The Vermilion River watershed, located within northern St. Louis County, covers 662,427 acres, or 1,035 square miles. The watershed’s upper two-thirds are in the Border Lakes ecological sub-region and the lower third is in the Laurentian Uplands. It contains 565 lakes covering 82,836 acres and 84,333 acres of wetlands. Headwaters include Armstrong Lake and Armstrong River east of Lake Vermilion. The Eagles Nest Lakes 1, 2, 3 and 4 are just south of Armstrong Lake; the East Two Rivers drains them into Lake Vermilion's Pike Bay. The Pike River starts between Gilbert and Virginia, Minnesota and flows 26 miles north to Pike Bay. Sand River, six miles north of Virginia, is a major tributary of the Pike River. The Vermilion River flows north from Lake Vermilion through remote forested country to Crane Lake, which abuts Voyageurs National Park, and then drains into the park and Sand Point Lake (a border water with Canada). The major lakes and streams north of Lake Vermilion are Elbow, Pelican, Moose, Myrtle, Elephant and Echo Lakes and the Pelican and Echo Rivers. They all culminate at Crane Lake.
There are no large cities in this remote watershed; the most populated are Tower, with 496 residents, and Orr, with 282. The total watershed population is 14,423, or 14 people per square mile.
The Vermilion River watershed includes a portion of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness near Big Trout Lake. The BWCAW is roadless, undeveloped country that is interconnected with lakes, rivers and portages. Lake Vermillion covers 39,271 acres and contains 365 islands. Its lakeshore features many cabins, homes, resorts and a casino. Recreation tourism is a prime economic driver; others include the forest industry, mining, and some farming.
Land on Lake Vermilion’s southeastern shores was purchased in 2010 for $18 million by the state of Minnesota from U.S. Steel. The land is Minnesota’s newest state park.