Fittest. Coolest. Prettiest.

When it comes to getting on lists of best places in the country, Minnesota has been doing well lately.

If they were high school students, Duluth, Grand Marais, Ely and Lanesboro would be among the cool kids — homecoming queen, class president and football team captain.

In our own recent survey, Duluth narrowly edged out Grand Marais as the favorite town for outdoor adventure. Ely came in third place in our survey, followed by the Twin Cities and Lanesboro.

But it was only an unscientific online poll. Which is why we thought we’d be fair and ask local boosters to make their case for why their town is best for outdoor fun.


“We are a city that invests in quality of life,” said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. “Every single resident in the city of Duluth is just a few minutes from a trail. This is our way of life. This is what we do.”

According to Duluth-based Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, the city boasts a 100-mile, single-track mountain bike system, one of six in the world rated as a gold level Ride Center by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Forty-five miles of the Superior Hiking Trail are within the city limits, one-fourth of the city is parkland and it has 91.5 miles of waterfront on Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.

That makes Duluth a prime place for paddling, hiking, trail running, bird-watching, fishing and skiing. There are also cutting-edge activities like ice climbing and lift-assisted, downhill wintertime fat-tire biking, according to Johnson.

With a population of 90,000, Duluth is positioning itself as one of the top outdoor cities in the country, Johnson said.

No wonder that Outside magazine named it “Best Town Ever” in 2014 and Fitbit named it “America’s Fittest City” in 2017.

Grand Marais

Grand Marais’ youthful, outdoorsy new mayor, Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux, describes his town’s attraction this way: “We have both concentration and diffusion.”

By that, he means that Grand Marais has a wealth of great food, beer and art in a small area surrounded by the great outdoors of Lake Superior and the Superior Hiking Trail.

You can easily get to places to bike, rock climb, ski, snowmobile, canoe, kayak, sail and paddleboard.

Although there are plenty of tourists in and around the town, there’s a lot of room to spread out, according to Arrowsmith-DeCoux, a 34-year-old ultramarathon trail runner, who also owns a bed-and-breakfast and the town’s bike store.

“Around here, you kind of have a lot of trails to yourself,” he said.

Star Tribune readers aren’t the only ones to give Grand Marais the nod. It also has gotten these accolades: Best Midwestern Small Town in a 2017 contest sponsored by the USA Today Travel Media Group; Budget Travel’s 2015 Coolest Small Town in America; and Lake Superior Magazine’s 2015 Best Weekend Destination.

Future plans for Grand Marais include a 20- to 30-mile trail system on the hill overlooking the town, to be carbon-neutral by 2050 and reduce light pollution in order to get an International Dark-Sky Association certification.


“Of course, we’re known as the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” said Cherie Sonsalla, executive director of the Ely Chamber of Commerce.

But Sonsalla insists there’s more than just canoeing in the town, which is surrounded by the Superior National Forest. It’s also a swell stepping-off place for hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, fishing and ATV-riding. There’s plenty of outdoor programming at the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. Plus “dogsledding is huge up here,” Sonsalla said.

National Geographic put Ely on a list in 2016 as one of nine places around the world to enjoy the great outdoors, and Expedia rated Ely among 20 places in America for best sunsets.


“We’ve really got the outdoors thing,” said Cheryl Krage, executive director of Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce. “For such a small town, we have a lot going on.”

Besides being proclaimed as the bed-and-breakfast capital (not to mention the rhubarb capital) of Minnesota, this town of 754 people is the kind of place where you can just show up and find an outfitter to put you on a bike on the 60-mile Root River Trail or rent you an inner tube or kayak to float on the Root River.

There’s also hiking, golf and a high-ropes course at the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.

The Star Tribune declared it the best small town for cyclists in 2016 and the best girlfriends escape in southern Minnesota in 2014.

If that’s not enough, put it on a list of 20 best small towns to visit in 2014 and included it on a list of American’s prettiest towns in 2010.