Exploring Fall Colors in Ely Minnesota

I’m happy to report that quiet and solitude can still be found—even during the fall color tour season on Minnesota’s busy North Shore—but especially if you head inland toward Ely.

“Can you believe this?” I asked, glancing over at my husband while driving down the Onion River Road near Lutsen, Minnesota. “It’s pretty wild,” he responded with a look of disbelief. Earlier that morning we met a group of friends for a hike at Oberg and Leveaux Mountains to take in the fall colors. Just a few hours earlier we pulled into a quiet and orderly parking lot and now we were in the midst of chaos. Over the course of the morning, vehicles filled both sides of the narrow gravel road so that just a single lane of traffic could now pass through. Eventually, the southbound traffic met the northbound traffic, and confusion and conflict ensued. Drivers got out of their vehicles, yelling and pointing, while we watched in disbelief. We had never witnessed anything like this in the serene northwoods of northeast Minnesota.

Dry Falls, all photos by Holly Scherer

It’s been close to 20 years since my husband and I began exploring this breathtaking recreational wonderland known as the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. Back then, it was common to hike to Bean and Bear Lakes and not see another party in either direction. There was plenty of parking at virtually every trailhead and we’d spend an hour atop Tofte Peak and have it all to ourselves. But 20 years is a long time and so much has changed—much of it for the better.

We’ve enjoyed a long period of economic growth and a strong job market in the US, and the internet has made it easier than ever to find epic places to explore across the globe. And now the quiet region we fell in love with 18 years ago is no longer a secret. While hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) last fall, I met people from all over the world.

At the end of the day, this is all very good. There’s nothing better for humanity than getting more and more people outdoors. And it’s also good for the economy of these communities. But even though this is very good in the grand scheme of things, some of us head outside to find quiet and solitude.

The week after that wild trip to Oberg Mountain, I took advantage of the unseasonable summer-like weather and drove along Highway 1, flanked with golden birch and tamarack, to the small town of Ely. It was early October and some of the Superior National Forest Campgrounds had already shut down for the season. The campgrounds that remained open were all on a first-come-first-served basis—my favorite way to camp. I found an incredible spot on a peninsula on a quiet lake not far from town. There were never more than two other campsites occupied the entire time I was there. Quite the contrast from what I’d experienced the previous week on the North Shore. If this sounds wonderful to you and you enjoy quiet and solitude, this article will highlight the best places to visit on your Ely Fall Colors tour.

Finding fall colors and solitude in Ely, MN

Although more people are freelancing and working from home than ever before, many people continue to work Monday through Friday. This is true for our household as well. It goes without saying, then, that Saturdays and Sundays are going to be the busiest days at campgrounds and trailheads. If we’re using public lands on weekends, we try to avoid places that are known to be popular and we always hit the trail early in the morning.

There are plenty of places to stay and eat in Ely. If you prefer to sleep under the stars, both Bear Head Lake and Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine are wonderful state parks. There are four fee campgrounds in the Kawishiwi District of the Superior National Forest that are equally fantastic. Some of them, however, close at the end of September. You can learn more about the Superior National Forest campgrounds in the Ely area here.

Once you’ve found the perfect place to spend the night, you’ll want to think about what you might want to do. Paddling one of many beautiful lakes in the area is a great way to take in the Ely fall colors. You can rent watercraft at Bear Head Lake State Park or from any of the local outfitters.

Fall color tour

If a drive is more your speed, check out the Forest Service’s Discovery Auto Tour. The drive passes through some of my favorite spots in northeastern Minnesota. You can learn more about the drive here.

No matter how fit you’re feeling on your fall colors trip to Ely, you’ll want to plan to take a walk. The Ely Chamber of Commerce has a great guide to local hikes you can find here. While you’re in the area, you won’t want to miss the short and easy hike to Kawishiwi Falls. You can find a downloadable map here.

In addition to Kawishiwi Falls, Bass Lake Trail is another favorite of mine. While most people just hike out to Dry Falls and back, the wonderful network of trails offers many incredible loop options. I’ve hiked every trail here and would recommend them all. You can learn more about the trail system and download a map here. Secret/Blackstone is another one of my favorite hikes. A bit further off the beaten path, you’re sure to find some fall solitude. You can find everything you need to know about Secret/Blackstone here. In my opinion, all of these hikes hold their own compared to what you’ll find on the more popular North Shore.

Finally, if you prefer to view fall colors while pedaling, check out the Mesabi Trail. The section from Tower to Ely is now complete and it’s a beautiful and exhilarating ride You can learn more and purchase your Wheel Pass here.

Minnesota’s North Shore is well known for beautiful hikes and epic fall colors. And while I love to spend time there as much as everyone else, there’s something special about fall colors in the remote town of Ely. A slower pace, quieter trails, and breathtaking beauty make Ely the perfect spot for your next fall colors tour.

Learn More:

Fall camping in Ely, Minnesota

Holly Scherer is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide. She’s most at home in the great outdoors; camping, hiking, paddling, cycling, and gardening. When she’s not on an adventure, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they’re fond of saying, “home is where we store our outdoor gear.”

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