Brainerd Lakes: A Lively Winter Playground
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Best in snow
With 50 inches of annual snowfall and hundreds of lakes -- along with a location only 130 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the Brainerd Lakes area is one of the Midwest's liveliest playgrounds. Whether you're getting an outdoor workout or pampering yourself in an upscale cabin, the area has lots to offer winter travelers.
Ride a dogsled
Cragun's Resort offers guests a full slate of activities. Hitch a ride on a dogsled that whisks visitors on a 10-minute thrill ride across a frozen Gull Lake bay. On winter weekends, the resort hosts indoor activities as well, such as bingo and programs for kids.
High temps in the 20s? Definitely warm enough for a cross-country ski run. You'll find the area's best-groomed and only lit ski trails (20 kilometers in all) at Northland Arboretum, tucked behind Brainerd-Baxter's commercial district.
Elsewhere, the Pine Beach trail system loops around several resorts and stretches into challenging Pillsbury State Forest. Download maps from the Explore Brainerd Lakes link below. Travelers can rent skis at Cycle Path and Paddle in Pequot Lakes.
Snowmobiling gives visitors a thrilling way to zip across the frozen region. Rent a snowmobile at Cragun's Resort, then cut across Gull Lake to the Paul Bunyan Trail, a summer bike route that follows an old railroad corridor. The trail stretches through 14 small towns from Brainerd to Bemidji, about 100 miles north. The area has 1,200 miles of snowmobile-ready terrain.
Hit the slopes
At Ski Gull, near Gull Lake's west shore, children as young as 3 learn to ski on beginner slopes -- while experienced skiers and snowboarders can still catch big air. And for those not ready to ski, Ski Gull has a tubing run as well.
Roll a strike
Try snow bowling at Good Ol' Days Family Resort in Nisswa. It's a great time -- if you don't mind chilly fingers for an afternoon.
Blaze a trail
Spend a morning hiking or snowshoeing a cross-country trail, threading through the towering pines. Tromp through the woods, across frozen lakes or along trails at Northland Arboretum, which also has a route set aside for pets. Many resorts rent or offer free snowshoes.
Hit a fest
Even if you don't fish, check out the annual Brainerd Jaycees' Ice Fishing Extravaganza just for the spectacle of 20,000 people on a frozen lake. Visitors come from mostly from the Twin Cities, cars packed with boots and long underwear, ready to take on the cold.
Take a spin
Many of the area's frozen lakes provide a perfect place to skate. At Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort, white Christmas lights strung in pine trees ring a romantic skating pond.
If you'd rather spend an afternoon indoors, head to Nisswa for a day of shopping. The two-block stretch of downtown shops holds an array of wares, including books, clothing and coffee.
Fill 'er up
Once you've worked up an appetite, head to one of the area's shops and restaurants. Coco Moon Coffee Bar and Gifts (left) in Brainerd offers shopping and great java. Or head to Rachel's Bakery in Nisswa for a wonderful peach scone.
Dine in style
Enjoy views of North Long Lake and delicious lobster, crab and strudel at Iven's on the Bay. We also love the sesame-seared rare tuna steak with a wild-rice stir fry and wasabi cream (left).
Or head to Christmas Point Wild Rice Company along State-371 in Baxter. Try wild rice soup, veggie panini and hot chai. After lunch, check out the store's three floors of decor and apparel.
Settle in at Grand View Lodge Resort's Glacial Waters Spa. Guests wrap up in soft robes, sip hot tea, lounge by the fireplace and take in the aromas of lime, mint, rosemary and lavender. The spa offers fragrant soaks, deep massages and pedicures.
Get cozy by a fire
At the end of a long vacation day, warm up next to a bonfire at Cragun's Resort. It's a beautiful way to enjoy the peace and quiet of a Minnesota winter night.
At new Mission-style cottages at Good Ol' Days Family Resort in Nisswa, glass doors frame views of Lower Cullen Lake, where the wind tosses snow, smudging views of ice houses dotting the horizon. Gas fireplaces blaze with a welcome heat, relaxing weary travelers and tempting them to dream of adventures waiting tomorrow.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2009.)