It’s the day before the summer solstice, when triumphant rays of orange and red should streak the northern Minnesota sky until well past 10 p.m. But not today. Clouds thicken over little Lost Lake like cotton batting from an old quilting basket, turning lily pad-flecked water into an inky pool. A loon paddles past, mindless of the whir of fishing reels along the docks at Lost Lake Lodge. The kids holding the fishing rods peer eagerly into the water, waiting. A few minutes slip past. The lines tug, and kids shriek. Their parents look on with smiles of nostalgia, remembering their own catches on docks that looked remarkably like this one.
For generations, dozens of resorts in the Brainerd Lakes region have sold moments like those, and families have been eager buyers, joining the Friday afternoon cabin traffic as it snakes the 130 miles northwest from the Twin Cities. Some land at resorts like Lost Lake Lodge, a TV-free zone with a fantastic dining room and simple lakeside cabins decorated with fish-pattern carpet, duck-print wallpaper and linoleum bathroom floors. Others choose places like golf-friendly Madden’s on Gull Lake or stately Grand View Lodge, where some cabins have granite counters and ceramic-tile showers. No matter where they stay, travelers come in search of memories they made with their families years ago—and find them at turtle races, in the legendary voice of a 26-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue and alongside lakes stocked with so many fish that they’ll almost bite bare hooks.
For Paul and Kelly Corrigan of Smithville, Missouri, four nights along Lost Lake each summer give them a chance to unplug and relive what up-north vacations were like when they were kids. The cabin fireplace crackles as an antidote to the cool temps the drizzly day brings, and library books await in stacks by an easy chair. “There’s lots of history here,” says Paul, who likes reading the cabin’s journals about past visits. “It’s not slick. It’s charming.”
“You don’t have to wait in line for anything. It’s what a vacation should be,” Kelly adds.
It’s not a line per se, but about the only thing visitors wait for is the start of the Wednesday turtle races in nearby Nisswa, where hundreds of kids take turns watching painted turtles scratch to the finish line. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the summertime races; hardly anything about them has changed since they started in 1963. “People that raced when they were young are bringing their grandkids,” turtle master Mark Ulm says. “That to me reflects why you go on vacation. You look for that one little thing you’re going to remember for a long, long time.”
After the races, families stream through the squeaky front door of The Chocolate Ox and shuffle their way across the hardwood floors before deciding between gummy turtles and hand-dipped ice cream. Across the street, 500-piece loon puzzles at Turtle Town Books and Games offer a way to pass the time whenever thunderstorms roll into the area.
Nisswa’s bustle on Wednesdays feels like Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall compared to Crosby, a community of 2,300 just 15 miles northeast of Brainerd. Antiques stores dot Main Street, and new trails attract mountain bikers at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Paddlers glide over abandoned iron mines lying in crystalline lakes, and cyclists eager for a paved, easy ride hop on the Cuyuna Lakes Trail and sail alongside midnight-color dragonflies snapping up the blanket of mosquitoes that flourish by these lakes. A few miles south, rickety-looking amusement park rides entertain at Paul Bunyan Land, and the star attraction—a towering lumberjack statue—calls kids by name, scaring them as easily today as it did when the park first opened in 1950.
When they’re done with the bustle of town, travelers head back to the wildlife and solitude of the lakes. Twilight spills its palette of pinks, purples and blues across water. Pontoons on sunset cruises putter across massive Gull Lake, passengers holding wineglasses while watching bald eagles dive for dinner. Screen doors slam as kids grab the makings for s’mores. A blue heron flaps past, its 6-foot wingspan skimming the surface before it settles in the reeds near a fire ring. A little boy with a plastic rod reels in a sunfish the size of a salad plate, and a camera clicks again. It’s all part of just another day in Brainerd Lakes—and that’s what makes it so special.
Click ahead for our trip guide.
For more information: Brainerd Lakes Chamber (800) 450-2838; explorebrainerdlakes.com 
What to do
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Even beginners can handle parts of the 25-mile trail that opened in 2011. Cycle Path and Paddle in Crosby rents bikes and kayaks for travelers eager to explore this pristine park. (218) 546-8131; cuyunalakes.com 
Croft Mine Historical Park Learn about the Crosby area’s brief but proud iron mining history during self-guided tours in a cool, darkened tunnel. In the adjacent dry-house-turned-museum, visitors see exhibits about a 1924 drowning disaster that killed 42 miners. Open Saturdays and Sundays during the summer. (218) 546-5466; exploreminnesota.com 
Fishing Whether you’re a veteran angler or just want to expose a kid to a few hours out on the lake, the region offers thousands of places to go. (Minnesota residents can fish for free in most state parks.) For a guided experience, try Walleye Dan. (218) 839-5598; walleyedan.com 
Paul Bunyan Land Since 1950, families have brought little ones here to enjoy the amusement rides like the Tilt-a-Whirl and Space Shuttle. These days, they also explore This Old Farm Pioneer Village, a collection of outbuildings stuffed with old farming equipment. Admission charged. (218) 764-2524; paulbunyanland.com 
Paul Bunyan State Trail Bring your bike to explore this 112-mile paved path, or rent one from Trailblazer Bikes (with shops in Nisswa and Brainerd). (218) 963-0699 Though the state’s longest bike path has entry points off of many busy intersections, you only have to pedal a few minutes before you find yourself alone, listening to the wind and the wildlife. paulbunyantrail.com 
Shopping Nisswa’s downtown concentrates quality shops into a few blocks: The Chocolate Ox; Zaiser’s for North Woods home accessories; Turtle Town Books and Gifts for children’s books, puzzles and toys; Lundrigan’s for Scandinavian-inspired chic fashions; Appaloosa Ridge for lake-theme gifts and accessories; Massie Creek for high-end home goods; and Urban Accents for cheeky shirts, cards and books. (218) 963-2620; nisswa.com 
Where to eat
Antlers Restaurant A Hungarian mushroom soup and surf and turf menu highlight the fine dining on Whitebirch Golf Course at Breezy Point Resort in Pequot Lakes. (218) 562-7162; breezypointresort.com 
The Barn Maid-Rite-style sandwiches and pie baked fresh daily (the crust is outstanding; local faves include rhubarb custard and sour cream and raisin) draw crowds to this Brainerd diner for breakfast and lunch. (218) 829-9297
The Classic Grill Stunning North Woods architecture meets lush golf course views at this Madden’s-owned restaurant, which you’ll find about a mile from the resort’s check-in area (shuttle available). Menu standouts include half-pound burgers, pork rib chop, steaks and coconut shrimp. (800) 233-2934; maddens.com 
Iven’s on the Bay Seafood fans flock to this classy dining room facing North Long Lake for outstanding sushi, Canadian walleye and steaks—plus excellent seasonal desserts like Key lime cheesecake and caramel-apple bread pudding available in late summer. (218) 829-9872; ivensonthebay.com 
Lost Lake Lodge The dining room is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner; offerings run the gamut from fluffy buttermilk pancakes and a simple but well-prepared burger to exquisite sea scallops and walleye cooked in parchment packets. It’s a good idea to make reservations for dinner. (800) 450-2681; lostlake.com 
Northwoods Pub For affordable dining at Grand View Lodge, stop here and try the creamy walleye chowder with sweet corn, bacon and skin-on potatoes; a nicely spiced broiled walleye fillet with tangy remoulade on grilled ciabatta; and crisp, perfectly seasoned fries. (866) 801-2951; grandviewlodge.com 
StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery In a comfortable storefront, enjoy beans roasted in-house and scones made with their own ground wheat. In Nisswa. (218) 961-2326; stonehousecoffee.com 
Where to stay
Breezy Point Resort The Dockside restaurant and lounge hosts live music, and the double-decker Breezy Belle takes guests out for leisurely lake tours. Spacious vacation homes on the golf course are luxurious splurges. (800) 432-3777; breezypointresort.com 
Grand View Lodge Gracious hospitality and attention to detail define this upscale resort. A small indoor pool and water park overlook the lake. Lodging options range from king rooms to townhomes along the lake. (866) 801-2951; grandviewlodge.com 
Lost Lake Lodge It’s small—13 cabins in all—but the service is fantastic, and the dining room serves beautifully plated meals. (218) 963-2681; lostlake.com 
Madden’s on Gull Lake Whether you want to golf, boat or just jump off the trampoline anchored in the lake near the swimming beach, Madden’s visitors have plenty to choose from. Families prefer cheery lakeside cabins; golfers can snag spacious, comfortable rooms facing the fairways. Kids’ programs promise supervised activities (and a break for parents!). (800) 233-2934; maddens.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2013. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)