The Coolest Small Towns In America: Ely

In Budget Travel's fifth-annual celebration of hometown escapes across the USA, we're spotlighting 10 places that somehow pack in more personality than cities triple their size. How? It all comes down to the people.

Lake One, near Ely (Courtesy Courtesy Wood Sabolt)
Lake One, near Ely (Courtesy Courtesy Wood Sabolt)

ELY, MINNESOTA (pop. 3,470)
The best backyard in the country

It says a lot about a town when there are more wildlife centers (two) than Wal-Marts (zero), and more canoe and fishing outfitters (27) than, well, anything else. In Ely, you're never more than a step away from the wilderness. The tiny grid of pine log cabins and pubs five hours north of Minneapolis sits within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a million-acre maze of indigo lakes and boreal forest. Each year thousands arrive to canoe, fish, camp—or simply sit back and soak in the North Woods.

At the Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant, where trophy walleyes are mounted on the walls, locals swap stories over hearty oatmeal stouts (47 E. Sheridan St.,, pints from $4). Nearby, visiting families recap their recent adventures around the stone fireplace at A Stay Inn Ely, a five-room lodge run by Joan and Don Bean (112 W. Sheridan St.,, from $60). More often than not, they've just returned from a fly-fishing overnight or weeklong canoe excursion with Don's Jasper Creek Guide Service (14295 Canadian Border Rd.,, canoe trips from $150 a day).

Some are tempted to stay even longer. Jim Brandenburg travels the world as a National Geographic photographer but always comes home to Ely: "Where else can you sit out on your porch, listen to a pack of wild wolves howling, and then head down to the pub and share the story?"

On January 22, a month before we launched our poll to find the Coolest Small Town in America, a black bear named Lily gave birth on live webcam, at Ely's North American Bear Center (NABC, Days later, Lily and her cub, Hope, became the number one search term on Google, and Lily gained 104,886 fans on her Facebook page (yes, even bears have profiles), where links to our ballot were posted prominently. "Lily's fans worked hard to get her hometown recognized," says NABC biologist Lynn Rogers. That, they did: Ely took nearly a quarter of all the votes cast in our contest.

Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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