Get out of the grind with a wilderness adventure sure to create a lifetime of memories.
Summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area—the pristine expanse of wilderness that hugs and spills over the Canadian border in northern Minnesota—is a sharp departure from the long, raw winter season where color is stripped from the landscape and snow-shoers dominate the frozen tundra. Pine, fir and spruce co-mingle with leafed-out birches, aspens and maples and brilliant wildflowers. Mosquitoes and the mournful call of the loon are plentiful; cornflower-blue skies stretch across the horizon.
What seems like an infinite number of meandering island-studded lakes, bogs, rugged trails and primitive back roads attracts families, couples, groups of women, gaggles of men, and Boy Scouts from all points of the globe. The adventurers, regardless of age or gender, are anxious to dip their toes, fishing rods and paddles in the waters where motors aren’t allowed, the gentle wind is a welcome friend and unparalleled beauty is around every bend.
Ely, Minnesota, the departure point to the great 1,090,000-acre strand of wilderness and resorts, bustles with warm-weather activity and mini traffic jams as cars and trucks loaded with Kevlar canoes and oodles of camping gear inch along Sheridan Street. Shoppers stocking up on maps, food, drinking water, and other backwoods’ necessities congregate in the outfitters that line the street. People decked out in thick socks and hiking boots, anxious for one last home-cooked meal and a slice of state fair-worthy pie before setting off for a rendezvous with nature, jockey for tables at the Chocolate Moose and quaff pints of craft beer at the Rockwood Restaurant and Lounge.
The Boundary Waters is an experience unlike any other in the lower 48 states—a place where you can unplug, unwind, and untangle yourself from daily obligations and deadlines. And whether you’re packing the SUV with the family or embarking on a couples-only road trip, the destination rewards with lifetime memories—and a bug bite or two that will disappear by the time you get back home.
Ely is about a 10-hour drive from Kansas City—a chance to stop off in the Twin Cities for an overnight to break up the long car ride.
If you’re traveling with the kids, book a stay at the Radisson Hotel Bloomington by Mall of America, conveniently located in the same building as Water Park of America. There’s plenty to do besides splashing in exhilarating water rides or playing arcade games—mom can choose from a myriad of treatments at the on-site Trillium Spa or opt for a shopping excursion at the world-famous Mall of America, just a short trip from the hotel. The dining options are diverse to suit every taste, ranging from the Sleepy Eye Café for a hearty breakfast or the Split Rock Grille for a casual dinner.
If it’s just you and your sweetheart, check into the Aloft Minneapolis in the trendy riverfront Mill District. Stroll through the adjacent Gold Medal Park for stunning views of the Mississippi River, hop on a bike to explore the trails running along the river, or take the nearby light rail to enjoy a museum, theatre, or sports experience. Walk across the street to Wasabi Fusion Restaurant for a sushi experience and end the night in the hotel bar with a glass of wine or handcrafted cocktail.
Next morning, on the way out of town, seek out some of the city’s best homemade buttermilk and cornbread pancakes and migas at The Neighborhood Café in St. Paul. Situated in a quaint enclave off the main drag of Snelling Ave., you’ll mix comfortably with the locals who tuck into generous portions of comfort food and engage in lively conversation while sipping local Dunn Bros Coffee from thick, white mugs.
Fortified for the nearly four-hour drive up north, do a bit of sightseeing along the way. Pull off I-35 Exit 237 in Cloquet, Minnesota, for a priceless picture opportunity—the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed service station built in 1958, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and still in operation.
The Ely area has traditional hotel-lodging accommodations, but when you’re up north, choose from one of the old-fashioned resorts or cabins that are throwbacks to a different era.
Fenske Lake Cabins is a picturesque, quiet collection of private cabins nestled among towering pines at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the 105-acre spring-fed Fenske Lake. Family-owned and operated, the boutique resort boasts nine one- to three-bedroom cabins are perched along one-half mile of the beautiful Fenske Lake shoreline. Enjoy modern kitchens, a private dock and charcoal grill; a communal authentic Northwoods sauna; and a canoe that comes along with the rental. The grounds also have a fish cleaning house (fish for smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye and perch on the lake) and a modern shower house (cabins have cold running water only).
Outfitting companies and guide services, where you can rent superlight canoes, sleeping bags, fishing rods and reels, private guides and much more, abound in the Ely area.
Ely Outfitting Company, operated by owner and guide Jason Zabokrtsky and located on Sheridan St., is a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area’s splendors. Offering everything from complete and partial outfitting packages to shuttles and transportation and canoe and gear rentals to specially designed menus, the business is also a fly-in trip expert. Zabokrtsky’s company is dedicated to no-trace ethics, wilderness stewardship and protection of the wild.
Piragis Northwood Company, which opened in 1979, is located off the beaten path of Sheridan St. Part retail, part rental, part outfitter, part guide service, this iconic business has built its success on helping scores appreciate the solitude and beauty of the area.
When in Ely, a meal at The Chocolate Moose is a must. The Northwoods décor and ambience enhance the food, which is served seasonally. Don’t miss a slice of the homemade pie a la mode. Down the street is the Rockwood Restaurant and Lounge, known for cold beer and plates of freshly prepared walleye, juicy burgers, and stuffed meatloaf. If it’s purely imbibing and chatting with local residents you want, pull up a stool to the bar at the Kwazy Wabbit.
After a full day of fishing, canoeing and kayaking, mountain biking, hiking or snapping wildlife pictures, take in Ely’s fascinating museums and sites. The Dorothy Molter Museum recounts the life and legacy of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area’s last non-indigenous resident. Exhibits and tours preserve and interpret the region’s heritage as inspired by Molter, alternately nicknamed the Root Beer Lady or Nightingale of the Wilderness, who lived for 56 years on Knife Lake and made homemade root beer to sell to thousands of canoeists passing through the are.
The 20,000-square-foot International Wolf Center provides a captivating glimpse into the survival of wolf populations through exhibits and education and maintains a live wolf population.
Immerse yourself in the bear’s world at the North American Bear Center whose mission is to champion the long-term survival of bears through educational myth busting. Bears live in 2.5 acres of national forest that include manmade dens and a pond.
For more information on planning your Boundary Waters Canoe Area vacation, visit Ely.org.