North-central Minnesota's resort country is a land of tall tales: leviathan lumberjacks, wily shoppers and golfers who lament the hole-in-one that got away. The area from Brainerd (125 miles northwest of the Twin Cities) to Detroit Lakes (200 miles northwest) to Bemidji (225 miles northwest) is a magnet for families looking to create their own vacation legends.
Year-round outdoor recreation in this land of lakes and forest is a natural, but the area also offers great shopping, festivals and other diversions. Lodgings run the gamut from rustic cabins to all-inclusive luxury resorts.
Click ahead to read about our favorite Lakeland experiences. Want to share yours? Leave a comment below or on Midwest Living®'s page on Facebook!
Visit Bemidji 
A partnership among 10 area courses, the Brainerd Golf Trail's 180 holes run through a unique blend of forests and lakes. Look for special packages through resorts and hotels (brainerdgolftrail.com).
Considered a premier area for golfers, central Minnesota offers many other courses as well; click on the Minnesota Golf link below for a listing by region.
Brainerd Golf Trail 
Minnesota Golf 
Old-fashioned carnival rides might not impress the thrill-seeking set, but they will keep the little ones (and kitsch-hunters) happy. A lumberjack greets kids at the entrance. In Brainerd (218/764-2524; thisoldfarm.net).
A 110-mile converted rail bed goes from Brainerd north to Bemidji. Bikers and strollers fill the level, surfaced route of the Paul Bunyan Trail in summer. Snowmobilers zip past in winter, braking for hot drinks in the area's small towns. Plenty of rental places dot the 110-mile trail (paulbunyantrail.com).
Paul Bunyan Trail 
Just 15 miles northwest of Brainerd, Nisswa hosts the weird and wonderful Wednesday afternoon turtle races, a tradition that draws crowds (pictured at left). Youngsters can rent turtles or bring their own and feverishly urge them on, while onlookers cheer (800/950-9610; Nisswa.com).
Nisswa also offers several good choices for shopping and restaurants. Cool off with an ice cream cone at The Chocolate Ox (218/963-4443) or try a peach scone at Rachel's Bakery (218/963-0900). Lundrigans Clothing (218/963-2647) sells cabin-style home decorating items as well as clothing; Rainy Days (218/963-4891) is a bright, cheery bookstore with a good selection of children's books.
Tucked among north-central Minnesota's trees and lakes, you'll find generations-old resorts built around screen-door cabins and a refusal to gentrify. Downtown Detroit Lakes (population: 8,100) features a mile-long beach near streets of everyday shops, not just gift stores. Throw in simple pleasures such as waterskiing lessons, a huge flea market and a county fair, and you don't get much more Parent Trap (Hayley Mills version) than this -- and that's why people love it.
Pictured: Guests practice paddling at Detroit Lakes' Fair Hills Resort.
This 43,000-acre sanctuary, about 18 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes, is home to more than 250 bird species and 50 mammal species. Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge lies in one of the most diverse transition zones of vegetation in North America, between hardwood forests to the north and prairie grasses to the south. Hike, fish or bird-watch. The visitors center also has a printed guide to an auto tour (218/847-2641; fws.gov/midwest/tamarac).
Twenty miles north of Park Rapids, old-growth forest holds the burbling, clear source of the Mississippi river. Most people come to Itasca State Park to walk the Mississippi headwaters, but the forest's massive pines, sparkling Lake Itasca and miles of hiking trails and paved bike paths might steal the show. Visit both the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, which offer exhibits, maps and gift shops (218/699-7251; www.mnstateparks.info).
Itasca State Park 
Popular Leech Lake is part of the Chippewa National Forest (east of Bemidji), a 1.6-million-acre swath of lakes, wetlands and forests. Activities in this vast area include hiking, biking, fishing, berry picking, boating and eagle-spotting (218/335-8600; www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/chippewa).
Summertime festivals celebrate blueberries, raspberries and other Minnesota bounty. And there are many places for visitors to pick berries and buy locally grown, fresh produce. The free Minnesota Grown Directory lists nearly 800 farms and markets that sell berries, wild rice, fresh milk and eggs. You can also browse the website for farms to visit, searching by city or ZIP code, product or service, or seasonal favorites.
About 100 miles north of Brainerd, this town of 13,000 is the northern gateway to the Paul Bunyan Trail. Visitors to Bemidji come for the abundant outdoor recreation -- as well as to see the iconic statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox next to the visitors center along Lake Bemidji (877-250-5959; visitbemidji.com). Another popular stop is Bemidji Woolen Mills, an 88-year-old company that sells lumberjack gear and other woolens (888/751-5166; bemidjiwoolenmills.com).
Visit Bemidji 
When winter's chill settles into the Brainerd Lakes area, only the water comes to a standstill. With 50 inches of annual snowfall and hundreds of lakes, Brainerd Lakes is one of the Midwest's liveliest playgrounds. Popular winter sports include skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing, snowmobiling and even dog sledding. Hotels book up early for the annual Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza (usually in January).