It’s hard to go to northern Minnesota without seeing the impact that mining has on the community. But one thing I didn’t expect was how beautiful the process could be. Visiting the Soudan Underground Mine Tour I had no idea what to expect. Something grimy I guess, but nothing could have prepared me for what I found.
The Soudan Underground Mine
The largest underground mining operation in Minnesota for over 80 years was the Soudan Underground Mine. It produced ore with uniquely high oxygen content that helped produce all the steel around America. When technologies improved it no longer became cost-effective to dig there anymore, so in 1962 the mine closed. The following year, the mining company donated the operation to the State to create a State Park. It is a remarkable gift to Minnesota.
The Cadillac of Mines
The mine was called the Cadillac of mines. It was the one everyone wanted to work at not because of its great treatment by the mine owners. But it was because of natural elements, allowing for fresh air to flow down and circulate through. It was also never one that would flood, so the miners always felt safe. Well, as safe as you can be that far underground.
Making its mark in history
Being a Miner during the turn of the century was pretty cool. The ore in MN had a high level of oxidization in it needed for steel at the time. The only place you could find it was in Northern Minnesota. So almost every piece of steel that was used up until the late 60s had a portion of it come from Minnesota. The ore that was coming out was so valuable during WWI and WWII. The miners were exempt from the draft and provided air raid protection.
The Soudan Underground Mine Tour
The Soudan Underground Mine Tours start with a quick tour from former miners talking about the mine. It also the perfect time for everyone to get the last-minute trips to the potty. For some reason when you tell your kids it’s the last change, they don’t believe you until a stranger tells them.
After that, you get fitted for your hard hats and get ready to experience life underground. The hardhats were a safety measure put in place by OSHA but more to protect you from running into things or if you fell. There was no threatening of things falling on you. Either way, it put you in character.
2341 feet below the surface and 689 feet below sea level. It is deeper than I’ve ever traveled underground. To get down to the mine, guest ride the same elevators the miners took, all controlled by a giant lift cable you can see in the engine room. As we all packed in, the kids got front row. It was a little unnerving thinking about what could happen. The tour guide was nice enough to keep a light on illuminating the cave walls.
The mine’s tunnels were developed to follow the iron ore and therefore we didn’t go straight down. We actually ended up on the other side of a huge rock quarry that is situated in front of the main entrance.
Riding the Trains
After finding out some more information about the mine, we all loaded up into a train car to get deeper inside the mine. The train was slow-moving but in the tight space; it felt like we were cruising right along. On the sides, there were mannequins pretending to work. It made you feel like it was an active mining operation.
As the train stopped, we all got out and went up a spiral staircase. This was the point when I realized I had not secured my helpmate properly. The thud of it hitting the ground made everyone jump. Oh well. After getting to the top, we found a huge room filled with more displays of mining operations.
To show exactly what it was like mining, they transitioned how the lighting changed in the mine. It all started with just a candle. Three men at a time would share one candle. To preserve the precious commodity, they would blow out the candle once they got situated and worked in total darkness. Not only did it take me by surprise, we spent a solid 3 minute in total darkness. It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand inches from your face. When you get to this part of the tour, make sure you have your kids hands.
Soon after we went back down the staircase, onto another display, into the cars and back up the elevator. As unnerving as everything was, it was a fabulous tour.
After the Soudan Underground Mine tour is complete, or even while you wait for yours to start, you have to explore the grounds. They are phenomenal. You can walk into the engine room and see the huge cable running as it lifts another cage full of guests. You can walk around the backside of the mine and see what happened to all the iron Ore that was pulled up. Find out how the material was ground up and eventually dropping into waiting for train cars.
Explore more of the grounds to find the different mine shafts and pits that haven’t been covered over. A short trail 0.2 mi. off the parking lot that takes you over the largest pit. It is said that there is still snow on the ground during the summer months at the bottom of it. The only time there isn’t is when it rains and washes out some of it.
The Lake Vermilion Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 3.5 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 29.5 miles
The Lake Vermilion Hiking Club Trail was on my list of things to do while we were there. The trial was not popular at all. There may have been one other person doing it while we were there. And we found it not well marked at all. You will need to put your map reading skills to the test.
Starting at the visitors center, we walked counter-clockwise down the road. The trail guide says that you will walk a portion of the trial on the road and to watch out for cars. The Hiking Club sign pointed us up towards a service road. But the sign telling us to cut back into the forest was almost nonexistent. It wasn’t until we bisected the entire trail before we realized what happened. It didn’t hinder our ability to do the trail, but a little frustrating at the same time.
Tips before hiking this trail
Before going, I recommend printing off a copy of the State Parks Map before going to ensure you are on the right path. They didn’t have any in the park office. The best I could do was take a picture of it on my phone. It wasn’t the same.
One great part about doing the hike was getting the opportunity to see the Breitung Pit up close. It is reminiscent of a classing mining car entrance. Others were stopping their cars in front of it or cruising right past it as they left.
We also got to pick up our first Hiking Club Mileage patch. Even though we were well past our 25-mile mark, I finally remembered to ask for it. I also picked up a spare one for my daughter since she is on the journey with me. They were short on badges, so I’m hoping to get another one at the next park stop for my son. They cost an extra $1.25 if you need one.
Costs, Tips, and Other Info
The tour costs about $15 per person and $10 for kids. Check their website for full details. I also recommend that you purchase your tickets online. We found a sweet spot by getting on the second tour of the morning. I’m not sure why but the first tour likes to sell out and the ones close to lunchtime do too.
If you have tickets for the Lake Soudan Underground Mine Tour and not planning on visiting the State Park side, you don’t need to pay for parking. This was a big relief to us since our pass just expired and we left our new pass back at home. My mom had gifted us one for Christmas, and I hadn’t gotten around to getting it on the car yet. Lesson learned. Next time, just replace the pass immediately.
Dress in layers on this adventure. Underground is incredibly cold. I was in a hoodie and jeans but my hands were still cold. But once you get back to the surface, you’ll warm up fast during the summer months.
The town of Soudan doesn’t have any real stores in it. I’ll take that back, there is one store, but has limited hours. We ended up driving to Tower for lunch, about a mile west of Soudan. Even then the dining options were limited to a Bar and Lunch only place. It may be best to pack a lunch if you have picky eaters.
Would I go again?
Of course. Ok, maybe I wouldn’t submit myself to the nerve-wracking plummet below ground, but I would love to walk around the grounds again. Being up near Ore Mn was amazing, but getting into the State Park was beautiful. I will never forget it.