Hundreds of lakes and more than 1,500 miles of forested shoreline create endless canoeing, kayaking and hiking opportunities in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You have to reserve overnight camping permits, but day passes ease getting on the water for short explorations. Choose from several entry points on lakes around Ely; we especially like Fall Lake.
Head to Ely Steak House for a bacon-cheese monster called a Bucky Burger. The classic Minnesota lakeside experience gets even better at Burntside Lodge, where elegant cabins, a white-tablecloth restaurant and superb hospitality are the best you’ll find in this region of pine trees, clear lakes and mossy shores (rooms from $195).
Small-town Ely is big on cool places to visit. The International Wolf Center has a Wolves and Humans exhibit, observation windows, and classes and seminars about wolves. (Kids especially like Wolves 101.)
For more wildlife, take a glimpse into the lives of three bears in their forested 2.5-acre home at the North American Bear Center, where the staff works to conserve bear habitats and rehabilitate injured bears.
Hungry? What the Chocolate Moose lacks in decor, it makes up for with superb walleye sandwiches and from-scratch pies.
The Brandenburg Gallery shows off Jim Brandenburg’s National Geographic photography, and the Dorothy Molter Museum celebrates the last resident of the Boundary Waters; she was famous for the root beer she sold to people.
More information: Ely Chamber of Commerce, (800) 777-7281; ely.org
Add a day
Trek 3 hours southwest to Bemidji and snap a shot of folk hero and larger-than-life Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues. Operated by the Batchelder family since 1920, Bemidji Woolen Mills sells winter gear in every shade of plaid as well as throws and pillows. At Lazy Jack’s, spicy dishes include wings and the jalapeño-topped Lumberjack burger. More than 40 locally influenced sculptures and five murals dot the Bemidji Sculpture Walk. Near the lake that gave this taproom its name, Bemidji Brewing Company pours high-quality beers, including ales from England, America and Belgium. (877) 250-5959; visitbemidji.com
The Iron Range (60 miles northwest of Duluth) owes its name to its rich iron ore deposits but owes its reputation as a destination to recreation. Montana Cafe in Cook serves filling buttermilk pancakes and Denver omelets. Mineview in the Sky in Virginia and Minnesota Museum of Mining in Chisholm pay tribute to the industries the region is so proud of. After fishing and swimming at Lake Vermilion State Park, dine on Bamboozler-size pizzas—24 inches!—at the casual Vermilion Club in Tower. (800) 777-8497; ironrange.org
Bring the Kids
Concordia Language Villages For a fraction of the cost of an international vacation, the programs at this Bemidji camp immerse families in the culture of their choice through lessons on heritage, tradition and language. Guests give up cell phones to spend time making Mexican tiles, shaping crusty French loaves that get baked in brick ovens, weaving Finnish textiles and playing Brazilian carnival games. From $515 per week. (800) 222-4750; concordialanguagevillages.org