By E. Nolan
There are more things to love in northern Minnesota than there are lakes. Uff da! That's a lot. (Doncha know?) My editor asks me to list them all. ("Ya, sure," I thinks.) "Or," she suggests, "just stick to what you know." ("You betcha," I nod.) Here we go...
In all of America there's only one northern Minnesota. (It's true.) And Minnesota's greatness lies as much in its off-the-beaten-path spots as its big cities, with evidence and relevance scattered everywhere. (Depends on what you're looking for.) Parents with Disney-loving daughters might just have to drive through Aurora for the name of the town (you think I'm kidding), and might as well bring a tent to pitch in Cook County where the "sleeping beauty" of Up North is routinely enhanced by the Aurora Borealis (northern lights). You don't have to cook while you're camping if you don't want to, especially in Cook County. While fish may not appreciate the Angry Trout Café in CC's Grand Marais, people sure do. On the harbor, it's as savory a place as any to celebrate a catch of the day.
The only two words northern Minnesotan's might associate with as much as Up North are "Boundary Waters," the popular web of glacially carved out bogs and waterways which are wedged between Lake Superior and International Falls. Speaking of whiched wedges, sandwiched between Two Harbors and Gooseberry Falls State Park, Betty's Pies might be the tastiest dessert destination in America north of the Mississippi (technically they originate at the same Latitude, but...beside the point.) Taste and take home hits like Five-Layer Chocolate Pie or Apple-Strawberry Crunch, or stay nearby at the luxurious Bluefin Bay to come back and keep eating more pie. If you've never thrown rocks into Canada, Baudette is a great place to do it from. (They even have their own International Airport, next to the Rainy River, if you want to fly in and try.) Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox can be found in Bemidji. (Standing up, most of the time.) Either legend has it, or I'm making it up, but the two of them started the Mississippi River and they've been standing watch over the adjacent headwaters ever since. (That's right, that "four-I'd" 2552-mile aquatic serpent snakes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico from here.) The Brainerd Lake Region is the Resort Capital of Minnesota with great family stays like Breezy Point Golf Resort and...
Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake--another Brainerd Lakes marquee, with two 18-hole Legacy golf courses, and Footgolf if your hand/eye coordination is subpar. Famous for its front-row-seats view of the sky, the aforementioned Cook County hosts some pretty good light shows throughout the year (not just on the 4th of July). Though more frequent in winter, the aurora borealis still likes to show off in other months, too.
The golf world lost a legend this year, in the passing of Arnold Palmer, but Minnesota keeps his memory alive with what the Golf News Network named "Arnold Palmer's Best American Golf Design" at Breezy Point Resort's Deacon's Lodge--The late King's tribute to his father. From there, you're only 55 miles away from the "Restaurant Capital of the World"--in little Dorset, where the mayor is picked at random and the population is listed at 22. Sticking with the state standouts, Duluth's 135-foot tall Aerial Lift Bridge rises more than 20 times a day and is stunning to stroll under at night. (It's not the Brooklyn Bridge, but it would be if Duluth were named Brooklyn.) From walking to riding, mountain biking enthusiasts love the many unique and challenging trails of the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area outside Detroit Lakes. (The wooden track is surreal!)
Everyone loves pizza right? Well, if everything north of the Twin Cities is Up North, the best Up North pizza might be at Pompeii's in Elk River, 35 miles north of Minneapolis. There's good pizza at the Edgewater Resort and Waterpark in Duluth, too, a popular family getaway destination with indoor and outdoor play areas, a water park, and stellar views of Lake Superior. Minnesota has the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states, and you can see some of them at the International Wolf Center in Ely. (A town recently showcased in the adventure novel "Emergency Exit" by Minnesota author, Ever N. Hayes.)
The Wilderness at Fortune Bay might be the "Most Underrated Golf Course in America" (Golf News Network, January 2017) but that doesn't make it underappreciated by locals. Fortune Bay Casino and Resort sits on the beautiful banks of the loon-filled Lake Vermilion, and The Wilderness meanders among the ridges and boulders that truly define the property and defy all descriptions. There's great Fishing there but, then again, if you can't catch a fish in Minnesota, you're not trying.
There are literally hundreds of Golf Courses in Minnesota, and two of the best are at Giants Ridge, in Biwabik--Legend and The Quarry. The 17th hole on the Legend course has been ranked one of "America's 101 Prettiest Golf Holes," and master craftsman, Shawn Callahan has made a similarly impressive mark on the "Stay" side of the Giants Experience with his Green Gate Guesthouses, where people book months in advance to sleep in a barn (seriously) and other unique lodges. There's more great golf at Grand View Lodge--on Gull Lake in the Brainerd Lakes Region--with the best 27-hole course in the state at The Pines, and, for Grand of Another Brand, check out one of Midwest Living's "24 Best Midwest Campgrounds," the Grand Marais Recreation Area, with 300 campsites on the water.
Yet another "Grand," the "Grand Canyon of the North"--the Hull Rust Mine--is in Hibbing, the former home of Robert Zimmerman--better known as Bob Dylan. Hibbing is close to Pengilly, one of the coolest names for a town EVER.
The first state park in Minnesota, Itasca State Park (1891) is also the 2nd oldest in the United States (behind Niagara Falls) and claims its other fame by "officially" containing the headwaters of the Mississippi River. A little north from there, International Falls marks the exit from northern Minnesota into Canada, and also serves as a main entrance to a massive expanse of lakes and forests known as Voyageurs National Park. Rent a houseboat for the most comprehensive of 24-hour tours, and take lots of pictures. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Instagram is a visual reader's library, and Minnesota has some accounts worth "checking out." On days you can't physically bask in the splendor of "Up North" you can still behold the beauty and find Inspiration through the eyes of artists like: @georgeduluth / @experiencethenorth / @haugen_photography / @captureminnesota /@thisismyminnesota and many more.
The swinging suspension bridge over the St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park, 20 miles southwest of Duluth, is always worth the walk. And when it comes to Jams and Jellies, no one does Strawberry Rhubarb better than our local farmers do.
Technically, the aquatic entrance to Voyageurs National Park is Lake Kabetogama. This 25,000-acre lake is one of four lakes in the national park, and has its own website that the fish update daily (kidding on the fish part). Many resorts dot the coastline of its beautiful waters, and walleye searchers have done quite well at Voyageur Park Lodge.
Minnesota is promoted as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" but we actually have 21,871 lake basins over the size of 2.5 acres, and officially we have 11,842 actual lakes over 10 acres in size. Lake Superior is technically Minnesota's biggest lake, since 963,000 of its acres lie within the state boundary. Second biggest is Lake of the Woods at 950,000 acres. The Loon is our state bird, and their enchanting calls echo across the lake-loaded north. Lutsen Resort sits on the shores of Lake Superior, with its beautiful, famous, red, wooden bridge and stunning 27-hole golf course across the street at Superior National. If you were looking to "L" for suggestions on where to find the best Lutefisk, I'm sorry. I don't like Lutefisk. (Not much of a Norwegian, am I?)
There is only one Madden's on Gull Lake in the world--home to the nationally ranked "The Classic" golf course--but there are over 200 Mud Lakes just in Minnesota. Far as we know, no one has ever been to all of them, so if you were looking for something completely random to do this summer... you're welcome and good luck. Top to bottom the longest body of water in Minnesota is the Mississippi River. It contains plenty of Mud, too. One thing we don't have plenty of anymore is Moose. The population in 2017 is believed to be around 3500 (and rapidly declining). Consider this the print kick-off of Minnesota's "Save the Moose" campaign. Who doesn't love a moose? Come on!
You may not see a moose from your car up north, but you might see one from a train. You can take a memorable, narrated, ride along Lake Superior on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. And, if you love apples, the end of summer brings us to apple season. You don't have to go to New York to find big apples. And ours are better!
The best place to be in Minnesota in the summer is Outside, and when I think of the letter "O" I think more in terms of symbols than places. I think of Inner Tubes on the lake, of roasting soft, sugary Ovals (aka marshmallows) over a campfire under a star-filled sky. I think of open moonroof rides on the state's many scenic highways and byways, and of Oreo cookies (mostly because it has two "O"s in it).
Ask 100 different residents where to find Minnesota's "Best Ice Cream" and you might get 50 different answers. But ask 100 Up North residents that question and you could get 100 "Portland Malt Shoppe" responses. Built as a gas station in 1921, the Duluth hot spot has been excelling in cool treats since 1989. Adventure seekers can find more treats at the "C4" Character Challenge Course in Park Rapids and play Minnesota's "Best Mini-Golf Experience" at Wildwedge Golf Resort in Pequot Lakes, near Breezy Point Resort.
Many Quarries in the state contain water, but our most popular Quarry is actually a golf course near Biwabik--The Quarry at Giants Ridge Resort--considered a Top 25 Public Golf Course in America by Golf Digest. There is only one lake in Minnesota that starts with the letter "Q"--Quinn Lake near Clearwater. Quick Fact - Did you know there are 14 times more miles of lake coastline in Minnesota than there are miles of ocean coastline in California? (Now you do.)
It doesn't get much more Up North (or wet) than the Rainy River, a 137-mile stretch of the Canadian Border, separating Minnesota from northwest Ontario, flowing from Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods. Another one of our borders, the Red River (of the North), flows north to south between us and North Dakota.
If you're up for a really long walk, the Superior Hiking Trail, runs for 300 miles along the ridges lining Lake Superior's North Shore. Along the way, be dazzled by some of our state's signature stops, like the iconic, 107-year old, Splitrock Lighthouse outside of Two Harbors and Sawtooth Mountain Park in Lutsen with its aerial tram and mountain coaster. And if you drive down to St. Cloud, you'll find Minnesota's most underrated golf links--The Territory. From links back to lakes, there are 175 lakes in St. Louis County alone. At 6,247 square miles, it is the largest county not just in Minnesota but in any state east of the Mississippi River. Ten percent of it is covered in water. Another percent of it is covered by Duluth.
Don't overlook another naturally enhanced highlight, Spirit Mountain's Timber Twister in Duluth--well worth the ride over and on for kids of all ages. Sticking to the subject of "overlooking," because of all the attractions around Two Harbors, the town itself doesn't get enough love. On a beautiful day, take a walk out to their lighthouses (both of them). Overlooking Agate Bay, the red brick Two Harbors Light is the oldest operating lighthouse in Minnesota.
Where exactly is "Up North?" We use it as a summer vacation term here--pretty much anywhere with a cabin or lodge on a lake north of the Twin Cities, and wherever it is in general, we specifically LOVE it. Duluth is Up North, and famous for its Superior beauty. It's also famous for
its Underwear. Duluth Trading Company (formerly Portable Products) began with tool belts, hit the jackpot by making shirts longer than normal, and now has gone intimate in a very public way.
We all know Minnesota was carved by glaciers, but did you know it was influenced by Volcanoes before that. Find your own piece of non-tropical paradise, sixty miles northeast of Duluth, at Palisade Head in Tettegouche State Park, with the gorgeous views from Shovel Point and the 60-foot falls of the Baptism River. Get an even more unique taste of Lake Superior at Duluth's Vikre Distillery, where they turn water into Scandinavian liquor.
The town of Walker, Minnesota is basically the portion of Leech Lake that you can drive your car on. The words "beautiful lake" are redundant in our state, but the sights, sounds, and experiences associated never get old. Another thing that never gets old is breakfast in Grand Marais at World's Best Donuts. I assure you, the name is no exaggeration. Bring your favorite donut from anywhere in the world to their little red-and-white shop and let owners Stacey and Dee try it. I reckon if "your best" tops Merieta Altrichter's famous cake donuts, you'll get a prize. #grammarita #legitworldsbest
As a wrist-strength exercise, teachers can have their students write out all the Minnesota Lakes in alphabetical order. (With a pen or pencil, by hand, not voice-to-text.) Some might consider that cruel and (highly) unusual punishment, but they won't mind listing the "X" lakes. There is only one--Xander.
There are three Minnesota State Parks where you can stay in a Yurt, (very different from a Yak). and two of those are found up north: Cuyana Country State Recreation Area near Crosby, and Glendalough State Park near Fergus Falls. These domed-roof, insulated, canvas tents with wood floors and wood stoves are ideal for those wanting to camp in while camping out. Year-round.
There are Zero lakes in Mower, Olmstead, Pipestone, and Rock counties, and only six lakes in the entire state that start with "Z." Zilch Lake would be the name of a place I'd fish. I never catch anything anyway. Speaking of catching anything... if this article had you catching "Zzzs" get up and go explore Minnesota!