Explore the Beauty of Minnesota’s Iron Range
Minnesota is a place of endless adventure. After more than 10 years of living here, I continue to discover hidden gems that makes this place so special. While tens of thousands of people flock to the north shore of Lake Superior each summer, just a short drive away is the less crowded Minnesota Iron Range area.
Here you can paddle across glacial lakes, hike among tall pine trees, and catch a glimpse of Minnesota wildlife such as bears, moose and grey wolves. A Minnesota Iron Range road trip is the perfect way to get a true taste of North Woods living.
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What is Minnesota’s Iron Range?
There are actually three iron ranges in Northern Minnesota: Cuyuna, Vermilion and Mesabi. They stretch from Crosby in the east to the Ely area in the west. This Minnesota Iron Range road trip touches in all three of these areas.
Back as far as two billion years ago, mountains formed in the Mesabi area which were later engulfed by a shallow sea. The long process of erosion and evaporation of the sea resulted in deposits of iron and taconite across this area.
All that remains of those mountains today is a long ridge, referred to as Mesabi which comes from the Ojibwe name. In Ojibwe culture, the ridge is said to represent the tail of a Thunderbird which is one of the most powerful spiritual beings.
Starting in the late 1900’s, iron ore mining has taken place in this region. Today there are six active mines.
These two pieces of the area’s identity today, the native culture and connection with the land as well as the mining industry, are important to learn about and experience while on a Minnesota Iron Range road trip.
Check out these books if you’re interested in learning more about native cultures in Minnesota.
Where is Minnesota’s Iron Range?
The eastern portion of the Iron Range, the Vermillion Range near Ely, is a four hour drive from the Twin Cities. To drive from one end of the Iron Range to the other takes about 3 hours.
Getting Around Minnesota’s Iron Range
The best way to get around Minnesota’s Iron Range is by vehicle. There is no public transport available. While there are some reasonably sized towns, gas stations and grocery stores are sparse.
If you want a unique experience, consider renting a campervan or RV for your Minnesota Iron Range road trip. This allows you to be fairly self-contained, with little need to stop other than to explore or sleep.
For a more active experience, try biking through Minnesota’s Iron Range on the Mesabi Trail. This trail is 135 miles long from Ely to Grand Rapids. There are some sections that are not yet complete, but you can use the Mesabi Trail Shuttle Service to connect between those sections with your bike. A Wheel Pass is required and available for purchase along the trail, online and at some local businesses.
What’s the best place to stay in Minnesota’s Iron Range?
Whether you prefer a tent, RV or campervan, camping in Minnesota’s Iron Range is the best way to experience it. There are seemingly endless campgrounds in state parks and national forests, plus dispersed camping options. Check out my car camping 101 guide for beginners for tips on what to pack!
If camping isn’t your thing, there are certainly cabins and other rentals available in parts of the Iron Range.
Pro Tip: Visit Minnesota State Parks to reserve a campsite.
Bear Head Lake State Park
Just 16 miles from the town of Ely, Bear Head Lake State Park is a gem. In fact, it’s risen to the top of my favorite Minnesota State Parks!
The park offers campsites for all types, including drive-in, electric, backpacking and canoe sites! A guesthouse and camper cabins are also available but they fill up quickly. The drive-in and electric sites are nestled among tall pine trees and just a short walk from the swimming area and boat launch.
Scenic State Park
About 95 miles east of Bear Head Lake State Park, is Scenic State Park. There are two different campgrounds within the park, Lodge and Chase Point.
Choose from drive-in, pull-through, electric, wheelchair accessible, backpacking and canoe campsites. There’s even a horse camp nearby!
Pro Tip: Book early or visit mid-week to get a campsite just steps from the water! I stayed at Site 4 at Chase Point Campground and loved it.
North Star Lake Campground
Located in Chippewa National Forest, the North Star Campground offers first come, first serve campsites with steps down to the beach! The bathroom was a pit toilet but brand new and very clean.
There is a boat ramp at the campground for easy access to fishing in the lake. Kayaks and canoes are also welcome!
Pro Tip: During summer months, the sites along the water fill up on weekends. If you have your heart set on one, try to arrive midweek and avoid holiday weekends.
Ely is known as one of the gateways into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), which is some of the most pristine wilderness in the world. The town itself is lined with outfitters and wilderness adventure companies in addition to restaurants.
This is the perfect place to stay if you prefer easy access to restaurants and a cozy stay in a cabin, lodge or bed & breakfast.
Best Places to Stop on a Roadtrip to Minnesota’s Iron Range
Whatever kind of adventurer you are, the Iron Range has something for you! Explore miles of hiking trails, paddle across lakes, and more.
No Minnesota Iron Range road trip is complete without a stop at some of the area’s state parks. Before you go, be sure to get your Minnesota State Parks passport so you can collect stamps (and earn free nights of camping).
Bring all the essentials with this day hike packing list!
The state parks do require a pass which can be purchased online in advance. Choose from a daypass or annual pass.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a printer at home, you can still purchase your pass at online. Just write your confirmation #, start date, end date, and last name on a sheet of paper and display it on the dashboard of your vehicle.
Bear Head Lake State Park
Whether you prefer to explore by foot or by paddle (or both!) this park has it all. Bear Head Lake State Park sprawls over 4000 acres, with a large portion of that being on water.
Get up early for a paddle across Bear Head Lake in complete solitude. You may even spot a bear or moose! The Norberg Lake Trail is a lovely 3-½ mile trail that circles a smaller lake before following the shoreline of Bear Head Lake’s East Bay. There are several places along the trail to rest and enjoy a snack.
If you have more time, try the Becky and Blueberry Lake Trails which ranges from 3-½ to 6 miles depending on the route you choose.
Wanna cool down after a long day of adventure? Take the short walk to the swimming beach near the campsites!
Ask about renting a paddleboard, fishing pole and birding equipment at the Park Office.
Ely isn’t just a jumping off point for the Boundary Waters and other outdoor adventures. The town is home to local artists, the Ely Folk School, the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, and all sorts of shops and restaurants.
Kawishiwi Falls Trail
Just under 10 miles north of Ely, is the Kawishiwi Falls Trail. This 1-½ mile trail is fairly easy with a few short planked sections. You’re rewarded with a view of the 70 foot tall Kawishiwi Falls!
Pro Tip: There are several signs for Kawishiwi Trail before you get to the actual trailhead for Kawishiwi Falls. Follow Google Maps or wait until you see the brown sign for Kawishiwi Falls along the road.
Lake Vermillion- Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Explore Minnesota’s oldest and deepest iron ore mine! The Soudan Mine ceased operation in 1962 but today you can visit both the above- and underground portions of the mine.
Take a free self-guided above ground tour of the historic buildings from the Visitor Center. Follow the mining process from extraction all the way to being crushed.
The underground portion of the tour isn’t for everyone, particularly if you are claustrophobic. Take the ride in a cage down into the mine for about three minutes before getting out to explore the mine on foot. Note that due to COVID-19 the underground tours may not be operating as normal. Check the park website for the most up to date information.
Pro Tip: It’s cold and chilly in the underground mine. Be sure to bring a layer to keep you warm!
But, there’s more than the Soudan Mine in this park! Enjoy a picnic along Lake Vermillion, which is the fifth largest lake within Minnesota. For hiking, try the 2.4 mile Miner’s Trail loop. Find the trailhead near the parking at the Visitor Center. The trail is hilly and offers up close views of mine pits as you wind through old-growth forest.
Pro Tip: The bicycling trail mentioned earlier, the Mesabi Trail, winds through the Lake Vermillion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
Scenic State Park
This park features glacially formed lakes with recreation options on both water and land. It’s a popular destination for fishing so be sure to bring your fishing pole and license! Common to this area are Walleye, Northern Pike and Bass.
If fishing isn’t your thing, try hiking the Chase Point Trail. This 1.8 mile out-and-back trail follows the ridgeline of a peninsula that stretches in between Sandwick and Coon Lakes. At the very end you’ll find steps down to the water where you can swim and relax.
Paddleboarding is also a great way to explore the park, particularly at sunrise and sunset. To cool off on hot days, stop by the swimming beach at the Lodge Campground.
Looking for some peace and solitude? Take a short hike on the boardwalk along the water starting at the Chase Point boat access ramp. Dip your toes in the water at one of the piers along the boardwalk, enjoy the view or read a book.
Pro Tip: The Tell Lake Trail can be full of mosquitoes if it has rained recently. Check conditions at the Park Office and be sure to bring mosquito repellant!
Schoolcraft State Park
This tiny park is a hidden gem that’s worth a stop to explore its two miles of hiking trails. When I say hidden, I mean it! It’s literally hidden down a narrow dirt road!
Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, the trail has views of the wild rice growing in the river, endless virgin pine trees and waterfowl. If you close your eyes you can almost picture the Native Americans traversing the river in their canoes as they harvested the wild rice.
If you’re into history, explore the southern end of the park with the remains of what’s believed to be the first homestead in the region, dating back to 1898.
Pro Tip: The pit toilet at the day use parking and picnic area is brand new and was very clean.
Chippewa National Forest
North Star Lake Campground is located within Chippewa National Forest, in Marcell Minnesota. This land has been occupied by the Dakota and Ojibwe for thousands of years. Today, the reservation for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe makes up almost half of Chippewa National Forest.
Suomi Hills, near Marcell, offers 19 miles for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing with rolling hills.
Trout Lake Estate, also near Marcell, has an 11 mile mountain biking trail with rolling hills through the woods. The trail takes you to an early 1900’s lumber baron estate, which is an ideal spot for a picnic!
Ready for Your Minnesota Iron Range Road Trip?
This part of Minnesota is absolutely stunning, with endless trails and lakes to explore. It’s the perfect alternative to a road trip to Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior!
Have you considered hiking all or part of the 300+ mile Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota? Follow along on my journey as I share step-by-step tips and resources on how to plan your backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail!
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