It’s not for nothing that the Midwest is often called America’s Heartland. The region certainly boasts its big cities–this was, after all, the country’s industrial hub for decades–but its quintessential scenes tend to be more rustic in nature: vast corn- and wheatfields rippling to the horizon, noble barns and silos surveying grazing Holsteins, walleye- and bass-roamed lakes, undulating woods afire with autumn color, a rut-primed whitetail buck striding through an evening oak savanna.
Peppering that bucolic countryside are small towns showcasing the Heartland’s unmistakable cultural tone: hard-working, unpretentious, and open-hearted–that “Midwestern hospitality” you hear so much about is alive and well out here. Let’s take a freewheeling (and far-from-exhaustive) cruise of some of the Midwest’s coziest, most endearing small towns, from the shores of Lake Superior to the bluffs of the Mississippi River. All have their own distinctive charm and character, but each and every one represents the best of the Midwest–and, not insignificantly, draws an important part of its magic from the broader natural regions it’s nested within.
1. Ely, Minnesota
To savor the unique character of the Midwest’s semi-boreal fringe–the North Woods–there are few better outposts than Ely, a town of some 3,400 people set amid the mixed-hardwood forests and lake networks of the Vermilion Iron Range. Ely’s undoubtedly best known as the last gasp of civilization and main launch pad for modern-day voyageurs who are intent on exploring the vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that composes the town’s remote hinterland. This enormous, watery wildland constitutes more than 800,000 acres of the Superior National Forest, where old-growth timber and endless river-laced lakes stretch to the Canadian border (where the wilderness area merges essentially seamlessly with Quetico Provincial Park).
The Boundary Waters is where you get your wild North Woods fix–all those dawn loon calls, midday raven croaks, evening wolf howls–while honing your paddling and portaging muscles (and donating a pint or two of blood to the local mosquitoes, deerflies, and no-see-ums).
Ely itself, however, is more than just a supply depot for canoe-country treks. It has the charm of a real frontier town with a little cosmopolitanism mixed in–after all, visitors from around the world come for the Boundary Waters and dutifully stop in Ely for their permits and maps. Given all the famished canoeists regularly descending on Sheridan Street after weeks of granola and rehydrated lasagna, it’s no surprise the town boasts a surprisingly diverse lineup of restaurants. Soak up some local flavor in one of the bustling coffee shops–the Front Porch Coffee & Tea Co., for example–or in a friendly tavern. Among the town’s true treasures are the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center–don’t miss them.