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Minnesota's newest state park opens Tuesday

Dawn Voges, assistant park manager, walks along one of the docks in the Armstrong Bay day use area at Vermilion Ridge campground morning, Sept. 6, 2017. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 2
Native rock, including these boulders of the Gafvert Lake formation (left) and banded iron formation accent the lawn at the main bathroom and shower house at Vermilion Ridge campground on Wednesday morning, Sept. 6, 2017. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 2

SOUDAN, Minn. — Minnesota's first new state park in a quarter-century will open in earnest Tuesday, a decade in the making but apparently worth the wait for eager campers.

Just hours after reservations opened last week for Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park's 33 new campsites, many were already booked for the remaining fall weekends.

"And next summer's dates already are filling in," said Dawn Voges, assistant manager at the park.

Aptly named Vermilion Ridge Campground sits on the hill high above what is historically ranked as among the most beautiful, island-studded lakes in Minnesota, if not the nation. But you'll have to walk, bike or boat to get a good view of the lake with the campground set well back from the water.

"Part of that is we wanted to keep the campsites in a sustainable area, and there just isn't any good place along the lake," Voges said. "And part of it is that we wanted to keep that feeling, when people are out on the lake, that this is still an undeveloped area. You can't see the campground from the lake, either."

It's taken longer and cost more money than expected to build the campground because of the hardscrabble terrain. Roads, trails, campsites, buildings and other infrastructure were slow to develop.

"This is a tough place to build anything. What isn't rock ridge is swamp," Voges noted as she walked through a campsite, adding that the terrain also will dictate how many more campgrounds, trails and other amenities can be added in the future. "It's really about what the land will allow us to build."

Each campsite has the traditional fire ring, picnic table and ample wooded space to separate neighbors for some privacy. Deer, grouse, red squirrels — even wolves and bear — roam the park's thick woods, with eagles and loons common along the lake.

Even as construction crews were adding the finishing touches last week, and still void of campers, the place already had that state park feel.

Yet, while it requires a park sticker and offers that woodsmoke-and-mosquito northwoods experience, it has as many differences as similarities to the state's 67 other parks.

Check your phone or tablet and notice the strong (free) Wi-Fi connection, thanks to 16 Wi-Fi towers spread across the park. Relish the flush toilets and hot showers included in the $31 nightly camping fee. (The showers use solar-heated water to cut the park's climate-change footprint. Graywater from the showers and sinks are recycled in the toilets to save water.)

Feel free to plug that hair dryer, phone charger or DVD player — or your entire RV — into the electrical outlet box at each site.

"You can pretty much bring home on the road here," noted Cheri Zeppelin, DNR information officer for Northeastern Minnesota. "People want the amenities now."

Minnesota hasn't opened a new, full-scale state park since 1992 (Glendalough, in Otter Tail County) and times have changed since then, Voges said. So has campground design. Many of the campsites are pull-through, to accommodate big rig RVs. Most offer ample space for 35-foot trailers, and extra space for boat trailers to be parked, too.

"I got into parks in 1997 and the camping demographics have totally shifted now, even for state parks," she said. "Where before it was mostly people in tents, it's shifted to not just grandma and grandpa in their RV but now the young families are in RVs, and they want to be able to plug in the AC and watch movies at night."

The $7 million campground also includes three group campsites that can accommodate up to 50 people each, for family reunions or a club rendezvous. Each has a big screened picnic shelter and shower/bathroom house.

"A lot of extended families and friends are traveling and camping in groups now and this gives them a place to be off on their own," Voges said.

'Everybody's lake estate'

This new state park almost didn't happen. Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel owned more than 3,000 acres at the eastern end of Lake Vermilion, a legacy of when the area was considered an underground mining hot spot for rich, natural iron ore (adjacent Soudan Underground Mine State Park offers visitors an elevator shaft ride a half-mile underground to tour the former mine. The two parks are being managed as one.)

The company lost interest in the area for mining but wanted to cash in on the real estate asset and was planning to sell it to a developer of high-end lake estates — half-million-dollar or more homes with million-dollar views.

St. Louis County commissioners were eager to approve the development of dozens of new lake homes, each sending the county big bucks in property taxes. But in 2007 Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty publicly floated the idea of the state buying the land and creating a state park. Oddly, despite Minnesota's many big-water "walleye lakes" in the northern half of the state, none of them had a state park.

In 2010, Pawlenty and state DFL Sen. Tom Bakk, who lives on Lake Vermilion, announced the state had reached an $18 million deal with U.S. Steel to buy the entire chunk of land, giving the state ownership of 10 miles of contiguous, undeveloped shoreline. But the deal drew immediate criticism from some local officials who say the region needed more tax base and wealthy residents, not more transient tourists.

"Everyone else in the Iron Range delegation wanted to see it developed for the tax base. The County Board wanted it developed. But I thought we needed some place for the average person to experience Lake Vermilion," Bakk told the News Tribune last week, noting the lake has in recent decades shifted from modest cabins to a haven for wealthy people's summer homes and retirement estates. "I grew up on the lake and I've seen how it changed. And it was to the point where the only way someone of average means could experience the lake was through a boat landing. And I just thought it should be something more than that."

Or, as Voges described it, the new Lake Vermilion State Park is "everybody's lake estate."

Bakk and Pawlenty pushed the purchase through the Legislature with bipartisan support. Meanwhile, Bakk was able to soothe some concerns about lost tax base by including a provision in state tax law that gives the county, school district and township double the usual state payment in lieu of taxes for public land.

Since then, Bakk and others have worked to get funding to develop day-use picnic/shore lunch sites, hiking trails, boat-in campgrounds, a new boat landing and now, finally, a drive-in campground. More than $45 million in state money has been spent so far.

Millions more are still needed to build a full-scale visitor's center/park lodge/interpretive center. Plans also call for more miles of hiking trails, rustic camper cabins for rent and winter trails for cross-country skiers.

In future years, Bakk and DNR park planners envision an ATV-focused campground where off-road enthusiasts can park their camper and drive their four-wheelers onto the growing trail system across the area. The ATV campground is planned for a 450-acre parcel across Highway 169 and about four miles separated from the new Vermilion Ridge Campground.

"I still have more work to do there before I leave the Senate. We'll see what we can do in next year's bonding bill" to finance more park development, Bakk said. "But I think most people are coming around to the idea that the park was the right thing to do."

If you go

The new Lake Vermilion-Soudan Mine State Park campground opens Tuesday. A seasonal $35 or $7 daily state park permit is needed to visit.

Camping is $31 daily. Camping reservations are required for all sites as in all Minnesota state parks and recreation areas. The new campground will be open through Oct. 22 and then close for the winter until May.

Reservations can be made up to one year in advance by visiting the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/reservations or by calling (866) 857-2757. For more information, contact the park at (218) 300-7000, the DNR Information Center at info.dnr@state.mn.us or (888) 646-6367.

What you'll notice:

• Information kiosks, but no staff at the gate to meet you. With campsites now all reserved electronically, most campers will already have reservations. Any walk-up campers (if sites are available) can use a phone at the campground entrance to make reservations. A park ranger with a laptop will make regular rounds to make sure everyone has paid and to field questions or complaints.

• Firewood will be sold at the campgrounds to encourage people not to move firewood and to reduce the chance of invasive pest invasions. Unlimited firewood is available for $6 per day.

• Three group campsites are available for up to 50 people each, costing between $150 and $300 per night.

• A new boat landing and parking area adjacent to the campgrounds are available for campground guests only.

What's to do?

• Bring your fishing boat, canoe or kayak to experience what Lake Vermilion has to offer, including fishing for walleye and musky. There are some hiking trails and a day-use picnic site along the lake, but you really need to get out on the lake to experience it because the campsites don't have lake views.

• Hike on several miles of trail within the park or hop on the Mesabi Trail walking-biking trail that connects the park to Tower-Soudan.

• Geology buffs will notice the numerous rock exposures in the park, including banded iron ore. Next door, Soudan Underground Mine offers daily tours down into the state's oldest and deepest underground mine through Oct. 22.

• Two remote, boat-to campsites also are available in the park. Call for more information.

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