We woke up to 48 degrees and a heavy fog on our travel day from Grand Marais to Ely, Minnesota. By the time we were ready to pull out of the campground, the fog had lifted and we saw blue sky.
We headed south and west to Ely, MN. The roads could have been worse, but they certainly could have been better too. We said goodbye to Lake Superior, passing several small waterfalls along the side of the road. The fields of wildflowers were lovely but unfortunately do not show up well when taking a picture from a moving vehicle.
Three hours later we arrived at Fall Lake Campground, a national forest campground in Superior National Forest. Many campsites are not reservable so we got up at 6:30 AM to get there in plenty of time to secure a site, especially since campgrounds fill up very early in the summer the closer you get to the weekend. We rarely get up that early, even on travel days! Our early bird plans got us the worm since we were able to get a pull through site with 50 amp power.
Ely, population 3,400, is located at the gateway of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The wilderness is a million acres of ancient forest and 1,500 waterways still untouched by civilization and is the largest wilderness area east of the Rockies. The best way to experience it is by canoe like the Native Americans, trappers, fur traders and explorers did centuries ago. There are thousands of miles of canoe routes which are linked by rivers, lakes and portages.
The number one attraction in Ely is fishing with access to more than 5,000 lakes, streams and rivers in the area. It is common to see fishing lodges, canoe outfitters, and many boats, canoes and kayaks everywhere. It is said this part of Minnesota has some of the best fishing in North America.
Nicknamed “The End of the Road” because of its extreme north remote location, Ely was first home to the Ojibwe people in the late 1600’s, followed by the first French explorers in the early 1700’s. Trapping and fur trade quickly grew and in the mid 1800’s the gold craze had begun. Even though the region never produced gold, the precious metal iron ore was discovered. Northern Minnesota’s early ore mines helped greatly with the needs of the nation’s steel industry. Ore exploration led to the growth of the logging industry in the region. By the 1900’s recreational activities such as fishing, hunting and canoeing turned the area prevalently into a tourism industry.
Ely got its name from a rare rock formation known as Ely greenstone which formed more than two billion years ago when lava flows solidified underwater. An outcropping of the Ely greenstone is visible in the town and is known as Pillow Rocks.
We enjoyed the many murals around town showing the rich history of the region.
On Friday we drove to the nearby town of Soudan to visit the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Our purpose for coming here was to take the underground mine tour. We donned hardhats and rode the mine elevator shaft 2,341 feet underground. We then boarded railroad cars that took us through a 3,000 foot tunnel deeper into the mine. We climbed a narrow spiral staircase to reach Level 27 in the mine. We had an excellent guide who talked about the process of mining iron ore as well as what working conditions were like for the miners. He let us experience the mine without any lighting and then with a single candle. Miners had to provide there own lights and safety gear for many years.
During the gold rush of 1865, one prospector didn’t discover gold but he did discover iron ore which led to the mine opening in 1882. The mine is known as Minnesota’s oldest, deepest and richest iron mine and one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world. The mine is 1.5 miles long and is part of the Vermilion Iron Range along the shore of Lake Vermilion. It is called the Soudan Iron Mine and the ore from the mine was especially valuable because this ore had a high oxygen content that was used to make high quality steel in open-hearth furnaces. Only this Minnesota mine and one other one in Michigan had this high oxygen content ore. In 1962, technology changed and this type of ore was no longer economical. Also the use of taconite pellets made from a low grade iron ore became popular. Due to these two factors, the Soudan Mine closed in 1962. In 1965, US Steel donated the Soudan Mine to the State of Minnesota to use for educational purposes.
It was fascinating to be lowered in an 80-year-old electric mine hoist (elevator) and then travel in rail cars to tour the mine. We really enjoyed our visit and had an even larger appreciation for what working conditions were like for miners in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
After a picnic lunch in the car (cold and windy), we drove back to Ely and toured the International Wolf Center. This is one of the top attractions in Ely and highly advertised. We toured the facility with informative displays and sat in on a program on wolves. We were a little disappointed they only had five wolves at the facility and we only saw three Arctic wolves visible behind glass.
Last year the center received two Arctic Wolves.
Here is what one of the new wolves look like today.
This is a collection of the wolf playing with his stick (animated).
On Saturday Bill attended the Ham Radio Field Day in Ely. This once a year National Amateur Radio Field Day is held at public locations around the country. The purpose of this event is to showcase amateur radio and allow people to experiment with electronics and radios. In 2016 over 35,000 people from thousands of locations participated in Field Day. Last year Bill participated with a group in New York. Bill really enjoyed his time with the friendly Ely radio club. They entertainment Bill with stories of winter ice fishing and talked about the black bears they regularly feed. One man spends the winter in Arizona at an RV park we are scheduled to visit in November so we will look him up!
Next up:. Voyageur National Park and a boat ride
- 2016 “One of the World’s 9 Places to Go to Enjoy the Great Outdoors” (National Geographic)
- 2014 “One of 10 Great Small Towns to Visit” (MSN Living Magazine)
- 2012 “America’s Most Interesting Town” (Reader’s Digest)
- 2009 “100 Best Adventure Towns” (National Geographic Adventure Magazine)
- 2009 “One of the Top Best Small Towns in the Country” (Outside Magazine)
And many more not mentioned