CUYUNA COUNTRY RECREATION AREA - The rugged gravel side roads began to look familiar.
Mostly because they were. Or as familiar as they could be after several hours spent meandering back and forth, from mine pit lake to mine pit lake.
If you go
What: Cuyuna Country Recreation Area.
Where: About 1 mile north of Ironton.
Directions: From Brainerd, take Highway 210 east about 15 miles to Ironton. Turn left on Crow Wing County Road 30, going 1.2 miles to Portsmouth Campground on the right. To access the mine pit lakes, take the gravel road on the left immediately after the campground.
The Sagamore Unit: From Brainerd, to get to the Sagamore Unit of the recreation area, take Highway 210 east about 9 miles. Turn left on Crow Wing County Road 59 toward Riverton. Go one-tenth of a mile. Turn left. Go about three-tenths of a mile to the unit entry, turning right into the unit.
Office hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Mailing address: 307 3rd St., Ironton, MN, 56455-0404.
Telephone: (218) 546-5926
Fax: (218) 546-7369.
Web site: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/ cuyuna_country/index.html.
These are the roads less traveled.
But for anyone who hasn't explored the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area, they are definitely worth traveling.
Unlike most Minnesota state parks - although a recreation area, Cuyuna Country falls under the state parks umbrella - there are no signs announcing you've arrived here. Signs on the main highway will get you to the only other sign of note in the rec area - Portsmouth Campground. Then, another 20 yards or so down the road, an unmarked gravel road skirts off to the left, disappearing into the wilderness. It looks like most other gravel roads in these parts. But just off the road in either direction are a dozen or so charming mine pit lakes and makeshift camping areas.
For the most part, this is the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area. And at 1,824 acres of rustic wilderness, there's much exploring to be had here.
Quaint, out-of-the-way mine pit lakes dot the landscape inside the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area near Ironton. Brained Dispatch/Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Cuyuna was the last of Minnesota's three major iron ranges to be discovered and mined. It extends almost 70 miles from Randall in Morrison County, northeast through Crow Wing County, and ends in central Aitkin County. Drilling began in 1904, and by 1909, approximately 2,000 drill holes had been completed and the towns of Cuyuna, Crosby, Ironton, Manganese, Riverton and Trommald were established. Twenty to 30 mines operated in the area during the mining boom of World War I and II.
Nearly 20 mines continued to operate in the early 1950s. But foreign competition and taconite mining on the Mesabi Range caused a virtual shutdown 10 years later. Abandoned mining operations left behind a landscape dotted with mining pits 100 to 525 feet deep and rock stockpiles 200 feet high.
The Cuyuna Country Recreation Area was born - although it didn't officially became a Minnesota State Recreation Area until 1993. It boasts 25 miles of undeveloped shoreline and includes 16 rustic campsites and a group camp at Portsmouth Campground, located on the northwest shore of the Portsmouth Mine Pit Lake, which at points is more than 350 feet deep.
Tranquil lakes are the norm in the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area. Brained Dispatch/Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
All camping at the rustic campground is first-come, first-served, and campers can self-register on site. Although camping is available year-round, the campground gate is closed after mid-September. (To camp in the late fall or in the winter, call the park for instructions and information. No water or bathroom facilities will be available in the campground from mid-September to early May.)
Other features include a picnic area and tables at the Croft Mine site. Nearby attractions include the Croft Mine Historical Park and the Cuyuna Range Historical Museum.
But, mostly, Cuyuna Country offers excellent fishing, scuba diving and canoeing and kayaking opportunities. The mine pit lakes are stocked with trout, and with their cold, deep waters, the pit lakes are regarded as the best trout fisheries in the area. The pit lakes also are home to northern pike, walleye, bass, crappies and sunfish.
Makeshift fire pits can be found off most roads that lead to the pit lakes. Brained Dispatch/Brian S. Peterson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
The rec area's Sagamore Unit, located near Riverton, about 5 miles from the heart of the pits, isn't nearly as rustic: A nicely kept boat access and small dock reach into Sagamore's chilly waters. And just up the road, a paved portion of the new Cuyuna Lakes State Trail runs toward the pits, skirting Blackhoof Lake and disappearing into the wilderness that is the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area.
Another road less traveled worth traveling.
BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864.
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