Ely, MN Weekend Away: Classic BWCA Gateway
Ely, MN is the place where people go to be a part of nature. On the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Ely mixes outdoor adventure with fine shopping and dining.
- Best Bets
- Things to Do
- Where to Eat
- Where to Stay
- When to Go
- Getting There
A town on the edge of the woods
Ely, MN claims to do more wilderness canoe outfitting than any city in the world – and when you visit it won’t be hard to believe. It’s a place with fewer people, larger forests, less traffic and more wildlife than you may see in a long time.
Early settlers came to the area for gold, and all they found was fool’s gold. What they were left with was a vast richness of forests, wildlife, lakes and fishing to enjoy year round.
The Chippewa Indians called Ely home for hundreds of years. Once named for the Chippewa word meaning “land of the berries,” Ely drew them to the area because of its abundance of blueberries and other wildlife. Today, the town’s festival is named the Blueberry Arts Festival after this piece of its heritage.
Early voyageurs came to the area in the 1700s to trade for fur, but the first settlers didn’t come for another 100 years. The town was officially incorporated in 1888, the same year it sent off its first shipment of iron ore. That year marked the start of Ely’s mining industry, on which it built its economy for nearly the next 100 years.
Today, the town has become a vacation destination for travelers around the globe, as a main entry point to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).
Ely, MN Best Bets
- You can’t come to Ely without a canoe trip. Rent a canoe at one of the many local outfitters for a short day trip or longer. For a unique view, head to Hegman Lake for a view of historic pictographs.
- Come in the winter for a dogsledding trip. Stay at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, the nation’s only lodge devoted to dogsledding.
- Spend an afternoon in town. Visit the gallery of National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg, the Wintergreen Northern Wear store or Steger Mukluks by arctic explorer Will Steger.
- Grab lunch at the Chocolate Moose and make dinner reservations at Burntside Lodge’s dining room.
is one of the many outfitters available to canoeists.
features life sized bronze sculptures of a pack of wolves.
Things to Do
Ely offers the best of both words – exquisite outdoor adventures, plus a downtown alive with shops, dining, museums and spas. There are more than 5,000 lakes, rivers and streams in the Ely area, offering near endless opportunities for exploration. If you’re new to backpacking, Ely is home to more canoe outfitters than any other city in the word, according to its chamber of commerce, who can provide gear and training before you head out.
Plan a canoe day trip. There are hundreds of routes in the area and more outfitters than any other city in the nation, providing easy access to canoes and gear. Or,
Take a trek through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Covering one million acres, the Boundary Waters is a wilderness paradise with more than 1,200 miles of canoe waterways, 100 miles of hiking trails and ski trails in the winter. It’s the largest wilderness area in the nation east of the Mississippi. Though 180,000 people visit the BWCA annually, depending on your route you could go days without seeing another person.
View the Hegman Lake Pictographs. Some of the best known pictographs in the Midwest can be seen on a rock ledge overlooking North Hegman Lake in the BWCA. To get there, park at South Hegman Lake. Take a short 15 minute paddle to a portage taking you to North Hegman Lake. Another 15 minute paddle will take you to the pictographs – markings of early inhabitants who once traveled the very same waters.
Spend the day in town. Ely’s quaint downtown has a range of shops and outfitters, including gifts and galleries, clothing and outdoor gear:
- Wintergreen Northern Wear: Created by the owners of Wintergreen Lodge, the store offers some of the best winter wear you’ll find, all made locally. The clothing has been used by Ely-native explorers Will Stegar and Wintergreen founder Paul Schurke.
- Piragis Northwoods Company: This store offers all the gear you need for your outdoor adventure, but also offers clothing, crafts and decor, books and jewelry.
- Galleries: National Geographic nature photographer Jim Brandenburg has two galleries in the state, and Ely has one of them (the other is in his hometown of Luverne). Also stop into the Kess Gallery, featuring Beckie Prange woodcuts, and Deborah Sussex Photography gallery. Ledgerock Pottery offers locally made pottery and glass from local study Highstone Glassworks.
- The Pebble Spa: Stop in for a massage, facial or manicure, a great place to unwind after a canoe trip or hike.
- Giftshops: Several gift shops along Ely’s main street will provide hours of exploration. Mealy’s had handmade furniture, garden accessories, jewelry, and books, as well as sauna supplies. Mostly Moose & More and The Cabin both offer Northwoods themed gifts, including artwork, jewelry, candles, and clothing. The Great Outdoors Candle Co. offers handmade candles and soaps, as well as cabin décor.
- Steger Mukluks: Traditional Native American-style mukluks from arctic explorer Will Steger. The shop also sells moccasins and clothing.
Tour the Soudan Underground Mine. Called the “Cadillac of Mines,” Soudan is Minnesota’s oldest mine and one of the richest sources of iron ore in the state. The mine is about 20 minutes west of downtown Ely on Hwy 169/1.
Visit a museum. Just to the east of downtown, the Dorothy Molter "The Root Beer Lady" Museum celebrates the life of the last person to call the Boundary Waters home. Tour her actual cabin and sample the root beer she made that earned her the name “Root Beer Lady.” Just east, head to the International Wolf Center, which has exhibits and educational events highlighting history of wolves in the state and ways humans can help protect the wolf population. On the other side of town, the North American Bear Center has exhibits on all types of bears found on the continent.
Hike through brilliant fall leaves. Ely is one of the best places in the state to view the fall leaves. Hike through the Boundary Waters for brilliant red, orange and yellow colors. Remember to come early in the fall – because Ely is far north, its leaves will turn before other areas of the state. Check the Minnesota DNR’s website for the latest fall leaf forecasts.
If you come in the winter – and you must come at least once – plan a dogsled adventure. Choose Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge for a longer adventure, with rental gear available. Several other guide services are also available in the area, including White Wolf Dog Sled Trips, White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures and Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips.
Where to Eat
Chocolate Moose: In downtown Ely, stop for a casual lunch, where you’ll find menu items ranging from walleye sandwiches to burritos to traditional ham and cheese and turkey warps. The log-style restaurant also offers a range of wines and microbrews.
BoatHouse Brewery: The BoatHouse in downtown Ely offers paninis and wraps, burgers, steaks and walleye. The restaurant also serves a traditional breakfast that will fill you up before you head out for a hike.
The Mantel House Restaurant: French Chef Bernard Herrmann and Texas native Chef Pam Freeman offer a four-course gourmet menu in the heart of downtown. Ingredients are fresh and locally grown. In the winter Chef Herrmann cooks for the Wintergreen Dog Sled Lodge.
Burntside Lodge: On Burntside Lake, the Lodge’s dining room (2755 County Road 489) is open to the public, offering breakfast and dinner. Menu items include walleye, scallops, steak and pork. Brunch is served each Saturday and Sunday morning, featuring items ranging from eggs benedict to homemade blueberry scones. The Lodge is a Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” winner.
Rockwood: The eatery offers casual dining, with live music on the weekends. Inside you’ll find northwoods décor and a diverse menu with items like walleye, burgers, and Jamaican jerk surf and turf. Or head back outside to enjoy dinner on the patio.
Ice cream: Stop for a frozen treat at Northern Expressions on Main, or a frozen custard at nearby Red Cabin Custard.
offers on-site dining at Evergreen or Antlers Lounge.
Where to Stay
From rustic cabins to downtown rooms, Ely has options for whatever vacation you’re looking for. Here are five to try:
Burntside Lodge: Its handcrafted log cabins overlook Burntside Lake (2755 County Road 489), a clear, spring-fed lake dotted with islands. Rent a canoe, kayak or boat, or enjoy breakfast or dinner at the Lodge’s dining room, featuring menu items like walleye, scallops, and steak, as well as wine parings and a full bar. A Cappuccino/Espresso Bar is also on site, with fresh bakery items.
Grand Ely Lodge:Located close to downtown Ely, Grand Ely Lodge (400 N Pioneer Rd) offers a relaxing getaway with close access to shops and restaurants. The Lodge’s marina provides pontoon, fishing boat, canoe and kayak rentals. Dine on-site at Evergreen Restaurant or Antlers Lounge.
Moose Track Lodge: Rent a Northwoods-style cabin at Moose Track Lodge (593 Kawishiwi Trail), which also offers guided fishing, fly fishing and canoe trips. Boat and canoe rentals are available, and the Lodge is also a BWCA permit station.
Timber Trail Lodge: Just a few mile past Ely, Timber Trail Lodge (629 Kawishiwi Trail) offers Northwoods-style cabin rentals with one to six bedrooms. The lodge has an on-site marina with motorboat, pontoon and canoe rentals.
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge: In the winter months, visit Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge (1101 Ringrock Road), the nation’s only lodge exclusively devoted to dogsledding. Three and four-night lodge-based trips for singles, couples and families include several lodging and gourmet dining options. Guided dogsled camping trips are also available, and if you’re in need of gear, the Lodge rents complete clothing sets from its Wintergreen Northern Wear brand.
When to Go
Ely is an adventure year round. In the summer, enjoy the lakes, BWCA and downtown shops for a weekend getaway or a week-long adventure in a canoe.
In the fall, Ely offers spectacular views of the fall leaves. Because its far north, be sure to visit early in the fall to see the most brilliant colors.
And in the winter, Ely is a winter sport destination, offering some of the state’s best cross country ski trails, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and dog sledding.
From the south, head north on Hwy 35 until the Cloquet exit, Hwy 53. Continue North through Eveleth (home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame) and Virginia. Just past Virginia, take Hwy 169/1 all the way to Ely.
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