Listening to the determined barks of a team of dogs pulling your sled as the snowy scenery passes you by. Taking in miles of breathtaking landscape as you snowmobile on remote wilderness trails. Breathing in the fresh air of the forest as you snowshoe into a secluded winter wonderland. Welcome to winter in Ely, Minnesota.
Located in the northeast corner of the state, Ely offers visitors a long list of outdoor winter activities. Whether you’re on a trip with friends or a family getaway, there is plenty to see and do. Here are seven reasons why winter in Ely is going to win you over.
Imagine gliding across snow-covered meadows and frozen lakes led by a powerful team of energetic sled dogs. Mushing is unlike any other way to experience winter. Exhilarating and grounded in natural surroundings, it’s both tranquil and ruggedly outdoorsy. Listen to the excitement of the dogs as they express their eagerness to get on the trail and feel the rush of power as the team surges forward to take you on a ride you will never forget. Then take in the awe-inspiring landscape as you glide silently through the wilderness with only the sounds of paws drumming the ground and your sled whooshing along.
You can plan your own guided adventure from a multitude of options. Ely area dog sled outfitters offer day trips, multi-day lodge-to-lodge journeys, trips geared for ice fishing or weeklong camping excursions. Anyone can participate in this unique adventure, from young to old. No experience required – outfitters teach you everything you need to know from how to harness the dogs to guiding the sled. If you’ve never experienced the Northwoods from the back of a dog sled, you’re in for the treat of a lifetime and will come away with memories that last forever.
Known as northern Minnesota’s premier snowmobile hub for its on-trail facilities, nearby accommodations, food, entertainment and service centers, Ely is a destination that winter sports fans flock to every year. With its varied terrain and beautiful views, the 86-mile Tomahawk Trail is one of the most scenic in the state. This remote trail runs through the majestic Superior National Forest and gives riders incredible views of lakes, rivers and scenic overlooks. The Tomahawk connects with the Stony Spur and other groomed trails to give riders endless miles of wilderness-like experience—it’s not uncommon to go a great distance without seeing another sled. An interesting fact of Ely’s snowmobiling history is that the Ely Igloo Snowmobile Club was organized in 1960, making it the first of its kind in the nation. This club works tirelessly to groom the Tomahawk and other local trails as well as to stake and groom numerous lake trails such as the Shagawa, Burntside, Grassy, and Fall to name a few. The result is endless opportunities for riders to explore the most remote, natural, ruggedly breathtaking areas in Minnesota.
Prefer the idea of taking in the beauty of boreal forests and frozen lakes while getting in a great workout? Look no further than Ely’s cross-country ski trails. With an average annual snowfall of 84 inches, Ely’s ski season begins in early December and lasts through April— longer than anywhere else in Minnesota. You’ll find over 140 kilometers of groomed or user-tracked trails that vary from groomed shorelines to winding and rolling trails through towering birch and pine forests. There are endless options from which to choose including trails that are partially located in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Ski under clear blue skies with the sparkling snow and beautiful snow-laden pine trees all around you. And as you travel through the Superior National Forest, make sure to watch for wildlife such as whitetail deer, birds, and possibly even a moose.
There are several area lodges that offer direct trail access and a great place to relax after your exhilarating day out. Cuddle up in a warm and cozy cabin and be mesmerized by the flames in a fireplace as you recall the incredible sights and sounds of the day.
There’s nothing like the rush of hooking a fish, especially when you’ve managed to reel it in from a small hole in the ice! Seriously, don’t let the ice-covered lakes of Ely fool you. Beneath the frozen tundra is plenty of hungry fish waiting to take your bait. Winter is the perfect time of year to catch trout, walleye, northern and crappie. You’ll discover lakes that were challenging to reach in summer, are now easily accessible thanks to snowmobiles, snowshoes, cross-country skis and sled dogs. Many resorts and motels, guides and dogsled outfitters offer ice fishing packages that include everything from a heated ice house or portable shelter to equipment and tackle to guided fishing trips! Head out for a day trip and land your catch of the day in a heated ice-fishing shelter, or go the more rugged route and add fishing to your winter camping trip to-do list. Regardless of your plans, Ely area outfitters, guides and resort owners are happy to set you up to reel ‘em in!
If skiing isn’t your cup of tea, but you’d like to squeeze in a low-impact workout while enjoying the scenic trails of Ely, try snowshoeing. No formal training is necessary; if you can hike, you will quickly pick up on how to do this fun recreational activity. The beauty of snowshoeing is it allows you to venture to areas that cross-country skiers and snowmobilers can’t reach. Snowshoes are relatively inexpensive to rent in the Ely area, which makes it a fabulous way to bring the whole family together for an outdoor excursion. There are many trails of varying difficulty. You may want to try the Angleworm Trail, where you’ll be treated to high ridges with scenic overlooks and you just might see a moose meandering around the north end of the trail. Or you can check out the Hegman Lake Pictographs, a popular 1.8 mile trek across the lake to view the symbols painted on the rocky cliff by ancient Native Americans—it is accessible in summer by canoe only. Bring a lunch, enjoy the beautiful scenery, and don’t forget to bring your camera!
“There’s always something happening in Ely” is a common expression of both locals and visitors, referring to the numerous events and activities that happen throughout the year. One of the largest winter events is the Ely Winter Festival, which is held for 10 days every February. This festival, which started in 1984, is a celebration of the season. It features a Snow Sculpting Symposium, an exhibition in which local and international snow carvers turn 8’ by 12’ blocks of snow into works of art. The Ely Art Walk, which takes place in the midst of Ely Winter Festival, transforms the downtown area into an outdoor art gallery with more than 400 pieces of original works on display in the windows of downtown businesses. The festival has many other events including Ely Folk School classes such as wool needle felting and wood carving, a Night Sky Show that teaches about the constellations through maps, stories and telescopes, the Northwoods Medallion Hunt in which hunters search for a themed medallion (2018 is the “Year of the Bear”), and much more. And you won’t want to miss the Great Nordic Beard Fest Competition, in which beard enthusiasts compete with their long and sometimes downright wacky beards and mustaches!
Ely has a long, rich history of dog sledding as winter work and travel were accomplished with the help of man’s best friend. Another winter event, the WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race, celebrates this heritage with a mid-distance race that winds through the beautiful, natural and wild Superior National Forest. Held in February, the race features two days of activities. The vet checks, a mandatory exam to ensure the dogs are in good health, is a great opportunity for visitors to see every dog and mingle with the mushers, who love to share their passion for their dogs and the sport. On race day, visitors have another opportunity to view the dogs and equipment as the mushers prepare to race.
Then it is off to the starting line to cheer on their favorite team and watch the eager dogs take off down the shoot on their 50-mile journey through the majestic Superior National Forest. There are also several vantage points along the trail for spectators to watch the teams as they cross roads (with road guards stationed at each crossing to stop traffic as teams go through).
Many other events and programs go on throughout the season for all to enjoy, which is why we can say “there’s always something happening in Ely.”
There are 164 species of birds that breed in the Superior National Forest that surrounds Ely. While some are in residence year round, others can be found only in summer or winter, so grab your binoculars and head to the forest for a little bird-watching. Each month brings a different species as winged visitors from farther north and from the west come to the area in search of warmer climates and food. Against the blanket of white snow, you’ll be delighted to spy species, including great horned owls, evening grosbeaks, common redpolls and bohemian waxwings.
The friendly folks at Ely Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center are more than happy to point you in the right direction and have checklists as well as a map of favorite birding areas from a local field naturalist. After all, birds of a feather flock together!