It may be small, but Ely, Minnesota, is mighty in terms of outdoor adventure. Located on the northern border, the small town serves as a popular entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This means that Main Street is packed with outfitters and outdoor gear manufacturers who all seek to serve the wilderness-loving folks who venture to the Northland.
In addition to plenty of options for hard-core outdoorsmen and women, Ely also is a great launching point for plenty of accessible day trips and wilderness activities perfect for all ages. We’ve rounded up some of our favorites to help you plan your next trip up north.
1. Explore the Boundary Waters
Venturing into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is among the most popular outdoor activities in the region. The BWCA is comprised of over 100 million acres of wilderness, including 1,175 lakes and more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes. Running along the international border, it is adjacent to Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Altogether, the BWCA comprises the largest contiguous areas of uncut forest left in the country.
2. Enjoy Day Trips in a Canoe
If you’re looking for something a bit less challenging, Ely offers plenty of opportunities to get out for a day or half-day trip on the water. For a shorter route, check out the 4-mile Hunting Shack River and for a longer trip, try paddling from Burntside Lodge, up the Dead River to Twin Lakes and Everett. For the full experience, stay in one of Burntside’s log cabins nestled among the pines.
3. Mountain Biking
Whether you’re into grinding gravel or riding singletrack, there’s something for every off-road cyclist in the area. The Fernberg Tower area located east of Ely provides a great tour of the Superior National Forest, as well as an impressive lookout point. Hidden Valley Recreation area also has a notable system of shrouded trails totaling 12 miles. The Nickel Lake area south of town is another fun place to explore in the saddle, with undulating terrain, bogs, and an old granite quarry.
4. Will Steger Wilderness Center
Set in the boreal forest of northern Minnesota, the Wilderness Centerwas founded by Arctic explorer, expedition leader, and educator, Will Steger. The center is host to service learning opportunities, educational experiences, climate-smart demonstrations, and apprenticeships. While it isn’t open to the public, it serves as an important demonstration project for renewable energy with hopes of educating future generations. While the retreat center is a work in progress, there will be openings for apprentice and volunteer programs posted on their website in January.
For a truly unique experience during the winter months, dogsledding is not to be missed. To be sure, Ely is home to more sled dog trip providers than any other place in the entire world. Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge is a great option to check out, having been founded by polar explorer Paul Schurke and his wife Susan 35 years ago. With lodge-based dogsled vacations and camping adventures available, it’s an experience of a lifetime.
Every outdoor lover loves gear and Ely happens to have plenty of local manufacturers. Downtown Ely is notably home to Wintergreen Northern Wear, which outfitted Will Steger, Paul Schurke, and Anne Bancroft’s 1986 North Pole expedition. Also on the downtown strip is Kondos Outdoors, which peddles canoe packs and dog gear, as well as Steger Mukluks winter boots.
7. Cross-Country Skiing
Nordic trails are plentiful in Ely from December through April most years. Whether you’re looking to tour through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or hit up another groomed system of trails, there’s something for every skier. If you’re looking for an all-encompassing cross-country ski getaway, be sure to stay at the National Forest Lodge, which offers easy access to 30 kilometers of cross-country ski trails that run through 2,000 acres of the Superior National Forest.