By: Stephanie Hansen
I have a cabin on Burntside Lake in Ely, Minnesota. I have been going to the cabin since 1988 when I met my husband, Kurt Johnson. Ely is a special place. In addition to journalist Jim Klobuchar (whose daughter, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, marched in the 4th of July parade in 2021), explorer Will Steiger and actress (and wife of Justin Timberlake) Jessica Biel are Ely natives. Because of its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, lots of people travel through town to shop, eat and visit the various outfitters in town. There are many great day hikes around Ely. Three annual festivals are held in the city: the Blueberry Arts Festival in July, the Harvest Moon Festival in September and the Winter Festival in February.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do in Ely throughout the seasons.
Bass Lake Trail
The 5.6 mile Bass Lake Trail is an ideal spring and fall hike. The trail starts on forested terrain, then takes you up along a rocky outcrop with beautiful views of the lake, along a sandy shore that turtles lay their eggs on, and ending at a refreshing waterfall, where you can sit in a natural pool on the top of the falls. It feels really good to swim in the falls and refresh yourself before finishing the final 25% of the hike. The falls are also a great spot for a picnic; a shorter trail, about 1.5 miles, takes you right to the falls area. The full hike is a moderately challenging hike that takes about 2.5 hours to complete.
Miners Lake Trail
A shorter hike is the paved path around Miners Lake, which is a bit less than 3 miles and is located very close to town. It’s an excellent spot to walk after picking up a cup of coffee, or you can cross-country-ski it in the winter months.
Kawishiwi Falls Trail
The Kawishiwi Falls Trail is 1.3 miles and an easy walk in the woods to see the falls — a 70-foot drop that makes for a great spot to take some pictures of the falls and native plants.
Ely has both the International Wolf Center, with a wolf pack on site, and the International Bear Center, which has three bears that live on site and can be viewed from an observation deck. Both locations make for an excellent rainy-day trip into town if you get inclement weather at the cabin.
Not many towns have their own folk school that teaches you northwoods skills and crafts like how to make strudel, build a canoe out of birch bark or a chair out of willows, in addition to many types of fabric arts such as crocheting, embroidery and knitting.
Some of the best outfitter stores in the country are located in Ely, including Piragis, which specializes in outdoor camping gear and clothing and has the best bookstore, with a deep selection of works on Minnesota and the outdoors.
Potluck is a kitchen store that carries both vintage and new wares. It’s a blast to look at old cookie cutters, cast-iron pans and linens while shopping for new cookware or knife sets.
Mealy’s is a high-end gift store that features everything from furniture to pottery to jewelry and novelty items for the sauna, as well as cards and games for the kids.
Legacy Toys is the perfect toy store to take the kids on a rainy day.
Don’t miss Ely’s Old-Fashioned Candy store to pick up some Wacky Wafers, Boston Baked Beans, saltwater taffy or any of the over 40 varieties of soda pop they have on site.
No trip to Ely is complete without a stroll through Wintergreen Northern Wear, which makes the world’s finest outdoor gear, sewn right in Ely and worn on the Will Steiger expeditions (the store is owned by Sue Schurke, whose husband, Paul, was Will’s expedition partner).
For groceries and the best smoked Polish sausages, head to Zup’s.
Eats and Drinks:
Ely offers many places to eat and drink. For exceptional special-occasion dining, Burntside Lodge can’t be beat. Built on a 1920s logging resort, the lodge is the area’s best dining with a wine list that put them on the Wine Spectator Top 100 list. Every diner gets a bread basket with delicious pumpkin muffins made in-house and accompanied by maple-rosemary butter. Their bar is the best place to grab a gin and tonic and a piece of vegetable lavosh pizza while watching the boats leave the marina.
Insula is a delicious restaurant in town with delectable fried chicken and waffles and a huge northern pike fish sandwich.
The Boathouse Brewpub brews its own beer and has delightful onion rings. Try the Blueberry Blonde lager served with floating blueberries.
Two foodies from the Twin Cities have reopened Ely’s fabled Chocolate Moose Café for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If breakfast is your jam, try the homemade quiche at the Front Porch Coffee & Tea Co. or the giant breakfast omelet at Brittons Café.
If you find yourself needing a karaoke fix, head to Zaverl’s for a beer and a “plink.” A plink is short for Pelinkovac, a bitter cherry liquor made from wormwood and native to Croatia and Serbia that is a favorite local shot at the bars in Ely.
Finish your trip into town with a cup of coffee from Northern Grounds, which also happens to have the best free Wi-Fi connection.
Read more of our stories in Issue 23 of Lake and Company.