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10 Days of Seasonal Fun at the Ely Winter Festival

Ely is the ideal destination for a quintessential Northern Minnesota getaway, tucked away in the Superior National Forest and 100 miles north of Duluth. Visitors will love the spectrum of things to do ranging from community festivals to guided excursions into the wilderness.


The Ely Winter Festival has been a mainstay in the community for nearly three decades. It’s the ultimate celebration of the season and event planners expect roughly 10,000 attendees. The event begins on February 3rd and lasts 10 days and includes a variety of indoor and outdoor activities. Travelers who don't mind the cold weather will love snow carving/sculpting, an ice fishing tournament, meeting sled dogs, and skiing. The event also includes an art walk, museum tours, classes, fish fry, and more. Returning this year will be the ever popular Great Nordic Beardfest, where contestants compete in a variety of length and style classes. got the opportunity to interview board member, Carol Orban, to talk about this Northen Minnesota spectacular.


RAL: Tell me a bit about the event.

CO: We've had a winter festival for 26 years. It began as a small finish line festival for the Wilderness Trek ski race, a USSA sanctioned 20-mile ski race. Although the ski race doesn't happen now, the festival has expanded to 10 days, with hundreds of activities and up to 15 teams participating in our Snow Sculpting Symposium, our signature event. We are all amazed at what these artists can carve from an 8’x8’ or 12’x12’ block of snow. Carvers come from all over the upper Midwest and Canada, with the occasional team from Mexico. Our central park is full of people strolling around, talking with the carvers, drinking hot chocolate, examining the latest winter gear at the Winter Adventure Demo Days, and checking out the 20 amateur snow sculptures carved from 4'x4' blocks of snow.


RAL: How many annual participants do you draw?

CO: While we don't have definitive numbers, we estimate that 10,000 people come to Ely during our festival.


RAL: What makes the event unique?

CO: Our festival is largely outdoors in the real Minnesota winter. We offer a wide range of events, all over the city and outlying area, involving many organizations, from college students to the Jaycees and a local flower and seed store. Our small town is proud to put on this super festival.


RAL: Walk me through a day at the event.

CO: The first Friday (Feb. 3) includes a Spaghetti Feed to benefit our local youth and family organization Ely Community Resource. Then you'd go to Whiteside Park for the Kick-Off, where we light the fire that will burn every day in the park. People warm up there during the festival. Sculptors will have begun their carving the previous day, so you can see their sculptures take shape. They all have pictures or clay models of their concepts. A local business creates a lovely skating rink at the park too, where young hockey players scrimmage; the rink is available for skating through the entire festival. Begin a weekend-long Wolf Photography Weekend at the International Wolf Center. You can also go to the Great Nordic Beardfest's third annual contest that draws hundreds of people and dozens of guys (and some gals) with creative hair growth. And that's just the first day!


Everyone must go to and see our Calendar of Events. The week in between and the second weekend also offer many great activities.


RAL: What dining options will attendees encounter?

CO: Wow, do we have great dining in Ely! One really cool thing is that almost every restaurant in town donates a meal to each of our carvers, upwards of 50 people. We feature fast food, American traditional, Tex-Mex, and Contemporary American Cuisine.


RAL: What is the overall environment like?

CO: Ely's environment is incomparably lovely. Clean, crisp air, white show, blue skies, frozen lakes, and people who enjoy being outdoors.


RAL: What will travelers find for accommodations?

CO: We have a number of locally owned motels, lodges with cabins to rent, a large conference center, and one national franchise motel. The Ely Chamber of Commerce is the place to find these establishments. We recommend reserving early!


RAL: What does the event mean to the community?

CO: Our festival means a whole lot to the Ely community. The EWF Board doesn't put on all of these events; all but the Kick-Off and the Sculpting Symposium are created by Ely organizations and people. Also, we are fortunate to have 60 sponsors, small and large, including the restaurants that give our carvers free meals. The City of Ely is invaluable in filling our snow block forms and doing other work in the park.


RAL: Why should people come?

CO: Your travelers will not forget their experience in Ely! The art alone (snow sculptures and the ArtWalk) will be memorable. Add to that the opportunity to snowshoe to Sigurd Olson's cabin at Listening Point, snowshoe to the Hegman Lake pictographs in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, ski by candlelight at our Hidden Valley trails, watch wolves get their weekly feeding at the International Wolf Center, see folk singers Jack and Kitty at Vermilion Community College, visit the Dorothy Molter Museum, and  participate in several creative classes at the Ely Folk School.  You can also play Kubb, Swedish lawn bowling on the snow, and meet a sled dog team. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience no one should miss!

For more information about the Ely Winter Festival, please visit their website.