Published July 04, 2010, 12:00 AM

Our new lakeside getaway: Lake Vermilion State Park

It’s a breathtaking hike to the top of Lander Mattson Peak, a hardscrabble rock outcropping near Soudan, but the view of Lake Vermilion is equally breathtaking. It's part of Minnesota's newest state park.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

SOUDAN — It’s a breathtaking hike to the top of Lander Mattson Peak, a hardscrabble rock outcropping near town, but the view is equally breathtaking.

To the northwest, the blue arms and bays of Lake Vermilion stretch for miles. To the northeast lies the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. To the south and west, looking over a lush beaver pond, the back of the Mesabi ridge pokes above a green forest that touches every horizon.

Welcome, Minnesotans, to your new lakeside property. Feel free to pick some wild raspberries and blueberries. Keep an eye open for moose, wolves, beaver and bear.

Lake Vermilion State Park is officially state-owned, thanks to an $18 million deal with U.S. Steel that closed last month, the state’s first big new park in decades.

Now what?

Technically, the park is open to the public. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources really isn’t ready for many of us yet.

Last week, DNR crews were busy turning an old cabin site into a day-use picnic area, mostly for people who boat in. It’s a modest start to what could be more than $30 million in development at the park.

A fire pit, portable toilet, picnic tables and dock have been readied along a red pine-studded cove of Armstrong Bay. They’re ready for the new park’s very first visitors, most likely walleye anglers looking for a shore lunch spot.

“This is the first work on a whole new state park. It’s kind of exciting,” said Jim Essig, DNR park manager for adjacent Soudan Underground Mine State Park, who has inherited the hands-on duties for the new park.

Moving quickly

In addition to the picnic site, DNR park planners hope to map a few existing trails for hiking by this fall.

The park is expected to be open to deer hunters in November, after being off-limits in recent years while under U.S. Steel’s ownership. And the DNR could be ready to groom a few cross-country ski trails by winter.

Much more is happening out of public view in the 3,000 acres of woods and along more than five miles of Lake Vermilion shoreline acquired for the park.

Since April, DNR “cultural resource” experts have been scouring the park for sites important to prehistoric peoples, Ojibwe Indians, miners, fur traders and other early residents. They hope to work with Bois Forte tribal officials to help interpret the park’s significance to the tribe.

Meanwhile, DNR natural resource experts — botanists, biologists, geologists — will catalog the flora and fauna of the park, guiding planners and developers on where to build roads, trails, lodges, campgrounds, picnic areas and bathrooms.

“We need to know what needs to be protected, what areas can withstand the pressures of the number of visitors a park like this will bring, and what areas really can’t,” said Erika Rivers, who is heading the DNR’s park planning effort. “We’re just starting to look at things … like where do we put the access road? Where should hiking trails go? Should we build one big campground or maybe have pods of smaller campgrounds on areas that can sustain the use?”

Options abound for the new park, Rivers said, from bog-walks and primitive rental cabins to Wi-Fi-equipped lodges and campsites, and from geo-caching to access spurs to local biking and snowmobile trails.

“Most of our state parks really came out of the 1930s and ’40s and into the ’60s. We now have the chance to develop an entirely new kind of park,” Rivers said. “The question is: What does the next generation really want in a state park experience? We need to pin that down.”

Lake is the draw

While not all park attractions will be directly on Lake Vermilion, it’s clear to everyone involved that the lake, especially its fishing and scenic splendor, is the park’s focal point.

On a lake lined in spots by million-dollar vacation homes, the park will provide inexpensive access to Vermilion otherwise not available to ham-and-egger campers, kayakers and anglers.

“Not everyone in the state can afford a cabin on a big beautiful lake. Even up here (in the Tower-Soudan area) not everyone has a place on the lake they can go to,” said Jean Goad, a DNR spokeswoman. “Now they will.”

The park property isn’t wilderness. Old logging roads crisscross the forests, last cut over in the 1970s and 1980s. Much land has been explored for minerals. Old cabin sites are obvious, and rusting carcasses of cars are seen here and there.

A few new roads have been roughed-in where U.S. Steel had planned to build dozens of million-dollar homes along the shoreline, development pre-empted by the state’s purchase of the land.

But the land is also rugged and remote — essentially the last undeveloped land on the big lake’s south shore. There are no real roads, no buildings and no utilities. The property is dotted with wetlands, separated by rocky peaks and covered in thick forests of aspen, birch, pine and oak.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Mark Holsten, DNR commissioner, as he started a tour of the site Wednesday.

Money is key

Holsten didn’t just mean construction challenges, but also the arduous task of getting state money to “build out” Minnesota’s first new big park in 30 years. The DNR has less than $2 million left from the Legislature’s bankroll to buy the land — just enough to start a few small projects and the planning.

But Holsten wants development of the park to move along quickly.

Last week the DNR applied to the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources for $15 million, mostly from the state’s lottery profits, to begin design and development of the park. That money would last until 2012, when the DNR might come back for another $15 million or so for big-ticket items like a park headquarters and interpretive center.

Other sources of money could be state construction bonds and the state’s new natural resources account, stocked by the three-eighths sales tax approved by voters precisely for things like state parks.

Last week Holsten was in Tower for the first community meeting of the park’s new citizens advisory task force. He wants the committee’s work finished and his planning staff to have a completed park master plan by December, just before his boss, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, leaves office.

“It’s a good working group. There’s a lot of diversity in the kinds of uses people want to see in the park, and that’s good,” Tower Mayor Steve Abrahamson said. “They (the DNR) want to get moving on this, and that’s what we want. We don’t want that land just sitting there.”

No one knows if Pawlenty’s replacement will be as passionate about the park as the outgoing governor. But Holsten, who also might be looking for a new job by January, said he’s not worried that the state will drop the ball.

“I have no doubt the Legislature is going to make this happen. The question is: How fast will they let us do it?” Holsten said. “Will they dole out a little (money) every other year and make people wait 10 years? Or can we get at it and get this done? It’s really up to them now.”

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