Highlights of Minnesota's North Country
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Escape to the North Country
In the woods and on the water of Minnesota's Arrowhead region, solitude reigns supreme. Voyageurs National Park (left) hugs the Canadian border -- a 218,000-acre, 30-lake wonderland without roads. In the million-plus acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, visitors travel by paddle and portage their canoes. Bikers traverse the Mesabi Trail, which stretches from Grand Rapids toward Ely. Even when snow blankets the region, travelers explore on skis, snowmobiles and dogsleds.
In the Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota's mining lives on. Many of the miners were immigrants, and communities here show their strong ethnic roots in crafts, architecture, stories, festivals and foods. You can see a working mine at Hull Rust Mahoning Mine and travel deep into the earth at Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
Click ahead for details on these experiences and other destinations in Minnesota's North Woods. Want to share your favorites? Leave a comment below or on Midwest Living®'s page on Facebook!
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
At the northeastern tip of Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness qualifies as a backpacker's paradise, where paddles and boots replace motors, campfires replace ovens, and loons provide the background music. Travelers paddle from lake to lake, portaging gear in between. Solo trips are common, but outfitters in getaway towns, including Ely, Crane Lake, Grand Marias and Tofte can provide able guides and supplies to orchestrate the trip. Sharp-eyed visitors spot moose, black bears and bald eagles (218/626-4300; www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior/).
Voyageurs National Park
How do you get around a 218,000-acre national park that doesn't have any roads? The answer is the main reason people visit this park on the Canadian border: boats.
To explore Voyageurs' 30-some lakes (Rainy and Namekan are the biggest) and find the solitude this park is famous for, you need something that floats. Some folks spend a day on a guided walleye-fishing trip and stay at a resort in one of the shore towns of International Falls (population 5,900) or tiny Ranier (population 200). Others motor around on houseboats, watching for moose by day and anchoring at a different island each night for sunset and a campfire.
Pictured: Rainy Lake's numerous bays and islands provide plenty of private berths for houseboats and campers.
North American Bear Center
Minnesota's largest known bear and several other big 'uns reside at the North American Bear Center in a forest setting in Ely. Observe the bears; also, explore myths and truths through interactive exhibits. Experience a bear's strength, study a bear skeleton, and watch videos of bears playing, digging a cave and hunting for food (877/365-7879; bear.org).
Hull Rust Mahoning Mine
The "Grand Canyon of the North" in Hibbing shows the scale of mining on the Mesabi Iron Range. At Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, visitors see what is billed as the biggest operating open pit iron ore mine in the world -- more than 3 miles long, 2 miles wide and 535 feet deep. A walking trail, observation building and mine exhibits round out the experience. Free (218/262-4166).
International Wolf Center
This impressive interpretive center near Ely lets you watch the resident pack up close. Observation windows at the International Wolf Center allow you to look into a 1.25-acre enclosure that serves as the wolf pack's home. Because the wolves are accustomed to visitors, they often come up to the glass. The center also offers great programs (learn how to howl!) and learning vacations (218/365-4695; wolf.org).
A rail-trail conversion through the Iron Range mountains, the paved Mesabi Trail starts at Grand Rapids and runs toward Ely through communities such as Keewatin, Hibbing, Chisholm, Mountain Iron and Virginia. When completed, it will connect more than 25 communities along 132 miles. It's designed for hiking and biking; some sections are open in the winter for snowmobiling. Check the website for the current status of trail construction and for a list of nearby activities (877/637-2241; mesabitrail.com/).
Soudan Underground Mine State Park
The park, 20 miles southeast of Ely, offers two rare and fascinating tours: Underground Mine and the University of Minnesota's High Energy Physics Lab. Venture by elevator as you descend 2,341 feet below ground and then ride a battery-operated train to visit the Soudan Underground Mine, the first, deepest and richest iron-ore mine in Minnesota. The physics lab tour takes you to a football field-size cavity where high-energy experiments are conducted (218/753-2245; mndnr.gov/soudan).
Minnesota Discovery Center
This museum and cultural center celebrates Iron Range history and the heritage of its miners' home countries. Learn about taconite mining, hear stories of miners' working conditions and see a Depression-era shanty. The Iron Range History Players at the Minnesota Discovery Center give 20-minute interactive presentations on the history of northeastern Minnesota on summer Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Also in the summer, antique trolleys (left) circle the rim of Glen Mine, now a deep, spring-fed canyon (800/372-6437; mndiscoverycenter.com).
Dorothy Molter Museum
This little Ely attraction pays tribute to one of the area's legends: The Root Beer Lady. Dorothy was the last resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and was known for offering root beer and first aid to travelers (218/365-4451; rootbeerlady.com).