Iron Range Ramble: Riding Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region

The Emergence of Man Through Steel
The Iron Man statue is actually named “The Emergence of Man Through Steel” and honors miners’ work through the Industrial Age. Photos by the author.

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” says the motorcycling adage. That’s true! Most highlights of motorcycling are experienced during the ride. I choose journeys with an interesting place to turn around (destination) before heading back home. Riding the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota provides wide choices of appealing destinations and journeys, riding through forests, hills and curves in Minnesota’s “arrowhead.”

Northern Minnesota motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

Aptly named due to the huge iron ore mining economy formed in the late 19th century, we started our ride from the town of Mountain Iron, at the Holiday Inn Express. Riders will appreciate the covered parking for a few motorcycles. The Iron Range Tourism Bureau publishes ride guides every year. My wife Jean and I picked up one at the inn and selected potential routes to try during our few days “on the Range.” We modified and combined our routes to fit in a few destinations that piqued our interests. After our complimentary breakfast, our journey began.

Downtown Cook’s main drag, River Street, is just beggin’ for a parade.
Downtown Cook’s main drag, River Street, is just beggin’ for a parade.

The Mines and Pines tour was our warm-up ride for Memorial Day weekend. Heading north on U.S. Route 53 to Cook, turning west, we rode through the rural settings on Trunk Highway 1. Logging and farming appeared to be the main economic activities. Heading south on County Road 5 there was a noticeable change from farming to tourism as we rode to McCarthy Beach State Park for a break. Out of the saddle, we rehydrated, and off we went.

Mines and Pines tour
The northern part of the Mines and Pines tour is filled with rural settings.

Finally, we arrived at the “mines” part of the Mines and Pines tour. We ended up at the Iron Man, a tribute to the miners who worked the iron mines. After a quick lunch under the shade tree at The Stand, we were refreshed and ready to explore our destination for the day, the Minnesota Discovery Center. The Center is an exhibition of the mining and cultural artifacts associated with mining in the Range. A rail trolley used for transporting miners to and from the mines is still in operation for tourists. Some of the original buildings, homes and boarding houses still stand and are well maintained, providing a glimpse into the past’s daily life above ground.

Minnesota Discovery Center
The mine trolley is still running. Our conductors shared the history and evolution of mining technologies with us on the loop around an open pit iron mine.

We finished back at our starting point and went out to dinner. We discovered a nice new restaurant in the neighboring town of Virginia, The Northern Divide, which provided an excellent dinner and outstanding service.

The next day was dark and gloomy in the north woods of Minnesota. Another adage for motorcyclists is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad wardrobe choices.” We mustered up the right perspective with, “Today is a good day to test our rain gear!” Since it was raining, we decided our journey should take us to an indoor destination. More than indoors, we picked an underground destination. Trunk Highway 135 runs from Gilbert north to Tower. It’s smooth and wide, and the forest is cut back from the roadway, providing good visibility for any deer, moose or other forest creatures that might wander onto the roadway.

open pit mine
All the public mine overlooks were closed due to expansion of the mining operations, but we knew a guy who knew a guy who could give us a private tour of the new overlooks still under construction. Mining technologies allowed more efficient open pit mining of lower grade ore. Although the iron ore in the Soudan Mine is much higher quality, steel can be produced at lower costs with ore from the open pit processes.

After we arrived at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, a three-minute elevator ride took us down 2,341 feet below the surface. From there we rode a trolley in total darkness. Arriving at a “stope,” a steplike excavation that is formed as the ore is mined in successive layers, we could see and hear how miners worked one of the richest iron ore mines in the world.

Minnesota Discovery Center
James, our guide, is a geologist and miner with experience in underground mines in North America and South America.

Back on the surface, the rain had stopped but the roads were still wet. Back in our rain suits and off we went to Ely via Trunk Highway 169. The journey on the two-lane road was through heavy forest and light traffic, just the way it should be. We had two destinations in Ely, the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. I can’t say enough about these attractions. The quality and educational value of the displays are superb! We arrived at each just before feeding time, so the wolves and bears were up and active. Both centers have large glass viewing areas great for photographers.

black bear
As the bears meandered back into the woods, it’s time to get back on the motorcycle and head for dinner ourselves.

Backtracking west on Highway 169, then south on Highway 135, our destination for the night was The Lodge at Giants Ridge. It’s open year-round for skiers, travelers and golfers. Tomorrow’s ride would be over to the north shore of Lake Superior.

The North Shore Scenic Drive is a must for any rider. Our destination was Two Harbors, where all the iron ore from the mines comes by rail then ships out to destinations all over the world. County Highway 110 winds through Aurora and Hoyt Lakes, then County Highway 11’s sweepers took us into Silver Bay. I mentioned to Jean, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shades of green.” The north woods were waking up from the long winter and the brilliant sunshine illuminated the greenery from every angle. Following the designated scenic route, we leaned into the curves going up and over the rolling forest terrain.

Baldwin Yellowstone Mallet #229
Built during World War II, this is one of the “locomotives that defeated Hitler.” Manufacturing the Baldwin Yellowstone Mallet #229 was a higher priority than military tanks and ships. It was so powerful that it pulled ore trains that would require four diesel locomotives today. An average of 10,000,000 tons of ore are shipped every year.

Reaching Silver Bay, we turned southwest on Trunk Highway 61. The road hugs Lake Superior’s north shore. It is smoother and straighter than it used to be, but the scenery is still a beautiful shoreline drive all the way to Two Harbors. Along the way we stopped at The Rustic Inn Café. It has the best pie on the north shore. Although the day was sunny, it was also cool and windy. With a hot cup of coffee, a warm piece of pie and a scoop of ice cream, I agreed with my GPS navigation when it said, “You have reached your destination.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Sounds like a great ride! Reminds me to check out northern Minnesota again soon. Thanks for the great write-up of your ride!

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