By Jim Umhoefer
St. Louis County. 18 miles east of Tower. Take Highway 169 east to County 128, then turn south on 128 to the park entrance. Highway map index: M-7.
Note: Woodenfrog, Ash River and Wakemup Bay campgrounds in the Kabetogama State Forest are also managed by Bear Head Lake State Park. For information on these units, contact the Park Office at 218-365-7229.
For many visitors, Bear Head Lake State Park is a stopover on the way to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness or the millions of acres of Lakeland woods and streams in northeastern Minnesota. But you may discover that this park has just the recreational elements you're looking for.
Bear Head Lake (674 acres) is mostly known for bass, panfish and walleye fishing. Eagle's Nest Lake No. 3, touching on the northwestern corner of the park, is larger than Bear Head Lake and also has a boat landing. You can rent boats or canoes for use on Bear Head Lake at the park contact station. The lake has a large body with two bays that look like antlers. The "antlers," North Bay and East Bay, are fun to explore by canoe because of the many small islands, inlets and coves.
Most of the park's development is on the peninsula that separates North and East bays. An inviting sandy beach lies on the tip of the peninsula. The picnic area just behind the beach is graced by cross-breezes that discourage mosquitoes during the summer.
The fishing on other park lakes is also good, but requires a hike. The longest hike is down to Blueberry Lake to try for northerns and panfish. You can also try the action on Grassy Lake by taking the shorter portage trail from County 128 (the entrance road). Cub Lake, nestled in a forested bowl just a short hike from the road, is fished for brook trout, while rainbow trout are taken in Norberg Lake. Follow the trail from the roadside parking lot to this lake, which is also protected by a ring of hills. Some anglers like to stream-fish for brook trout near Grassy Lake.
The park's 17 mile-long trail system weaves among the lakes and connects with the Taconite State Trail. Horseback riding and hiking are the main summer uses for this trail.
Some Adirondacks (three-sided shelters) are placed along the more distant trails in the 4,400-acre park, with others being considered. The trail system may be enlarged in the future.
Most of the forest cover consists of aspen and birch, but there are also stands of white pines, tamaracks and cedars. Moose may be seen in the marshes and ponds of the park, where they like to feed on aquatic plants during summer. I saw several deer while hiking down to Becky Lake. Black bears and timber wolves live in the region, but aren't commonly spotted. Canoeing along the secluded shores of Bear Head Lake or hiking on the park's isolated trails offers the best chances to observe wildlife. Look overhead, too, for eagles, hawks and ospreys.
Backpackers who hike into the site on Becky Lake or one of the three on Blueberry Lake often report sightings of deer and occasionally moose or bear. If you want to backpack in the park, you'll have to boil or treat your drinking water. Bring plenty of insect repellent if you plan to camp during the height of midsummer fly and mosquito season.
The 73 semi-modern sites at Bear Head Lake are well separated from each other, preserving the quiet atmosphere of the campground (reservations are recommended). The 100-person primitive group camp, at the head of the East Bay, can be reserved through the park office. There is a boat access for use by the groups in the primitive camp.
The rolling hills here are actually accumulations of glacial debris. Volcanoes and ancient seas produced the bedrock of the area, which the glaciers later sculpted into today's landscape. Before European settlement, the forests were mostly white and red pine, but expansive lumbering and forest fires destroyed the tall trees.
Bear Head Lake State Park's hiking trails are transformed into ski touring trails to satisfy everyone's taste. Beginners like to practice their stride on the campground and lakeshore trails, while intermediate skiers can tour from the picnic area to Norberg Lake and back on a loop route. Advanced skiers will find the new trails scenic as well as challenging.
Snowmobilers and skiers can start from the picnic area parking lot. From here, you can snowmobile up to the Taconite State Trail which links with the Bear Island State Forest trail system. The Superior National Forest also has an extensive snowmobile trail network.
The park lakes attract scores of winter ice anglers, especially to Cub Lake, one of the busier fishing spots. Kids like to inner-tube down the hills that surround Cub Lake. If you're planning to winter camp here, water is available from hand pumps. Snowshoeing and hiking are permitted throughout the park.
Camper Cabin, Guesthouse
A camper cabin and a three-bedroom guest house also are available for rent year-round at the park.