Autumn enters early on Minnesota's Iron Range. Crisp air, stunning colors and vast natural and man-made wonders lure gearheads north to what is affectionately called "Da Range."
Northeastern Minnesota is laced with three iron ranges: Cuyuna, Mesabi and Vermilion. The Mesabi (an Ojibway word for "giant") is the largest, stretching from Hibbing to Hoyt Lakes, and is most commonly referred to when daydreaming of a road trip to the Iron Range. Head north from the Twin Cities on I-35 for about 110 miles to Cloquet. Exit onto Hwy. 33 north towards the Iron Range cities, driving 20 miles to the Highway 53 junction. Turn left onto Highway 53 for 36 miles to reach Eveleth. All in all, it's about a three-hour jaunt. For the scenic route, just follow Hwy. 169 north and you'll drive through the heart of The Range.
The "hidden" Iron Range is literally in front of your windshield. It's found in the forest that envelops the winding roads between towns such as Mountain Iron, Biwabik, Virginia and Gilbert. It's the contrast of white birch against blue sky. It's the pleasing mixture of hardwood leaves turning in the midst of coniferous forest. Mostly, it's the peaceful beauty of a pristine lake in the season's waning glow.
Though you can't go wrong by grabbing a local map and exploring on your own, there are a couple of driving tours to consider. The Superior National Forest Scenic Byway is a 53-mile route that links communities steeped in the tradition of iron mining, yet are still tied to the surrounding natural world. This "wild" excursion begins in Aurora. Head east and south on St. Louis County 110 to County 16. Turn left and follow the signs to Silver Bay on Lake Superior. There are some hidden treasures if you turn off the blacktop and follow the gravel roads. The Skibo Vista road, for example, climbs to a hilltop where an old fire tower used to survey the surrounding forest.
The Iron Trail is a microcosm of Range country. Man-made lakes and hills, slowly reclaimed by nature, give way to ancient, forested highlands on this 110-mile drive through the Mesabi and Vermilion Iron Ranges. Starting in Hibbing, the route weaves its way through Virginia, Biwabik and Embarrass before ending in Ely. Embarrass, though a short detour off the highway, boasts a fine collection of Finnish pioneer cabins and barns.
Hibbing is the home of the "Grand Canyon of the North," the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine View. This is the largest operating open pit mine in the world, sprawling over 3 miles long, 2 miles wide and 535 feet deep. To get a sense of the land and heritage of the Range, make time to visit Ironworld, just outside of Chisholm.
Soudan Underground Mine and McCarthy Beach state parks each add a distinctive flavor to the Iron Range experience. At Soudan, 23 miles west of Ely on Hwy. 169, you can tour an authentic underground iron mine via a half-mile descent to the 27th level.
McCarthy Beach is a handsome park of towering red and white pine forests along the shores of Side Lake and the four lakes of the Sturgeon chain. If you brought along a mountain bike, 17 miles of trails await. To reach the park, turn north onto County 5 just west of Chisholm and follow the signs.
We found two fun places to eat near Side Lake. One is Bimbos Octagon across the road from the lake. Our group enjoyed pizza and wings, following a tip from local patrons. Ciao Rustic Italian Restaurant, also in Side Lake, is another tasty stop. They're open from Thursday through Sunday through the winter.