Go Big on the Mesabi Iron Range

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Wynne Lake near Biwabik and Giants Ridge fall
Wynne Lake, Giants Ridge

You can feel it standing on the state's tallest bridge in Virginia, peering down into a former open pit mine that's now filled with clear, mineral-rich spring water. The wind envelops you as you steer a mountain bike down plunging trails at Biwabik’s Giants Ridge resort. Monster truck fantasies come to life on an off-road joy ride across former mining land, with a souvenir coating of iron-red mud.

Minnesota’s industrial hub in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s, the Mesabi Iron Range arcs across northeast Minnesota, from east of Grand Rapids to west of Duluth. Mining carved the landscape, leaving behind big recreation areas and even bigger cultural legacies in towns such as Chisholm, Mountain Iron, Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik, Aurora, Virginia and Hibbing.

Outdoor Playground

At Giants Ridge in Biwabik—named for an Ojibwe legend about a sleeping giant—hills up to 500 feet high are open for mountain biking and disc golfing in the summer, and skiing, snowboarding, tubing and fat biking in the winter. Two of Minnesota’s top-ranked golf courses, The Legend and The Quarry, stretch across a former sand and gravel mining operation and into the Superior National Forest. At Wynne Lake, you’ll find a swimming beach with water toys, and a new chalet at the base of the mountain offers equipment rentals year-round.

ATV 1With 36 miles of roads, visitors rev up their truck, ATV and Jeep engines at the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area in Gilbert, a high-octane outdoor playground where riders rumble across rocky terrain, splash through mud holes and grind up the hill climb. Camp and cool off along the shores of Lake Ore-be-gone, an open pit now filled with natural spring water. Summer ATV and winter snowmobiling trails can be found throughout the region.

Cyclists shouldn’t miss the 120-mile, paved Mesabi Trail that spools from Grand Rapids to Ely, passing open-pit mines, forests, lakes and historic sites. Join the Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Tour in August, or arrange a shuttle or lodge-to-lodge bike tour through Giants Ridge, offered May through mid-October.

Colorful Past

In addition to posing for selfies with the world’s largest free-standing hockey stick and puck, fans who visit the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth will see the triumphs of the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and other national hockey stars—many of whom grew up playing on the Iron Range.

Greyhound Bus Museum in HibbingAt the Greyhound Museum in Hibbing, hop aboard vintage buses from the company credited with launching America’s bus industry. It began humbly in the early 1900s as a Hupmobile touring car that transported residents between mining towns before becoming an essential part of the nation’s transportation by World War II.

For an overview of the Iron Range and the immigrants who kept the industry humming, hop aboard a trolley to a former pit mine, tour outdoor exhibits that include an early homestead and Norwegian stabbur, and study exhibits on the region’s geological resources at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

Palate Pleasers

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, seek out local eateries such as Hibbing’s Sunrise Deli, Virginia’s Italian Bakery and Chisholm’s Valentini’s Supper Club for European and Nordic Iron Range specialties, including potica (“poh-TEE-sah”), a roll of fine pastry layered with walnuts; Italian pastas and porketta sandwiches; sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls); and pasties, the iconic meat pies miners took for lunch.

For dessert, Canelake’s Candy has sweetened downtown Virginia for more than 100 years.

Nearby Adventures

For two more unique experiences, head 30 minutes north or south of the Mesabi Range.

Soudan Underground Mine_square Half an hour south of Eveleth, the remote Sax-Zim Bog draws bird-watchers from around the world for some of the nation’s best birding. It’s particularly popular in winter for great gray owls. Summer visitors can listen for songs from more than 240 species of migrant and resident birds and look for bog orchids and pitcher plants.

Minnesota’s coolest thrill ride can be found half an hour north of Biwabik at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, where visitors don hard hats and take an elevator 27 levels—more than 2,000 feet—into the earth to tour what was the Cadillac of mines a century ago. Trams take visitors through the tunnels as interpreters explain the life of a miner.

The park’s recent addition of almost 3,000 acres and 5 miles of beach lets visitors savor the scenery of Lake Vermilion, where there are plans for future campgrounds.