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'Cool' tours in state parks help vacationers beat the heat

Where can people visit an underground lake, take a pontoon boat ride on an open-pit mine, or sink into a 50-degree underground mine? The answer is at Minnesota State Parks.

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in southeastern Minnesota boasts a new visitor center with displays and exhibits that provide insight into the geology and history of the cave," says Warren Netherton, cave specialist.

A one-hour tour on paved level walkways reveals stalactites and stalagmites, and the underground Turquoise Lake. The light refraction in mineral-laden water produces a beautiful turquoise hue, said Netherton.

A two-hour rustic lantern, four-hour wild caving and four- to six-hour advanced education tours are also available.

Soudan Underground Mine State Park in northeastern Minnesota features two tours. Both begin with a half-mile descent in a miner's cage.

The historic tour starts with a cage descent into the constant 50-degree mine. Then participants travel in a small, open-car train for a three-quarter mile trip to the deepest and most recently mined area. Tour guides tell the history of the mine, which ceased operation in 1962.

The high energy physics lab tour also takes place underground in a brightly lit physics lab the size of a football field, with a colorful mural along one wall. Participants see equipment on several stations in the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search project. The lab is run by the University of Minnesota, in partnership with Fermilab in Chicago.

No state park vehicle permit is needed for Soudan. Tours are offered daily through September and on weekends through Oct. 21.

Hill Annex Mine State Park on the Mesabi Iron Range is an abandoned open pit mine. Three 90-minute tours are offered.

The bus tour passes some of the large-scale machines that were used when the mine was active.

A pontoon boat tour glides around the nooks and crannies of the red rock-rimmed lake.

"It's very scenic," said park manager Steve Railson. "On the boat ride we talk about the history of the area and how is changed from the original forested land to this water-filled pit."

A third tour lets visitors dig for prehistoric marine fossils in the piles of debris left by the mining company. Contrary to the state parks' rule about not removing material, the fossil tour presents an exception: "You can keep what you find," Railson noted.

Lucky diggers may go home with a shark's tooth, but clam or oyster shells are more typical finds. Would-be paleontologists use their hands to sift through the soft material.

"New fossils are constantly being exposed by rain or wind," Railson said, "and they deteriorate quickly when they are exposed."

For brochures on tours, contact the parks, the DNR Information Center at (651) 296 6157 or toll free (888) 646-6367; or visit the Web site