There’s a reason northern Minnesota is a cabin lover’s delight. Dominated by vast expanses of state and national parks, laced with lakes surrounded by vast expanses of pine, and mostly empty, it’s simply the stuff of dreams.
“People come for the quiet,” said Chris Eilrich, the owner of WildWoods Land Company in Ely, Minnesota. “Some for the fishing. Some for the paddling. But mostly, people just want to be up north, where it’s quiet.”
There’s plenty of quiet. Pull out a map and move your eyes along the border of Minnesota’s Arrowhead. You’ll see the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area (BWCAW) and the neighboring Quetico Provincial Park along the border. These parks, where motors are prohibited, constitute millions of acres of protected boreal forest wilderness.
To the east you’ll find a few hundred miles of rocky shoreline along the north shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, with towering cliffs, gorgeous river gorges, and dozens of waterfalls. The 240-mile Superior Hiking Trail tracks along the Sawbill Range, from Duluth to Thunder Bay, giving hikers spectacular views of what locals call “the Big Lake.”
When the sun sets, northeastern Minnesota becomes a multi-million acre International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Starry nights and astounding northern lights displays make the long winter nights a travel destination of their own. In 2020, the BWCAW and Quetico were given the unique designation by the International Dark-Sky Association. Shortly thereafter, Voyageurs was added. Locals celebrated with Dark Sky Festivals.
“When it’s cold, below zero, those stars look like they’re right above you,” McClelland said. “The summer skies are awesome, but the winter skies just pop. There’s nothing between you and outer space.”
Some of McClelland’s trips include a night ride home, wherein newly-minted amateur mushers drive a team of dogs back to the kennel after a few days of living in a wilderness yurt. “Even when it’s cloudy, the snow provides such ambient light. It’s pretty special. It takes a lot of you to be up here in winter, but it gives it back.”
Check It Out
This year, National Geographic named northern Minnesota as one of the “25 Amazing Journeys for 2022,” in part because of the dark skies. Along with the great safaris of Namibia and the Belize Maya Forest Reserve, northern Minnesota’s wilderness is attracting a particular kind of traveler.
Looking for more recommendations? Try this list of “America’s 20 Greatest Summertime Lake Towns,” which names the small towns of both Ely and Grand Marais, a former fishing village on Lake Superior, as favorites.
Along the North Shore, look for cabins directly on the big lake. When it’s 85-degrees inland, you may need a sweatshirt at this cabin in Castle Danger. Lake Superior is big and cold, and you might even see ocean-going ships pass by on the way to Duluth.
In Isabella (which is more of a place than a town), you can walk onto your dock from the living room in this sweet little cabin on Lake Mitawan. How remote is it? You’ll need a couple of hours for your roundtrip grocery trip.
If you’re looking to get a feel for the area, try streaming The Otter FM, which is based out of Lutsen, home to some of the Midwest’s best downhill skiing. Or try Grand Marais’ delightful community radio station, whose Friday night trivia show is part silly, part serious sport.
It’s casual here. As local writer Barton Sutter says, “You can get by with jeans and a flannel shirt in even the snazziest restaurants.”
This is a cabin country deeply influenced by Scandinavian culture. Saunas are nothing short of an obsession. Expect a sauna with your rental, and be ready for a dip in the water. Even if it’s frozen, someone will saw a hole in the lake big enough for steaming bodies to cool.
And in the off chance that you don’t find your own sauna, try the Ely Steam Sauna. Open to the public since 1915, it’s the perfect place to experience a clean-up after days in the wilderness. Be prepared to get naked.