said the latest appropriations — including $4 million in this year’s bonding bill — will pay for design work on a visitor center. He and others want it to function as a friendly gathering place “typical of a central lodge from an old Minnesota lake resort.”
The concept is in keeping with goals to pilot new ideas and attract “disinclined youth’’ and other new participants to outdoor recreation. For the DNR, a successful “next generation’’ state park will help counteract a trend of declining participation in outdoor pursuits.
The approach at Lake Vermilion will go beyond wi-fi hookups and loft-style camper cabins that sleep six. The agency aims to accommodate activities and experiences to captivate Minnesotans “who are becoming more diverse and less connected with the natural world.’’
If current plans work out, the blended matrix of activity will include separate camping space and associated trails for families who enjoy exploring on all-terrain vehicles. The trail-oriented campground would be built south of Highway 169 and connect to the Mesabi, Prospectors Loop and Taconite trails.
Some of the 15 Lake Vermilion islands within the state park will be suitable for mooring canoes and small boats, and the year-round availability of lodging will invite participation in skiing, ice fishing, dog sledding and other winter activities.
“Next generation’’ also means that the park will demonstrate sustainability and efficiency in design and operation to reduce energy use, protect water resources and utilize alternative energy. For example, Essig said the camper cabins are built with extra-thick insulation panels. Water drained from showers and sinks in the lavatory buildings will be captured and reused to flush toilets.
“This northern Minnesota state park provides a new place for everyone to call their place at the lake,’’ said Erika Rivers, Minnesota state parks and trails director.