Skiing on the Edge of the Boundary Waters
Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park
Ever since the new camper cabins at our newest state park opened in 2020, they’ve been on our list, but they’ve also been notoriously booked for months in advance. With persistence, we did eventually get lucky and secured a reservation for Valentine’s Day weekend. While the trails menu at the new Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park is still slim, there’s almost 200km of cross-country ski trails within a 20-mile radius of Soudan and that was all we needed to know to plan our trip and use the cabin as a base camp to explore trails in the area.
While camper cabins are a step up from tent camping, the eight new generation camper cabins at the park are a step up from camper cabins. They come with Wi-Fi, a table and real chairs, a comfy couch, a credenza, a little mudroom with a bench and coat hooks and a roofed food prep area and little deck on the outside. Our cabin, Dagwaagin, Ojibwe for fall, had the loft bed layout but there’s also a bunk bed version. The real luxury, however, is that the shower building is also open in the winter and only a short walk away from the cabin.
The check in procedure was pretty easy. Our papers were waiting at a bulletin board inside the bathroom building and the key was on the table in the unlocked cabin. We had grand plans to hit the trails on snowshoes, but after a long, white-knuckled drive through a blizzard we were content to just sit on the comfy couch and look out the window at our own little slice of boundary waters scenery in the waning light. When we went to bed, the winds were still howling, but it didn’t matter to us.
Ski Trails in Ely
We woke up before it was fully light out and had our first cup of coffee while the sun was coming up. The wind had died down completely; not even the smallest branches stirred in the trees surrounding our cabin. And, no surprise, it was thirty degrees below zero. We typically get out early, but with those temperatures, we decided to wait a little bit to get going.
By the time we got to the Hidden Valley Recreation Area, things had improved to minus ten degrees. This 25km system on the outskirts of Ely was established in the late 1980s and has been the training ground for the Ely Youth Ski League and the Ely Nordic Wolves high school team. The Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club meticulously grooms more than ten different loops, so there’s a lot to choose from. Because of the temperatures we decided on an abbreviated version of our usual deep exploration and set out on the Bambas Loop, which makes an irregular ring on the southern end of the system. The single-tracked path with a wide skate lane wound through the Superior National Forest on some moderate hills. At some point we were up high and the view opened up over the rest of the landscape: Pointy pines and naked birch trunks as far as we could see. This really was skiing on the edge of the Boundary Waters.
Two people passed us, but that’s nothing new. All we could do is admire their textbook ski form and watch them to effortlessly glide along and disappear around the next turn.
Jen was ahead of me. She went up one small hill and with a “Woa!” she disappeared. When I reached the hill I heard “Oh, boy!” from somewhere in the woods, but I couldn’t see her. I took off, expecting the worst. It was steep downhill, followed by a left turn, then another steep drop that made my eyes water, then a right turn. Still, no sign of Jen, not even a hole in the waist-deep snow with skis sticking out. I eventually found her around the last corner, standing upright and beaming with pride. “I stayed in the tracks the whole way down!” she said.
That fun ride brought us to the end of the Bambas run and we retreated to the car to warm up and regroup.
It was back to town for a trip around Miner’s Lake on the 6km Trezona Trail. What was once an active mine filled in with water over the decades and is now a popular lake right in the middle of town. The Trezona Trail tells the story of mining in Ely with interpretive signs along the way and the highlight is the remnants of the Pioneer mine with its rusty head frame, brick buildings and smokestack. The trail was freshly groomed by the ski club that morning and we got first tracks.
We took off from Veterans Park and just a few minutes later there was a grand overlook of the almost mile-long lake. This trip was off to a good start.
We continued right past of what remains of the Pioneer Mine and stopped to read the plaque. The trail then followed the road shoulder through a neighborhood and we imagined that’s how people in Finland get around in the winter without cars. A friendly homeowner waved at us through his large, trail-facing picture window as he was sipping coffee from a big mug in his recliner.
Back at the car we peeled off our steamy gear and headed back to the state park. The new shower building with its heated floors was a wonderful experience and we emerged refreshed, renewed and ready for a bonfire.
It was ten below zero, but, again, no wind whatsoever. It was a perfect end to a busy day and our fire-roasted hot dogs were a gourmet treat. Around us, nothing but silence. Above, a cloudless, dark sky and a bright moon with a full moon dog. Ahead of us was another cozy night in our rental estate.
Ashawa Ski Trails
Day two was reserved for a trip up to Cook, MN, some 30 miles away. Here, in the Kabetogama State Forest, the Ashawa Ski Club grooms about 28km of ski trails in three separate clusters. First one on the list was Paddy’s Loop, which starts in the parking lot of a local watering hole about eight miles outside of town. It’s basically three loops on a flat golf course, but it also tucks into the woods now and then for that up north feel. It made for a great warm up, because the next trail was more of a workout. It’s made up of two distinct clusters: The Pines Loop on the west and the Figure Eight Loop on the east, connected by a two-way trail, The Aspens. This would have made an epic, 12km ski day through the woods, but because of time constraints, we stuck with just the 2.7km Figure Eight Loop. It didn’t disappoint. The intermediate trail rolled through aspen, pine and spruce forest and finished with a great view of the surrounding area and a grand finale schuss back down to the parking lot.
Skiing at Bear Head Lake State Park
A decade or so ago Jen and I rented a camper cabin at Bear Head Lake Stare Park and planned go skiing at the park. It turned out to be a March with record high temperatures and record low snowfalls and instead of cruising through the woods on skis we rode our mountain bikes on the Taconite State Trail in 70-degree weather. We haven’t been back for skiing since and it was time to fix that.
Bear Head Lake State Park is only 16 miles from the cabins at Lake Vermilion and there’s about 11km of ski trails leaving from the heated trail center.
We took off on the Norberg Lake Trail and unlike the broad paths of the past few days, this tight, winding trail was barely as wide as our skis were long and made for a very intimate experience. The rolling path bobs and weaves through the forest, much like an old school, backcountry trail. In some spots there’s a tilt to it so you have to be on top of your game to stay upright. Dappled light flickered across the trail and the sun’s fingers reached down to warm us through the branches of the old pines, so we sun and forest bathed at the same time.
Back at the cabin it was a special occasion: Valentine’s Day dinner cooked on the bonfire with a cold, full moon to watch over us, and the sound of nothing but crackling logs as background music.
Howard Wagoner Trail in Tower
We didn’t admit this to each other until later, but neither of us really felt like skiing the last day. The kilometers of the past three days had added up to some stiff muscles and the impending four-hour drive home didn’t brighten the mood, either. But as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the Howard Wagoner Trail in Tower and saw the nicely groomed trail disappear into the tall pines, we perked up. Because we didn’t have enough time to do the entire 11km system, we picked the Howard Loop on the southern end.
It was over way too soon, of course. We turned toward home in our car full of sweaty gear and sandwich wrappers and will be back for more.