Hidden Minnesota: 5 underappreciated state parks and recreation areas to visit this year

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park is one of five hidden gems in the Minnesota State Parks system // Photo by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota has long been recognized as the land of 10,000 sky blue-tinted lakes. But did you know the North Star State also is home to 66 state parks, not to mention an additional nine recreational areas, 25 state trails, and 43 state forest campgrounds?

Many Minnesotans and visitors are familiar with such celebrated parks as Itasca, Gooseberry Falls, Fort Snelling, Interstate, and Split Rock Lighthouse. Attendance to these five state parks alone in 2012 amounted to over 3.2 million visitors, according to the Minnesota DNR. While the flagship parks of Minnesota certainly deserve the attention and attendance they garner, they merely scratch the surface of the beauty and adventure the rest of the state’s public area have to offer.

Here are five lesser traveled parks and recreation areas that are worth the trip this summer to escape the beaten trail.

Northeast Minnesota – Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Lake Vermilion // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natureal Resources

Minnesota’s newest state park came into being in 2010—a combination of over 4,000 acres and 10 miles of Lake Vermillion shoreline, with the pre-existing facilities at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. This summer, visitors to the park can look forward to 33 new campsites at the new campground and three group campgrounds in addition to the park’s three boat-in campsites, public boat access at Stuntz Bay Road, fishing, geocaching, hiking, and, of course, tours of the Minnesota’s oldest, deepest, and richest iron ore mine.

Soudan Underground Mine State Park dates back to 1963, when U.S. Steel donated the mining facilities and a surrounding 1,200 acres to the state. The Soudan mine was the first iron ore mine in Minnesota with its first shipment of the area’s high quality iron ore being made July 31, 1884. Mining operations went underground in 1892 and would reach a depth of 2,341 feet below the earth’s surface.

Today, visitors can travel to Level 27, the mine’s deepest level, in the same cage that miners used when the site was operational. The hour-and-a-half long tour travels the three-quarters of a mile’s worth of rails in the depths of the mine and allows visitors a first-hand glimpse at the world of Minnesota’s iron ore miners. Tours begin Memorial Day weekend and run through September and weekends in October.

Next page: Southwest Minnesota

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