Camping on Bear Head Lake: Minnesota’s Great North

Camping on Bear Head Lake: Minnesota's Great North
Families enjoy the outdoors at Bear Head Lake.
A shrill cry in the distance woke me from a comfortable sleep. My family was tenting at Bear Head Lake State Park just south of Ely, Minnesota. A warm summer wind swept across the 4,523 acres (18.3 km²) of dark woods and a lake shaped like the cartoon character Yogi Bear.

At 5 a.m., a bird’s morning shriek prompted me to explore my surroundings. Following the distant calls, I found the source: At a swimming beach west of the campground, perched high above the picnic tables, an eagle nestled with her eaglets in a 10-foot (3 m) eagle’s nest.

Several of the camper cabins at Bear Head Lake Park are open year-round.
Several of the camper cabins at Bear Head Lake Park are open year-round.

I quickly darted back to my campsite and roused my wife and kids to have a look. By 6 a.m., the pristine lake had already warmed enough for a cool morning swim with my two youngest children.

The eagle swooped by us, plunged its talons deep into the lake and emerged with a wriggling lake trout. Later in the morning, a crowd of campers gathered underneath the nest to watch the chicks dine on yet more fresh fish. Necks straining, we gawked and oohed.

Bear Head Lake is an impressive northern Minnesota state park situated close to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness within the Superior National Forest, yet an easy two-hour drive from Duluth. It’s the last civilized stopover before the state encourages you — mostly by not providing any pull-in campsites — to camp with a canoe.

Among the highlights are howling wolves at twilight, 23 miles (37 km) of lakeshore, electric-motor boat rentals, 73 campsites and 17 miles (27 km) of hiking trails. A rental house is available, as well, situated far enough from the road for family solitude.

The park is home to timber wolves and moose, but it’s well known, also, for its black bears. In recent years, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources has moved garbage dumps several miles from the camping area, so if you do see a bear, it won’t be looking for your leftover spaghetti jar.

Whether from boat or shoreline, trout fishing is one of the park’s highlights.
Whether from boat or shoreline, trout fishing is one of the park’s highlights.

What you will find with greater certainty is trout fishing, which you can do from a boat or from the shore. My son and I caught several, and watched a snappy turtle do the same.

If You Go

Bear Head Lake State Park is located 245 miles (394.3 km) from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

Day-use admission is US$ 7, but the best value is the US$ 25 annual permit. The overnight camping fees are US$ 18 for electric sites and US$ 11-15 for others.

Bear Head Lake State Park

9301 Bear Head State Park Road

Ely, Minnesota 55731



International Wolf Center

1396 Highway 169

Ely, Minnesota 55731


The International Wolf Center, in Ely, is well worth a visit while you are in the area. The center offers programs for all ages to experience wolves in the wild. Additionally, it has a wolf-discovery room with hands-on activities for kids and wolf-watching through the glass of an observation room. Fees are US$ 7.50 for teens and adults; US$ 4 for ages 3-12; seniors US$ 6.50. Open daily May 15 to mid-October and mid-October to early May only on Saturdays and Sundays.