Minnesota : Safety by City
- Brooklyn Park
- Detroit Lakes
- Fergus Falls
- Grand Marais
- Grand Portage
- International Falls
- Maple Grove
- New Ulm
- Red Wing
- St. Cloud
- St. Paul
- Two Harbors
Ely, Minnesota, should be the unplugged capital of the world because it sits right at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), and the more than one million acres and 1,100 lakes awaiting travelers in one of the most remote areas you can find in America.
Ely (“Ee-lee”) is a city with enough amenities to rest up before or after adventures and plenty of educational and historical options to learn about safety and surviving the wilderness.
Get up close and personal with bears and wolves from a safe position before you end up facing one of them in the wild.
Stroll downtown Ely to get hearty meals and find stores for all wilderness adventures with experts on safety and guidance on the best places to visit for all skill levels.
This town of 3,200 welcomes more than 250,000 annually.
Each season brings a new feature, from summer hikes to fall foliage to winter dog sledding to spring blooms as the waters and land thaw from a certainly snowy winter.
A trip to Ely is intentional – you don’t pass through it on the way to another city, and it’s not off a main highway.
At the same time, it’s a great central stopping point between International Falls and Grand Marais.
Warnings & Dangers in Ely
OVERALL RISK : LOW
Crime rates are low here, with no more than seven violent crimes in a year since 2011 and no strangers being victims of random acts of violence. For those who know wilderness, wildlife, and winter safety, there's another low risk awaiting in the BWCAW. The risk goes higher for those who attempt too much beyond their skill set.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
You'll need a car to get around this region, or you can hire a shuttle to take you to and from the Duluth airport. Taxis and rideshares will get you around town, but you definitely need a rugged vehicle to get around the BWCAW.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : LOW
Two pickpockets were reported in 2021, which isn't anything to be concerned about. It also shows you can't let your guard down. With the among of gear, you need before starting a wilderness trip, it's easy to leave things lying around. Always keep items out of sight and under lock and key.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : LOW
Winter storms are the biggest risk, with heavy snowfall, blizzards, and ice storms making outdoor treks treacherous. Visitors should also review the Ice Safety section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website because chances are you'll be walking, skiing, or driving on a lake at some point. Summers can bring several thunderstorms and flooding risks, so be aware of all potential summer hazards too. You should be able to identify poisonous plants visually.
MUGGING RISK : LOW
Armed robberies are few and far between in Ely over the past couple of decades. You're much more at risk of luring a bear to steal your food accidentally than triggering an armed criminal.
TERRORISM RISK : LOW
This is another low risk. Once you're in the wilderness, I'm not even sure a terrorist could find you! You can use the Homeland Security website to see the most recent Terrorism Advisories to know about safety at the border and airports.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
Use the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Ely website to see the latest scams and safety tips. Renting a cabin or home in rural areas like this can be concerning since rental scams happen nationwide. It helps to start with the Chamber of Commerce to get good recommendations for legitimate businesses. Don't take shortcuts or believe incredibly cheap deals that require pressured decisions or wired money to make a reservation.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : LOW
Women just need to know wilderness safety and all seasonal risks before heading into the wilderness. Even squatting to relieve yourself could end up with a bum full of poison ivy rash. I'm a middle-aged woman who hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail, and even I'm learning a lot about this unique region's safety specs just by researching. A safe traveler is a well-educated one.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The city of Ely hasn't posted a Water Quality Report since 2019, which raises an eyebrow. However, the utility section of the website has a bunch of great information about water quality safety and how to handle freezing pipes. While many reports from legitimate sources and government agencies assure travelers the lake water in BWCAW is safe to drink as-is, you should still bring a gravity filter out of the utmost caution.
Safest Places to Visit in Ely
Ely.org is the official tourism website for the city and the BWCAW.
To avoid confusion, there is a website for Ely, Nevada, that clearly states Ely Nevada in the URL.
If you see the phrase “The Loneliest Road in America,” you’re looking at the wrong Ely.
Ely sits just south of Shagawa Lake, where you can literally get your feet wet before heading into the wilderness.
They city’s main street is Sheridan, with restaurants and shops along the way.
On the west end of the city is the North American Bear Center, where three bears live on 2.5 acres.
Even though black bears are the only ones in Minnesota’s wild, this center teaches you about black, brown, and polar bear habits and ecosystems.
You can view live cameras on the website and spend a good 30 minutes when you should be focused on work but opting instead to watch the bears.
(Not that I did that – nope. Not me.)
The International Wolf Center is on the opposite side of town with a live wolf habitat that’s home to five wolves.
After spending a few hours here, you’ll be far less fearful of the animals and much more educated about their habits and how you can handle a sighting safely in the wild.
In between Shagawa Lake and Ely is Miner’s Lake, you’ll find the Pioneer Mine Museum and Tour with equipment from the mining heyday on display.
Across the lake, the Pillow Rocks landmark offers a great photo op of lava rocks that bubble underneath the sea that covered this region billions of years ago.
The Dorothy Molter Museum is too easy to skip if you don’t know who the heck Dorothy Molter is.
Don’t skip it! Known as “The Root Beer Lady,” the story of dogged determination makes you appreciate every sweet sip of the root beer you can only buy in this part of the world.
Look for Dorothy’s Isle of Pines Root Beer and then tour the museum to hear more about how she was 15 miles from any road but still managed to run a root beer industry on government land.
About 40 minutes west of Ely is the Fortune Bay Resort & Casino.
Here you get the best of all worlds with a golfer’s paradise, casino action, entertainment, fine dining, and Lake Vermilion activities galore.
You can also get guided or self-guided tours of Ely, the canoe wilderness, scenic drives, or fall foliage spots.
Don’t miss a chance while you’re here to take in the night sky, as the Boundary Waters are a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Some lucky guests will also see the Northern Lights.
Now grab your canoe and get ready to portage (carry it over your head) and let’s head to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
One cannot easily explain the magnitude of this area, so use the Trip Planning Guide on the Forest Service website before you do anything else.
This area has:
- 150 miles along the U.S./Canadian watery border
- 1,098,000 acres
- 1,100 lakes
- 1,500 miles of canoe trails
- 254 backcountry camping sites
Most activities and overnight stays will require a permit.
The permits and accessible areas change with the seasons.
There is no way we can explain all the twists, turns, and alerts of this region in this article.
It’s imperative you do your research, or you could end up lost in the wilderness with no other humans for miles.
Places to Avoid in Ely
As far as crime concerns go, there isn’t a bad part of town or a neighborhood to avoid.
People here are more than welcoming and happy to give their own expertise of the wilderness and suggestions for the best spots to explore.
You can learn when the best time is for fishing, how to determine ice thickness, and what bugs to beware of during spring and summer.
Ely Outfitting Company is a great website and location in town, offering guidance for beginners and experts.
Avoid thinking you know too much about the great outdoors to ask for help.
You should also know how to use a GPS system that isn’t reliant on mobile phone service.
Avoid going too far into the wilderness if you aren’t prepared to make the same trek back.
It’s easy to get swept up in scenic views and mesmerizing landscapes, but you should also have a turnaround point determined ahead of time.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Ely
- Ely does have its own police department. You’ll get more updated information by following the department on Facebook @elypolicedept. The U.S. Forest Service provides law enforcement on the federal lands like Boundary Waters.
- BWCAW is in the upper-third of the Superior National Forest, so you can research both locations to get information. Looking at the Superior National Forest website, you’ll find overall safety tips and law enforcement rules for the whole forest and boundary waters.
- Since the international boundary between Canada and the United States is a watery one, you can canoe between the two countries as long as you have a Rural Area Border Crossing (RABC) permit AND check in at one of the ranger stations in Cache Bay or Prairie Portage. There won’t be border crossing guards in canoes waiting for you, so it’s on the honor system. However, treat it as legitimately as any border crossing or else you could be detained. These permits were reinstated after the COVID pandemic in July 2022.
- Use the BWCA.com website to find a campsite and portage maps available for download. You’ll also find a GPS program called GAIA that works without mobile service. BWCAW visitors can get 25% off the apps premium version.
- For those hiking at night, stargazing, or going to see the Northern Lights, bring a red flashlight or a red filter to put over a flashlight to help you see at night without your eyes adjusting to bright light. You’ll still be able to see safely, but you won’t cause light pollution for yourself or other campers.
- Ely is one of those cities that adopts winter parking rules that impact if you can park on the even or odd side of the street. The rules are in effect from November 1 through May 31. Use parking lots if you don’t want to keep track of the ongoing cycle of parking changes. You can also look at the parking section of the city’s website to see the rules.
- You will need permits for activities like camping and snowmobiling, and licenses for activities like fishing and hunting. Assume an activity has a permit or license required unless you learn otherwise. Some permits in certain seasons are self-issued at kiosks or ranger offices.
- If you’re bringing a dog with you, don’t let it run off leash or ensure you have it under voice control. A wandering dog can trigger wolves to defend “their” territory. A barking dog can also cause an otherwise disinterested bear to become agitated and aggressive.
- Use caution when driving the roadways and pay special attention to moose crossings. The large animals can weight up to 1,000 pounds, and they are hard to see at night. Too many moose are killed each year after being hit by cars, and people in the car can also get seriously hurt.
- Bring extra trash bags with you, as you are expected to follow the “Leave No Trace” principles of bringing out what you carry in. The trash bags will also be helpful if you need a layer of waterproofing on your legs or body.
So... How Safe Is Ely Really?
Ely itself is a safe city.
There are plenty of things to do, places to stay, and great restaurants.
Getting there can be a treacherous drive in the winter and a distracting on in every other season, so stay focused on the road and take your time.
As much as nobody wants to think about “worst case scenarios,” looking up search terms such as, “Boundary Water Deaths” will bring an eye-opening reality.
People die here.
People who could’ve survived die here.
You should research the derecho that swept through Boundary Waters a few years back and left 60 people stranded and paths blocked by downed trees.
Look at the reports of people who almost drowned or did drown even when wearing a life vest because the water was so cold and the lake levels were high with strong currents.
The safety trip to Ely and the wilderness areas around it involves a lot of planning, preparation, and conversations in social forums or with people in town about the safest practices.
13 outfitters are located in Ely, all with employees who know the region like the back of their hands.
Visiting this region is a trip of a lifetime and offers many opportunities you can’t in other wilderness areas.
How safe it is for you largely depends on how much you prepare for it.
Even a simple thunderstorm can knock down trees or spark wildfires.
A heavy snowfall follow by days of rain can weaken ice on a lake.
When in doubt, pay extra for a guided tour, even if just for a few days until you get your bearings straight.
How Does Ely Compare?
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- Visas - If you'll be crossing from Canada, the closest location is International Falls, about two hours away by car. The next closest crossing is Grand Portage, where you can add another 45 minutes to that two-hour drive. You'll need a U.S. Visa and passport to get across the border or through Customs at the airport. Please see the note above about the Remote Area Border Crossing Program if you might cross international lines of Boundary Waters.
- Currency - You can only use the U.S. Dollar here and keep a hidden supply of cash - maybe $100 each day - in case you find cash-only locations. For reservations, if you can book ahead of time, you'll get more fraud protection by paying with a credit card in advance.
- Weather - You'll need plenty of outdoor layers of clothing with some extra articles in case you get a sweaty base layer or need to add another layer during cold wether. Even summers can bring chilly nights or mornings, so err on the side of bringing too many layers, so you can easily peel them off. You'll need bug spray and waterproof hiking boots with good gripping on the bottom.
- Airports - The closest commercial airport is Duluth, which is about two hours away. International Falls does have an airport, but it's smaller and still takes two hours to reach.
- Travel Insurance - Standard travel insurance might not be enough with all the extreme adventures here. Consider niche insurance for camping, fishing, hiking - whatever the event is. This will help keep down the costs of a potential rescue and protect you financially from some of the risks. You might need to get a health screening before you can buy this insurance through some companies.
Ely Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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