(BPT) - The first state park in Minnesota was established at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, at Lake Itasca. That was over 125 years ago, and since then, the state parks system has grown to include 75 parks and recreation areas.

From Blue Mounds in the southwest to Grand Portage near the Canadian border, Minnesota state parks showcase the natural diversity and splendor of the state.

However, sometimes they get pushed aside.

In Ely, the Boundary Waters tend to hog all the limelight. When people ask about what activities or outdoor attractions are in the area, 99 percent of the answers probably have to do with the Boundary Waters.

And for good reason!

However, many visitors to Ely have raved about the outings they’ve taken to the two nearby state parks: Soudan Mine and Bear Head Lake State Park.

Soudan Mine

Ely is situated in the middle of one of the richest iron ore deposits in North America. For more than a century, mining raw iron has been integral to the area’s economy and culture.

The first mine opened in 1882, at Soudan Mine. The mine stayed open until 1962 and shortly after it was closed, became a state park, established to preserve this important part of the region's heritage.

It’s safe to say that most of us today couldn’t fathom what life must have been like for those miners, but a visit to Soudan Underground Mine State Park can give you a taste of their experience.

Here, visitors travel down half a mile underground and ride the rails to the deepest part of the mine. It’s an eye-opening experience, but, to say the least, not for anyone who’s claustrophobic!

Bear Head Lake State Park

If you want the experience of venturing deep into the Boundary Waters but don’t have the time or prefer hot showers and soft beds, then a trip to Bear Head Lake State Park is in order. Opportunities to hike and view abundant wildlife abound in this park, but perhaps what draws the most people is the fishing.

Anglers regularly take large walleye from the lake, and two lakes in the park, Norberg and Cub Lake, are designated trout lakes that require a little hike to reach, but are well worth the effort.

A perfect outing or day trip during a vacation to Ely, these two state parks give visitors an unforgettable look at Minnesota’s cultural and natural heritage.