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 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 these, 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 quiet escape with a fantastic dining room and simple lakeside cabins decorated with fish-pattern carpet and other Up North decor. Others choose places like golf-friendly Madden’s on Gull Lake or stately Grand View Lodge.
No matter the locale, evenings tend to go something like this: Twilight spills its palette of pinks, purples and blues across water; pontoons and boats putter across the lake; and screen doors slam as kids grab the makings for s’mores. The next day, more vacation memories are waiting to be made: at turtle races, beside a 26-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue and alongside lakes stocked with so many fish, they’ll almost bite bare hooks.
For more information: Brainerd Lakes Chamber (800) 450-2838; explorebrainerdlakes.com
Croft Mine Historical Park Learn about the Crosby area’s brief iron mining history during self-guided tours of a mine shaft. In the adjacent dry house-turned-museum, exhibits detail a 1924 disaster that killed 42 miners. (218) 546-5466; exploreminnesota.com
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area In Crosby, rent bikes at Cycle Path and Paddle then catch the paved Cuyuna Lakes State Trail. A 1-mile mountain bike trek awaits on the Boot Camp trail. (218) 546-8131; cuyunalakes.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 come to enjoy the talking Paul Bunyan statue and amusement rides like the Tilt-a-Whirl and merry-go-round. (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 for candies and ice cream, Zaiser’s for North Woods home accessories and Lundrigan’s for Scandinavian-inspired fashions. (218) 963-2620; nisswa.com
Turtle Races For the past 53 years in Nisswa, thousands of kids have urged their surprisingly zippy turtles across the finish line with splashes and yells. Register in person. nisswa.com
Antlers Restaurant A Hungarian mushroom soup and surf-and-turf menu highlight the fine dining on Whitebirch Golf Course in Breezy Point. (218) 562-7162; breezypointresort.com
The Barn Loose-meat sandwiches, fluffy buttermilk pancakes and slices of homemade pie draw crowds to the Brainerd diner. (218) 829-9297
The Classic Grill Large windows overlook the golf course at Madden’s on Gull Lake resort. Menu standouts: juicy burgers, pork rib chops and a seasonal risotto. (800) 233-2934; maddens.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 Nisswa, enjoy beans roasted in-house and scones made with the roastery’s own ground wheat. (218) 961-2326; stonehousecoffee.com
Where to stay
Breezy Point Resort The Dockside restaurant has live music, and the double-decker Breezy Belle takes guests out for leisurely lake tours. Spacious vacation homes on the golf course are a bit of a splurge. (800) 432-3777; breezypointresort.com
Cragun’s Resort and Hotel Families band together for karaoke, horse-drawn trolley rides, water-skiing lessons and Sunday parties. Most of the 263 cabins and rooms overlook Gull Lake. craguns.com
Grand View Lodge Golfers love the three courses (two are award winning). A small indoor pool and water park overlook the lake. Lodging options range from rooms with king beds to townhomes along the lake. (866) 801-2951; grandviewlodge.com
Lost Lake Lodge It’s small—14 cabins—but service is fantastic, and the dining room serves creative fare like smoked salmon with ricotta dumplings. (218) 963-2681; lostlake.com
Madden’s on Gull Lake Families prefer lakeside cabins; golfers score rooms facing fairways at this resort perched on its own peninsula. Spend days golfing, boating or jumping off the trampoline in the lake (800) 233-2934; maddens.com