Inspiring Ely Minnesota, Winter Activities are #1
Try Winter Our Way: A local’s guide for Snowy fun in Ely, Minnesota
By Sarah Malick-Wahls
Ely, Minnesota, claims the highest density of dog mushers in the lower 48 and it is easy to see why with six months of quality snow in most years.
Affectionately called the “end of the road” for its location near Minnesota’s undeveloped border with Canada, Ely is a collection of outdoor enthusiasts with grit or “Sisu” as our descendants of Finnish settlers like to call it.
One of the first questions we typically ask when getting to know a newcomer to our small town is, “What kind of snow sport are you into?” With a strong tourism infrastructure, there are endless opportunities for you to rediscover the thrills winter has to offer.
The town is the most popular entry point to the most visited wilderness area in the U.S. The federally designated Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, within the Superior National Forest, welcomes over 200,000 visitors a year, but the vast majority come from May through September. Thus, a visit to Ely in winter avoids crowded restaurants and allows for more flexibility in lodging.
Dog Mushing in Ely
Even if you do not go on a dog mushing tour while you are here, you will almost certainly cross paths with mushing teams at some point. On the trail, you might see the distinctive tracks of 24 feet in their fleece booties mushers use to protect dog’s feet from ice balls collected between toes.
In town, you may park next to a towering truck with a handcrafted wooden topper, several small, hinged doors with paw print-shaped ventilation holes, and one or more large sleds mounted to the top.
A trip into the Boundary Waters by dogsled is an unmatched experience. Drive the sled by placing your pack boots on runners, gripping the handles with your over-sized mittens, and glide along a packed trail through the spruce-fir forest or on open lakes.
Day trips last from a few hours to all day or chose an overnight tour staying out in a heated yurt or a tent. Ely’s most well-known dog mushing tour company, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, is operated by polar explorer Paul Schurke and his family. His teams are Inuit sled dogs, bred to haul freight, so they travel slow and steady. Alaskan huskies are favored by White Wilderness and Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips.
Cross-country skiing in Ely
Ski trails are all over the place up here. Get your heart racing and work up a sweat even when it is below zero on these forest trails.
Hidden Valley is one mile out of town with trails groomed for both skate and Nordic skiing. North Arm Ski Trails are my personal favorite for the challenge they provide.
They are for single-track Nordic skiers only and provide a lot of steep hills and turns through open white pine forest for the advanced skier.
Glide through the “sentinels” two ancient white pine trees that provide just enough space for the trail to pass between them. The trails at North Arm are not typically groomed but are well-packed from those who venture before you.
There are similar advanced trails on the backside of Hidden Valley, missed by most except the locals. Study the map at the Hidden Valley trailhead closely and head towards the “Silver Rapids Connector Trail”.
Skis can be rented from Piragis Northwoods Company.
Kicksledding is unfamiliar to most Americans but popular with Scandinavians. It looks like a wooden chair mounted on a pair of 6-foot long skis. To operate you grab a hold of handles mounted to the back of the chair, place a foot on one of the skis, and push and glide with the other. You will want packed snow or ice for ease of movement.
Ely is one of the few places in the country where you can rent or buy kicksleds. I recommend the 4-mile loop around Miner’s Lake on the Trezona Trail downtown. I like to start on an offshoot of the trail at the Superior National Forest Kawishiwi Ranger District visitor parking lot as there is a big hill early on.
If you wish to get outside of town, head east on the Fernberg Trail about six miles to the Fall Lake campground. Follow a dogsled trail from the boat landing into the Boundary Waters Wilderness as far as you wish to go.
Rent a kicksled from Ely Bike and Kicksled  a block from the Trezona Trailhead.
Take the winter on at a slower pace and be rewarded with sightings of unusual boreal birds like red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and black-backed woodpeckers.
Follow gray wolf or Canada lynx tracks while you float on top of two feet of powdery snow.
By far the best snowshoeing day trip is to head into the wilderness to see 500-1,000 year old painted pictographs at Hegman Lake.
Find the trailhead about eleven miles north of town. It starts out on a rolling portage trail, drops steeply down to the water, and then travels across the south and north Hegman for a round-trip of three and a half miles.
Closer to town, Bass Lake trail is also a gorgeous spot. This trail follows a rocky ridge under towering pines. Descend steep stairs to a waterfall above Bass Lake.
Snowshoes can also be rented from Piragis Northwoods Company.
Ely’s Winter Festivals
Ely has two outdoor festivals in winter that provide unusual entertainment. Ely Winter Festival’s main event is a professional snow carving symposium with both local and international talent.
It takes place during the first two weekends in February each year. Student’s from a local community college build wooden frames and climb inside to stamp down snow each year in Whiteside Park in the center of Ely.
After setting and freezing for a few nights, the frames are removed to reveal 8-by-8-foot and 12-by-12-foot blocks of snow.
Watch carvers transform the blocks into beautiful sculptures over three days using shovels, saws, horsehair combs, chisels, and sandpaper.
Choose from activities including live music, hikes to famed nature-writer Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point, or throw crude wooden blocks in the annual Kubb tournament.
Make your own snowshoes, sew a beaver hat, or take another class at the Ely Folk School while you are here.
Another great weekend to visit is during the Wolf Track Classic Sled Dog Race during the third weekend in February. A series of races are held on Sunday. Mingle with dog teams and their mushers in a noisy gathering of fur and parkas as they wait their turn to cross the starting line.
The event draws a small enough spectator crowd that you will be sure to find a spot up close to the fence to hear the announcer, see volunteers hold enthusiastic dogs back, and watch musher’s remove the snow-hook brake and the teams bound forward. Drive to crossings along the route to watch the silent teams fly by on the trail.
Dark Sky in Ely
In 2020, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was designated as a Dark Sky Sanctuary. You do not have to be in the designated wilderness to experience the bright stars and northern lights.
My favorite places to view the night sky are on the southern shore of lakes north of town.
This allows for unobstructed views into the wilderness and the best views if the northern lights are active. If clear skies are predicted, check for solar activity at www.aurora-alerts.com.
Join the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Facebook group for tips for photography, places to go, or track local activity.
Cabins for Rent
For a genuine Northwoods experience, choose one of the cabin rentals outside of town for your stay. Camp du Nord, operated by the St. Paul YMCA, has three collections of cabins scattered around the woods on the edge of Burntside Lake.
It is 30 minutes north of town, but right next to the North Arm ski trails. Take a traditional Finnish wood-fired sauna warmed for you by staff then jump into a hole cut in the ice for a real thrill! Great cabins adjacent to ski trails can also be rented from Bearhead State Park, 20 minutes west of town, or National Forest Lodge  30 minutes south of town.
If you come for one of the festivals, staying in town might sound better. The Grand Ely Lodge  is on the shores of Shagawa Lake, has its own restaurant and bar, and has ice shacks to rent for fishing. Adventure Inn  is comfortable and nearly across the street from Whiteside Park, the center of activities for Ely Winter Festival.
Come for the snow and stay for the sauna. You are sure to find snowy fun in this northern get-away.
Ely Business and Festival contact information
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, 1101 Ring Rock Road, Ely, MN 218-349-6128, www.dogsledding.com Half-day trips $175.
White Wilderness, Deep Lake Road, Isabella MN 218-300-0438 www.whitewilderness.com Half-day trips $190.
Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips, 1557 Esterberg Road, Ely MN 218-235-1807 www.elydogsledtrips.com Half-day trips $160.
Hidden Valley Chalet, 1258 Hidden Valley Road, Ely MN www.elynordic.org Free
North Arm Ski Trails, Kawishiwi Ranger District, Superior National Forest, 3576 North Arm Road, Ely MN 218-365-7600 Free.
Piragis Northwoods Company, 105 N Central Ave., Ely MN 888-997-5046 www.piragis.com $30 per day.
Trezona Trail, 1 Pioneer Drive, Ely MN Free.
Kawishiwi Ranger District visitor center, 1393 Highway 169, Superior National Forest, 218-365-7600, www.fs.usda.gov/superior Free.
Fall Lake campground, Kawishiwi Ranger District, Superior National Forest, Fall Lake Road, 218-365-7600 Free.
Ely Bike and Kicksled, 125 N Central Ave., 218-365-2453, www.elybikeandkicksled.com $25 per day.
Hegman Lake, Kawishiwi Ranger District, Superior National Forest, Echo Trail, Ely MN 218-365-7600 Free.
Bass Lake, Kawishiwi Ranger District, Superior National Forest, 1548 Echo Trail, Ely MN 218-365-7600 Free.
Ely Winter Festival, 423 E Sheridan Street, Ely MN, www.elywinterfestival.com Free.
Listening Point Foundation, 218-365-8889 www.listeningpointfoundation.org Free.
Ely Folk School, 209 E Sheridan Street, Ely MN, 218-235-0138 www.elyfolkschool.org Price varies by class.
Camp du Nord, 3606 N Arm Road, Ely MN, 612-822-2267 www.ymcanorth.org Lodging starts at $210 per night.
Bear Head Lake State Park, 9301 Bear Head State Park Road, Ely MN, 218-235, 2520 www.dnr.stat.mn.us/state_parks $75 per night.
National Forest Lodge, 9905 National Forest Lodge Road, Isabella MN 877-353-0707 www.nationalforestlodge.com Lodging starts at $254 per weekend.
Grand Ely Lodge Resort and Conference Center, 400 N Pioneer Road, Ely MN 218-365-6565 www.grandelylodge.com Lodging starts at $190 per night.
Adventure Inn, 1145 E Sheridan Street, Ely MN, 218-365-3140 www.adventureinn-ely.com
Lodging starts at $86 per night.
Sarah Malick-Wahls is a wildlife biologist and snow carver who has lived in Ely Minnesota for 10 years. She loves everything winter, having even gotten married on skis.