By Trent Jonas
Defined by the Sawtooth Mountains and more than 10,000 lakes, Minnesota is a rustic, charming, outdoor lover’s paradise. When it comes to exploring its beautiful natural spaces, you have a lot to choose from, but Bear Head Lake State Park is a special one. In 2010, it was voted “America’s Favorite Park,” and there is plenty to do and see in the area. Here are some highlights.
Bear Head Lake State Park is a remote 4,000-acre spot located in the Great Northwoods of Minnesota’s Iron Range, just southwest of Ely. Adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the park shares the same wild qualities, with northern boreal forests and lakes defining the landscape.
The best way to explore the park’s backcountry is to take the figure-eight hike around Becky and Blueberry Lakes. You’ll encounter some steep hills and rocky terrain on the rugged, packed-dirt trails, but the deep woods experience and the chance to encounter some of the park’s wildlife—gray wolves, black bears, and moose—make the effort worthwhile. Views over Becky Lake and Blueberry Lake will help distract your attention from any travails you encounter on the six-mile hike. Take your time as you drift among the giant white and Norway pines that escaped the axes of loggers in the 1890s.
To see some of the best views in the park, walk the quarter-mile Beach Trail along the shore of Bear Head Lake. Located just south of the main campground, the trail is punctuated with a handful of small docks and piers that enable you to get out further over the water and experience the grandeur of the park’s signature lake. The best time to hit the trail is in the evening when waterfowl are gliding on the lake, fish are jumping, and the sun is casting a golden net over the surface of the Bear Head Lake’s North Bay as it sets in the west.
When you stay in Bear Head Lake State Park, you have a number of camping options from which to choose. If you just want to stay in the park and bring as little as possible, book one of the four rental cabins. They’re not five-star hotels, but you don’t have to figure out how to put them up in the dark, either. Otherwise, there are 50 sites in the main loops, most of which have electric hookups and space for an RV. A non-electric loop has more-secluded sites that are ideal for tents or pop-up trailers. If you’re a tent camper that needs more space, though, grab one of the backpack or boat-in sites in the park.
Make no mistake, Bear Head Lake State Park is in the middle of the woods—as in far away from civilization. And if you’re there for a while, you may become weary of providing all your own comforts, like food, drink, warmth. The good news is that the Good Ol’ Days Bar & Grill is just a few minutes away in Tower. The better news? They’re open from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. so you can get breakfast, dinner, happy hour, or just drinks—whatever respite you may need from your wilderness immersion experience—without getting too far from your campsite.
If you’re looking for another awesome activity in the area, head west from Bear Head Lake State Park toward Tower. There you’ll find the Soudan Underground Mine, which is now located within one of Minnesota’s newest state parks. Created in the latter part of the 19th century, the Soudan Mine is famously one of the deepest sites in the United States and the first of many iron ore mines in Minnesota. Its rates of production created the state’s iron ore industry and elevated Duluth to its prominence as one of the world’s busiest inland ports.