I spent most of my week in Ely Minnesota traveling between the cabin we rented on Mitchell Lake and the International Wolf Center on the east end of town. I got to know Highway 21 (south to Babbitt and Embarrass) and Highway 169 (west to Tower and east to…nowhere?). Other highways leading to Ely and not much beyond include Highway 1 and Highway 2 both originating at the North Shore. You see, Ely in one of those places you come to in order to go from.
Everyone in Ely appears to have started out somewhere else. Most of the staff at the Wolf Center came from somewhere else, moving to Ely for the job and the experience of studying wolves. I met several people who grew up in Ely, left for somewhere else, and then returned, only to work outside of the town. It appears, just like the trees growing on solid rock, everyone in Ely puts down roots that spread out but don’t grow very deep.
Everyone visiting Ely is going somewhere else. Canoeists are heading out to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Campers and fisherpersons are heading out to one of the many lakes in the National Forest. Hikers are going out on trails that go up and down the outcroppings of bedrock and around and through bogs and swamps. Hunters and trappers are hunkered down somewhere, waiting for the season to start so they can go out too, into the wilderness. Ely is the way station to adventures and vacations in the north woods, the wilderness, the great natural play ground.
Historical Ely is not very visible in the town. The mining and logging past have been glossed over to make room for the recreational present. There is a small museum (closed for renovation) and a city recreation area built on the site of an old mine (Miner’s Lake and Park). There are obvious signs of logging in the National Forest surrounding Ely (drive down Highway 1 to see the evident regrowth pattern of clear cut practices) and less apparent signs of mining exploration (many forest service roads end at test drilling sites for the extraction of precious minerals). The logging and especially the mining are treacherous subjects to the local inhabitants, bringing into play the old and effectively dividing issues of jobs and economic growth vs. environmental preservation and conservation. The most apparent industry in Ely is the tourist industry.
In summers the population of Ely swells when the canoeists arrive in town to launch BWCA canoe trips. More people arrive to camp, fish, hike, or just relax among the conifers, bedrock ridges, and clear cold lakes. In winter snowmobiles, snowshoes, dogsleds, and cross country skis convey more people onto the frozen lakes and into the snowy forests. Meanwhile, in Ely, the residents are happy to provide the supplies and souvenirs necessary for a northwoods adventure.
From my week, brief and busy, in Ely I learned the following things. The Chocolate Moose serves the best deserts as well as tasty and eclectic meals. The best coffee (and free wifi) are available at the Front Porch. Both are located on Sheridan Street or Highway 169 (the main drag of town). Piragis is the best outfitter and outdoor store; maps, canoes, gear, and “town” clothes and books are all available there. It is conveniently located next to the Chocolate Moose. Down the street the Jim Brandenburg Gallery
displays some of the best nature photography around. The prints are pricey, but it doesn’t cost anything to look and be inspired. Many of his photographs are reproduced on cards, and very reasonably priced. Will Steger’s Mukluks are for sale at his store, also on Sheridan Street. There is a bakery in town, two grocery stores, a few gas stations, and a farmer’s market every Tuesday evening in the city park. At the east end of town there is the International Wolf Center (daily wolf enrichment sessions at 1 p.m. are excellent) and the Dorothy Molter museum. Dorothy’s root beer is for sale in several stores in town.
Pick up a copy of the free Ely Summer/Winter Times magazine. It is full of information on the town, places to see and local interest stories. It is one of the best “tourist” magazines I have seen; informative and more than just commercials in print form. I did read the magazine from cover to cover, and not just because I was bored. The articles and stories are well written and entertaining.
I suspect you could spend a couple days exploring the town of Ely. There are plenty of shops and sites to visit- Pillow Rock and the historic Steam Sauna, SirG’s for pasta and pizza (supposedly the best pizza in town, although we found it greasy and cardboard tasting). Alternatively a cruise down Sheridan (watch for the old guy driving the army jeep complete with the gun mount- if you wave him down he will give you a ride in the jeep) should be enough to convince you to head out of town where the real Ely experience begins. Beyond the town limits are some of the most beautiful, undisturbed lakes and woods available in the state. Peace, scenery, and recreational opportunities are what Ely does best, and those are all available right outside of town.