If you’re looking for a great place to visit with your family, Ely offers the perfect getaway. Home to four parks, this small town is known for its lush green spaces and its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Ely is one of those destinations everyone needs to visit once in their lives. Located in northern Minnesota, they are a hot spot for people taking a long canoe trip.
The Ely area has some of the best water in the state, and is a great example of the tall forests Minnesota is known for. My husband has been itching for a fishing trip in the too. I’d been waiting for an excuse to visit for a few years now and when the Ely Chamber of Commerce asked if I’d love to come up, I jumped on it.
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Things to do in Ely and the best places to visit
International Wolf Center
The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, the heart of the Superior National Forest has a close encounter with the resident wolf pack as they play in their habitat.
At the International Wolf Center, visitors can learn more about wolves and the role they play in the balance of the ecosystem.
The park’s main attraction, the wolf exhibit, teaches visitors about the habitat and the animals they’ll encounter. Included with admission are daily programs allowing you to learn more about the natural history of wolves.
All of the wolfs inside the center are raised as pups. Hand-fed, they learn to get used to the humans that will care for them as well as get used to the guest that comes to visit.
After crossing through the education room, you’ll find a viewing area with live animals that extends the width of the habitat. Here you’ll get to see the wolfs in their habitat.
Inside the center you’ll see a state-of-the-art interpretive center, teaching about different wolf behaviors. Our family loved getting to visit the howling room allowing us to learn their different calls.
They also have interactive exhibits teaching about the history of wolves in different cultures.
The Dorothy Molter Museum
Dorothy is a legend in northeastern MN as one of the last residents of the BWCAW. Often referred to as the Root Beer Lady the Dorothy Molter Museum sits in a woodsy area at the edge of town, offering visitors a glimpse of how she was able to live in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Inside the museum, you’ll learn how Dorothy got started making her famous homemade root beer. It was partly thanks to the flight ban over the Superior Roadless Area.
Needing to portage in everything, bringing in crates of soda was out of the question. She got creative and started to make her own Root Beer.
Taking cold water from Knife Lake, Root Beer extract, and some yeast, she used bottles she had on the property already to make her own. She soon started selling her root beer to paddlers. Her root beers became so popular she had to insist on the help of friends and family to produce them.
When she died in 1989, her family and friends wanted to preserve her legacy. They moved three of Molter’s homes to Ely and helped create the museum.
There are three homes, including her winter cabin. Today you can pick up your own Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer and see how the museum came to be.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a series of small lakes connected by hiking trails. People travel around the lakes by portaging their canoes from lake to lake and camp at many of the sites.
The whole area is protected and only allows motored craft on a select few lakes. Ely a popular destination for groups and outfitters to enter the BWCAW.
The town is home to over 15 outfitters, all ready to stock you up on everything you need for a fun trip. Their services range from guides to pickup locations, to canoe rentals and even outfitting you with sleeping bags and food.
You need a permit to enter the BWCA. This is to help cut back o the number of visitors and ensure that everyone has a great time. This includes those wishing to just paddle around on the lake.
I’ve been to the BWCA numerous times before but it wasn’t until a few years back when we struggled to find a campsite that I realized just how crucial it is. Make sure to plan ahead for your visit and reserve a permit before the season starts.
Thinking of taking your family to the BWCA? Make sure to read this first!
Shopping in Downtown Ely
Spend some time in Downtown Ely. Downtown Ely has everything you need for a great tip. If you forgot anything, an outfitter will surely have it. on the East end of town, visit Zup’s Grocery Store and stock up your coolers or fridge. They also have a liquor store.
If you have smaller children, you need to visit Legacy Toys. Mealey’s Gifts and Sauna has unique fights for older kids, adults, and anyone in between.
I had to stop myself from walking out with almost everything. Ely Wear is the best place to get BWCA Hats, T-Shirts, Sweat Shirts, Towels, and anything else BWCA branded apparel.
Bass Lake Trail
Bass Lake Trail in Ely, Minnesota is a popular loop hike through the forest around Bass Lake and Dry Lake. The hike is 6+ miles in length, and the perimeter trail is rugged, with hiking trails in thick forest, and creeks to cross over.
The trail has a moderate elevation with a few low points and a few high ones but is an easy hike overall. There are a few creek crossings and some rocks to climb over, but the trail is mostly an easy loop.
The Secret/Blackstone Trail is a beautiful trail system near Ely, Minnesota that features several scenic overlooks of ponds and lakes. The trek through the woods begins with a paved path that leads to a boardwalk, then a gravel path.
The trail then leads alongside a pond, where you can see many ducks, swans, and geese. The trail then leads to a beautiful overlook of a lake that is surrounded by a field of wildflowers.
Let the kids unwind at Whiteside Park. This community park is perfect for little kids. With musical instruments for them to get creative. There are slides, swings, and more.
With two playgrounds, one for younger kids and one for older kids, it was hard to pry the kids away. The park is also great for picnics. When we were there, the town was hosting a Mud Monkey Obstacle course for younger kids.
The North American Bear Center
The North American Bear Center is the only black bear and wildlife educational facility of its kind. Dedicated to replacing old myths with facts, the North American Bear Center is home to more than a dozen rescued and rehabilitated bears.
Open year-round to the public for visits, the North American Bear Center offers an array of natural and educational programs for the public to explore. Stop in at the top of the hour and get a behind-the-scenes tour with one of their Ambassador Bears. It is one of the top things to do in Ely Minnesota.
Bear Head Lake State Park
Bear Head Lake State Park is a Minnesota state park in Mille Lacs County. It is located on a peninsula of land between Bear Head Lake and Big Lake and is a great place for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, boating, kayaking, and canoeing. One of the best things about this park is the beautiful scenery, with many trees and wildlife.
Bear Head Lake sits along the edge of the BWCA and is a great alternative for those that want to experience a taste of it, without leaving their RV or Travel Trailer. It also has some great paddling opportunities and hiking club trails.
Taking Part in the MN Hiking Club Challenge or the MN State Park Passport Program? It’s a great way to earn free nights of camping. Check out all the details.
Lake Vermilion State Park and the Soudan Underground Mine
About 20 minutes west of Ely is the Soudan Underground Mine in Lake Vermillion State Park. This stunning park offers tours underground inside the mine. Did you know most of the iron used in steel during the industrial revolution came from Minnesota?
The Soudan Mine was known as the Cadillac of Mines due to the working conditions. The tour starts with a ride down the mining elevator and then onto a train, so you can go deep inside the mind.
Mining is such a big part of the culture in Northern MN. Today there is a constant battle between the conservationist looking to preserve the BWCA and the nearby minders.
Visiting will give you a lot more insight into the struggles and gain some middle ground on the debates. I highly recommend this stop if you are in the area.
Pro Tip: Make sure to reserve your mine tour online before you go. They sell out. Find out more about the mine tour by clicking here.
Semer’s Beach is a great place to cool off in Ely. If you don’t have a BWCA permit or are staying at a campground without a beach, this is the next best place. The water is clear with plenty of sand to carve out a spot. There is even a play area nearby.
The beach was shallow and cool. One of the great things about it was that it was protected from the wind. There were plenty of islands nearby to paddle around. To the left of the beach is a short trail, leading to two rocky islands, all connected by bridges.
We need up renting a paddle board while we were there. It was a great location to teach the kids to Stand Up and get a feel for paddling in a safe place.
Kiwishiwi Falls Trail and Waterfall
The Kawishiwi Falls Trail offers visitors a fabulous 1.5-mile, round-trip hike showcasing the beautiful 70-foot Kawishiwi Falls and the Falls Lake Dam. On a steamy day, the falls are like an air conditioner.
The trail is easy with small elevation changes. There are roots and rocks to keep an eye out for, it’s not for people with mobility issues. The trail is family-friendly and has an absolutely stunning reward!
Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters
If you plan on getting on the water, you need to check out Spirit of the Wilderness Outfitters. We were able to get in and out in no time. They made everything so easy. This family-run business had everything you need, including helping you obtain your permits.
The small gift shop inside also has any essentials you may have forgotten like bug nets or sprays. When it came to loading up the car, they had all the equipment to fit your gear safely on top.
If you are looking to buy used gear, stop in at the end of the season!
See the Paul Bunyan Statue
On the hunt to see all the Paul Bunyan Statues around Minnesota? Just outside of Ely is Winton. The town’s welcome sign is next to a giant statue of the famous lumberjack. Get a quick selfie while you are there.
Find out where all the Paul Bunyan statues are hiding around the state. Everything you need to know about Paul Bunyan statues in Minnesota
Where to eat in Ely
Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant
The boathouse brewpub is a great restaurant with food for the entire family. Featuring burgers, sandwiches, and American eats all in an informal setting. Half the brewpub is dedicated to a bar with a hightop setting and the other half with a family-style table setting.
Gator Grilled Cheese Emporium
You have to check out the Gator Grilled Cheese Emporium. Dairy lovers will love the cheese, but don’t worry there are other options too. Kids’ meals are all served on a Frisbey that kids can take home! In addition to grilled cheeses, they have Cubans, Avacado Turkey Clubs, Soups, and Salads!
Northern Expressions Ice Cream Shop
In the mood for a sweet treat? You gotta stop into Northern Expressions Ice Cream. They are serving up generous portions of amazing creamy treats. With shakes, malts, bowls, and fresh waffle cones.
But what made Northern Expressions the most amazing place is the selection of Dairy Free, Lactose-Free, and Sugar-Free options. My kids are still talking about it!
Log Cabin Coffee
Need a quick breakfast on the go? Log Cabin Coffee has some amazing beverages and morning treats. We stopped in for some mochas. They have alternative milks too! It’s like heaven in a cup!
Looking to fuel up before your day? You need to check out the Evergreen Restaurant inside the Grand View Lodge. Guest or not, all are welcome. The restaurant sits alongside the lake, giving guests a stunning view. They have a large selection of sweet and savory options.
I highly recommend the Northern Lights French Toast or the Hashbrowns. The best part is, It was probably the most inexpensive meal of the entire trip.
Where to stay in Ely
Fenske Lake Campground offers visitors a small, remote campground with large, majestic pine trees and access to water to campers hoping to explore, fish, hike, sightsee, and backcountry canoe in Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The campground lies approximately 10 miles outside of Ely, Minnesota.
South Kawishiwi River
South Kawishiwi River Campground in Superior National Forest offers fishing, boating, and other recreational activities in a relaxing outdoor setting. The campground has sites with and without electrical hookups, as well as one group day use area perfect for family picnics, birthday parties, and other gatherings.
Sites 22+ that sit along the River all have private trails down the water. For those looking to explore, there is a secluded hiking trail that goes around the exterior of the property.
Rent a Cabin
There is no better way to explore northern MN than by staying in your own Cabin. There are plenty of options in Ely from four-season retreats, to log cabins. Coming in every budget, you’ll want to make sure to reserve a spot before peak season hits.
You can reserve a cabin by clicking here.
Grand Ely Lodge
For a truly high-end experience, you need to stay at the Grand Ely Lodge. The lodge sits near downtown Ely making it easy to access everything. Plus you got all the luxuries of home. The lodge sits along Shagawa Lake. It’s a view you won’t forget.
Make sure you reserve your stay at Grand Ely Lodge.
How long do you need to spend to do all the things to do in Ely MN?
If you really want to experience it all, I recommend spending a long weekend to a whole week. While you can get some of the stuff on the list done in a weekend, you could spend months up there and not do it all. I recommend biting it off in little chunks personally.
Either way, the town is a family favorite and I’m so glad I was able to spend a weekend up there this summer. I will definitely be back! Also, Northern MN doesn’t close in winter. They are home to the Ely Winter festival with great cross-country skiing and dog sledding adventures.