We have often heard that “it’s not the destination but the journey.” That is true in many cases, unless you are traveling to the northwoods region of Minnesota to play golf. Certainly trekking up north can be an adventure, but the golf courses to be found there make the northwoods of Minnesota a must-play destination for every golfer coming to the state.
The Minnesota “Iron Range” is home to the Superior National forest in addition to the rugged landscape of a former open-pit mining area. Together with the many lakes, ponds, rivers and creeks, the area is the perfect setting for unique, beautiful and challenging golf courses carved out of rough and rocky terrain. There are five resorts including six 18-hole championship courses in the area, and they immediately grab your full attention on the tee and sit in your memory banks long after your rounds are complete.
Minnesota National Golf Course in McGregor might be considered the gateway course to the northwoods. Located in northern central Minnesota lake country, Minnesota National offers a serene stroll through the woods and water designed by prolific Minnesota golf course architect Joel Goldstrand. The 18-hole championship track winds on rolling through thick forest and marshlands, and with five tees offer all the challenge (7,230 yards from the back tees) your foursome is seeking. Minnesota National also features the nine-hole Savannah Course. The 2,500 yard, par 33 course is great for the family or a quick nine to hone your wedge skills.
Head west toward Lake Superior to Cloquet and you can track a challenging denizen of the northwoods: Black Bear Golf Course. Carved out of the dense hardwoods of northern Minnesota, Black Bear GC provides every bit of a golf challenge as its namesake might suggest. Beautiful, quiet and enthralling, Black Bear offers exquisitely manicured fairways, brilliant white sane bunkers and encroaching wetlands on their way to large, receptive greens. Don’t miss the outsized bear-paw bunker in the fairway of the course’s signature hole, the 516-yard, par-5 No. 7.
Drive along the western shore of Lake Gitche Gumee to find the recently renovated Super National at Lutsen sitting majestically above the shimmering water. Architect Jeffrey Brauer redesigned 18 of the 27 holes of the course, increasing playability, creating new challenges and opening up fantastic views of Lake Superior. Set in the valley of the Sawtooth Mountain range, the course features the rocky outcropping of the rugged northland with some challenging putting on the greens (due to the beguiling lake effect). The new Premier 18 (River and Canyon nines) makes Superior National one of most exciting “new” courses in the state, and the Mountain 9 is a great place for a quick round in an unforgettable setting.
Architect Brauer created three other great Iron Range courses before the Superior National redo, and they are Minnesota northwoods masterpieces. Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort in Biwabik boasts two award-winning tracks that are included on most of best-of lists. The Legend, created first, features large fairways and greens meandering through tall hardwoods and provides a peaceful yet challenging golf experience like few others in the state. The 226-yard par-3 No. 17 across beautiful Lake Sabin is worth the trip north alone.
The Quarry is a true-Iron Range track. Sculpted out of the land of an abandoned sand, gravel and iron mining operation, The Quarry is a unique and chiseled landscape that offers a big golf challenge in a beautiful setting. Named the #1 public golf course in Minnesota, according to Golf Digest, The Quarry is tighter than The Legend and set in rolling hills that provide great vistas of the northwoods and surrounding terrain. Giants Ridge recently acquired eight Finn Cycle two-wheel electric carts for traversing the two gorgeous courses, and director of golf John Kendall says they are so popular they can’t keep the vehicles in the cart barn.
The Wilderness at Fortune Bay (another Jeffrey Brauer design) also has four Finn Cycles for tooling around its course in Tower. Surrounding beautiful Lake Vermillion, Wilderness at Fortune Bay was ranked the #2 public golf course in Minnesota by Golf Digest and it is not hard to see why. Top conditioning, lakes, woods and water, and an unsurpassed golf challenge make this northern beauty hard to resist. Rock outcroppings and rolling hills appoint this northern gem, that can be played from 5,324 yards up front to 7,207 from the back, offering a challenge for everyone. But no matter what yardage you play the course from, keep your eyes peeled for the abundant wildlife that inhabit the area—including osprey and eagles flying above. Here’s hoping you find some birdies on the greens, as well.