Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes (actually 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more, but you get the idea), and many of those lakes are located in Northern Minnesota. Along with the opportunity to engage in any number of water sports, this area offers a wealth of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, bird watching, skiing, and snowmobiling. Of course, there are also a historical sites, arts, and unique shops.
Road trippers will find several scenic byways in this area:
- The Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway runs from Voyageurs National park west along the Canadian border to the Red River and North Dakota. The section nearest International Falls is largely residential.
- The Avenue of the Pines runs through 46 miles of the Chippewa National Forest near Lake Winnibigoshish.
- The Lake Country Scenic Byway runs for 88 miles through the heart of lake country connecting Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids, Walker, and Itasca State Park.
- The Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway runs through the forest for 48 miles between Grand Rapids and Effie. It’s a great fall drive, with several opportunities for spectacular fall hikes along the way.
- The Lady Slipper Scenic Byway runs through a section of the Chippewa National Forest between Blackduck and Highway 2 near Cass Lake.
- The Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway winds through woods and lakes, offering plenty of lake time for those seeking a northern beach.
- The Otter Tail Scenic Byway is a 150 mile loop through the far western part of Minnesota’s northern lake country.
More athletic types can make use of the region’s recreational trails:
- The Mesabi Bicycle Trail runs between Grand Rapids and Biwabik. When fully completed, it will connect 28 communities along 145 miles of paved trail. Presently over 120 miles of trail are in place.
- The Paul Bunyan State Trail is a 115 mile long paved trail that runs from Brainerd to Bemidji.
- The Heartland State Trail runs for 50 miles between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. Most of the trail is paved, and some sections also suitable for horseback riders.
- The largely unpaved Taconite State Trail connects Grand Rapids to Ely at the edge of the Boundary Waters. It’s a popular snowmobile trail in winter, but segments are also suitable for summer hiking and horseback riding.
- The North Country National Scenic Trail begins in New York state and will wind 4,600 miles through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota before terminating in western North Dakota. The trail is not complete, but about 500 miles of trail exist in northern Minnesota.
Starting at the Canadian border, the following outlines the most popular destinations for vacationers.
Lake of the Woods
Most of the northern-most notch at the top of Minnesota is a giant lake that spills out of the state into the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. With more than 14,552 islands and 65,000 miles of shoreline, it is a dreamy “landscape” of trees and water. Famous for its walleye fishing and houseboat trips, this is also the location of what may be Minnesota’s most remote state parks at Zippel Bay and Garden Island. I really want to spend a week on a houseboat here someday.
Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park
I’m guessing that Rainy Lake is the watery paradise I vaguely remember from a childhood trip through International Falls from Canada. This is another fishing paradise, but as part of Voyageurs National Park, it has a few more recreational options for those of us who like eating fish more than catching them!
International Falls, Minnesota, and Fort Francis, Canada, are located just to the west of the lake along the Rainy River.
I visited here in early June as part of the TBEX North America Conference in Minnesota. Despite a week of rain, I had a great time.
Around Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park:
Around International Falls:
Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)
For many Minnesotans the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a sacred place. Political wars were fought over the area during the 1970s when it was designated as a wilderness area where motorized vehicles (including boats) would no longer be allowed. Those battles left deep wounds, some of which still haven’t healed completely, but they also resulted in the protection of a stunning landscape that can only be experienced at a human pace. This really is a unique place.
Sadly, I’m not much of an outdoors woman or big on canoeing, so I’ve never seen more than the beautiful but motorized edges of the BWCA. Every year I think it’s time to go, and then I think about portages and black flies and the possibility of rain and decide maybe I should see if my friend on Lake Vermilion will let me stay at her cabin instead.
The funky town of Ely serves as a gateway to the western section of the Boundary Waters and makes a good destination for those interested in a few more creature comforts while exploring the surrounding wilderness.
- Ely Blueberry Festival (2012)
Lake Vermilion bumps up against the southern edge of the Boundary Waters, meaning motors are allowed on this vast lake, but its relative remoteness ensures it is much less developed than many other Minnesota lake destinations. Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground MIne State Park preserves a small section of lake shore (and a former underground iron ore mine, complete with a functioning high-tech physics lab). With its convoluted shoreline, towering pines, rocky islands, and family cabins,
Lake Vermillion is exactly what most Minnesotans imagine when we hear the woods “up north.”
The town of Ely (mentioned above) is also near Lake Vermilion.
Unlike some of Minnesota’s more southerly lake areas, the lakes of Itasca County generally have little large-scale development – in this part of the state it is still possible to find stunningly gorgeous lakes with little or no shoreline development. Most of the area’s commercial development is located in Grand Rapids.
- Exploring Grand Rapids and Itasca County
Lake Itasca and Bemidji
The great Mississippi River begins as trickle at a modest lake in northern Minnesota. The headwaters area on Lake Itasca is preserved within beautiful Itasca State Park. This is a lovely part of the state and one that is easy to bike thanks to the Paul Bunyan and Heartland trails.
The city of Bemidji sits along the shore of Lake Bemidji, making it a nice spot for a more urban lake vacation. With a college in the city, Bemidji is a little larger and a little livelier than many northern Minnesota towns.
Despite its rather unappealing name (who but a devoted fisherman wants anything to do with leeches!), Leech Lake is a great vacation spot at any time of year. This is the third largest lake in Minnesota, but its smaller bays provide a more intimate lake experience if you don’t want to be out on the main lake. The lake itself is largely surrounded by low-density housing and smaller resorts, so it feels like a family vacation spot more than a wilderness area. Along with the fishing and water sports, the area has good hiking and biking, golf courses, winter sports, festivals, restaurants, and unique shops.
- Hiking the North Country Trail (2013)
- End of summer at Leech Lake (2013)
- Afternoon: Leech Lake (2009)
The city of Walker is the area’s commercial hub. It’s a fun little town with lots of shops that cater to tourists and a few good restaurants.
- Wandering in Walker (2009)
The Brainerd lakes area
The Brainerd lakes area includes the Gull Lake chain of lakes and the Whitefish chain in nearby Crosslake. This is an enormously popular vacation area. However, unlike the other more woodsy areas featured here, many of the lakes around Brainerd (particularly in the Gull Lake chain) are fully developed and manicured spots noted for motorized water sports, golfing, and conferences. Some of Minnesota’s largest, oldest, and best-known resorts are located here, but the area is increasingly becoming the realm of sprawling vacation mansions, huge conference centers, and packaged vacations. While most of the area is too commercial for my taste, it’s ideal for visitors seeking a lake vacation with lots of activities and urban amenities like shopping, fine dining, golf, spas, or adventure sports. And the fishing is still good.
Mille Lacs Lake
Mille Lacs Lake (yes, I know that is redundant, but that’s how we say it in Minnesota) is one of Minnesota’s most popular destinations for fishing, with swarms of fisherman descending for the spring fishing opener and thousands of fish houses creating a new city on the lake each winter.
I don’t fish, but the area also has a couple of state parks perfect for hiking or skiing. Father Hennepin State Park sits along a portion of the lake, providing easy lake access and a popular swimming beach. And keep an eye out for the white deer that has been roaming the park the past few years.
Nearby, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park features forested hills that come alive with color in the fall. This is a large park with a historic site, an observation tower, and miles of trails.
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