Daydreaming on a beach or dangling your legs over the side of a dock might be your top speed at Minnesota's Brainerd Lakes, but if you're looking for something new to do on vacation, you'll find plenty of options in this area 130 miles north of Minneapolis.
1) Cruise the lake. The 120-passenger North Star yacht began cruising Gull Lake’s 15 square miles last summer. Options include two-hour brunch, lunch or dinner cruises, happy hour cruises, a moonlight cruises or special events such as a live music cruise (destinycruisesllc.com).
2) Feast in Sherwood Forest. This romantic 1920s log lodge northwest of Gull Lake reopened this year; look for regionally inspired foods such as beer-battered walleye tacos with harissa tartar, smoked trout salad croissants with wild rice and green apples, and a Minnesota Booya-baisse loaded with walleye, trout, mussels and shrimp topped with wild rice crostini. For dessert, try a honeycrisp rhubarb tart or make your own s’mores in the lodge fireplace (sherwoodforestmnlodge.com).
3) Tap your wild side. Ride a camel, feed a giraffe and check out hundreds of other creatures, from alligators to zebras, at Safari North, a seasonal wildlife park that opened south of Brainerd last year (safarinorth.com).
4) Hoist a new brew. At Gull Dam Brewing, which opened last fall in Nisswa, try the Scotch ale with a hint of maple syrup or the IPA made with locally grown hops (gulldambrewing.com). Also in Nisswa, the new Big Axe Brewing Company (bigaxebrewing.com) serves an excellent chocolate oatmeal stout and red ale—as well as homemade sodas.
5) Paddle beneath the moon. For a fresh way to enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, grab a life jacket and headlamp for Minnesota Surf Company’s Full Moon Paddles on Pelican Lake July 31 or Gull Lake Aug. 29. Day SUP classes and other excursions available as well (mnsurf.com).
6) Check out a new trail. Campers and visitors to Crow Wing State Park along the Mississippi River south of Brainerd can now bike a six-mile scenic route into downtown. It’s part of the Paul Bunyan State Trail that stretches 121 miles north to Bemidji, one of the longest continually paved trails in the country. Try other town-to-town segments such as Nisswa to Pequot Lakes for shorter rides with shopping and dining (paulbunyantrail.com).
7) Explore the mines. Spend a weekend or more exploring the 5,000-acre Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area northeast of Brainerd near Crosby and Ironton. Fifteen former mining pits with clear, deep water glitter between scenic wooded hills threaded with iron-red trails that attract mountain bikers from across the country. Paddlers head to the lakes, which feel a little like the Boundary Waters. Check out one of the three new yurts on the west side of Yawkey Mine Lake (dnr.state.mn.us) or watch for new camping cabins opening soon (truenorthbasecamp.com).
Lisa wrote The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path, which has been updated for a new edition that’s out this May. She also wrote Day Trips from the Twin Cities and blogs at LisaMcClintick.com.
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