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.