The Mississippi is mighty, but it starts as a trickling stream shallow enough for me to wade in. Hikers peel off their socks and gingerly make their way across the rocks, careful not to slip, while chubby-legged toddlers squeal and splash. In the distance, clusters of inner tubes float by on Lake Itasca, their occupants’ faces turned lazily skyward, following the sun like flowers.
The Minnesota Northwoods region, a vast stretch of forests, wetlands and glacial lakes clustered around the Mississippi River’s headwaters in the central part of the state, has attracted hunters and anglers for thousands of years. It easily could have remained a network of sleepy little resort towns lulled into complacency by the sheer bounty of protected green spaces and more than 1,000 glittering lakes.
Instead of drifting into sun-dappled oblivion, the Northwoods towns have specialized to offer a range of experiences, tempting travelers with lazy lake days and campfire nights at family-run resorts, window shopping along old-fashioned Main Streets and a comprehensive trail network that allows hikers, horseback riders, birdwatchers and cyclists to venture deep into the forests, bogs and bottomlands.
The region is striking in all seasons – it’s a popular winter hiking and fall foliage destination — but hits its stride in high summer. Whenever you go and whichever Minnesota Northwoods retreat you choose, you’ll never be far from the woodlands and waterways that are the soul of this place.
Straight to the source: The Mississippi River
Get your feet wet in the Mississippi headwaters, tucked into the towering pines of Itasca State Park. Gather your group near the interpretive sign (which you might recognize from the Itasca State Park webcam feed), for one of the most popular photo ops in the state. The Headwaters Trail leads you right to the spot. The oldest state park in Minnesota has been inhabited for thousands of years; in addition to the sought after campsites, 49 miles of hiking trails, 16 miles of paved trails for biking, a swimming beach, picnic spots and treetop views from the Aiton Heights Fire Tower, the park also contains archeological traces of the hunters who camped here 8,000 years ago, thousands of years before fur traders and loggers tried to tame the Northwoods forests.
Park Rapids is a popular base for exploring Itasca State Park as well as the lakes and trails that whisk you away from the charming shops (like Aunt Belle’s Confectionary, bursting with baskets of saltwater taffy and creamy handmade fudge and Smoky Hills Art, which features paintings, pottery and handmade jewelry from more than 250 regional artisans as well as stones, crystals, and a make your own jewelry station) and into the wilderness. The region is a summer home for many Minnesotans, who have cabins on hundreds of lakes around the little city, so it’s easy for visitors to get everything they need to get on the water.
You can buy kayaks and fishing poles in many big box stores and obtain a Minnesota fishing license (mandatory for ages 16 and up) in most sporting goods shops, or purchase one ahead of time online. The city’s website offers weekly Park Rapids fishing reports and the locals all have their own secret spots. If you play your cards right, they might let you in on a secret or two over a lumberjack breakfast at Rapid River Logging Camp. If you’d rather learn about wildlife than catch and eat it, take a history and wildlife tour on Coborn’s Lake Itasca Tours.
Work off your breakfast on the Heartland State Trail, one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the U.S. It runs from Park Rapids through the tiny settlement of Dorset and on to Cass Lake, a total of 49 miles.
The unincorporated village of Dorset is home to just 22 people at last count, but it boasts a block of quaint little shops and four restaurants, which are featured in the Taste of Dorset event on the first Sunday in August. The event is regionally infamous for its unusual raffle where anyone can pay to nominate a potential Dorset mayor. (Children have been the most frequent recipients of the honor, although a passing cyclist won one year.) Whenever you come to town, fuel up with massive portions of Mexican food at Companeros and grab a paperback at Dorset Books and Candy Shack before heading back to Park Rapids or east to Walker, located on the shores of Leech Lake.
Where to Stay in Park Rapids
Red Bridge Inn, a cozy little B&B with river view balconies, offers a sunny deck with a hot tub, a fire pit for campfires and the use of two pontoon boats on Fish Hook Lake.View Hotel
With 195 miles of shoreline, Leech Lake is the third largest of Minnesota’s 11,842 lakes — there are many more than the 10,000 lakes advertised on state license plates — and the center of social life and recreation in Walker. This amiable resort town welcomes visitors with a two-story lighthouse, docks and a swimming beach in Walker City Park and a pier for evening strolls.
“A day is not complete without going on the lake,” says Karleen Anderson, who started spending her summers in Walker as a kid. “We love going to Sand Point, there is a huge sandbar. Another favorite spot is Bear Island, but make sure you check the weather first.” (The island has its own microclimate and unusual plant life.)
Boat and watercraft rentals are available for guests at most lakeside resorts. The public can rent pontoon boats, fishing boats, and wave runners as well as non-motorized watercraft like paddleboats and canoes from J&K Marine.
If you’d rather let someone else drive the boat, consider hiring a fishing guide. Leech Lake is an excellent fishing lake and these experts offer personalized instruction, tips, and tricks to help you catch specific types of fish and all the gear you’ll need for a guided half-day or day trip.
Everything in Walker conspires to keep you outdoors. The city’s signature music festivals, Moondance Jam and Moondance Jammin’ County, bring music fans together in the open air every June and July and Tianna Country Club’s 18 hole course offers views of the Chippewa National Forest.
To see the forest up close, hike the North Country Trail. The Park Rapids to Walker leg of the 4,600-mile New York to North Dakota trail is particularly scenic. It winds through the Chippewa National Forest, which contains a mind-boggling 1,300 lakes, 925 miles of streams, 298 miles of non-motorized trails and 400,000 acres of wetlands within its borders. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribal members partner with the forest rangers to offer both cultural and wildlife programming at the interpretive center.
Head to Lundigrans Clothing if you need an extra layer to wear on a chilly campfire night. It’ll come in handy if there’s a breeze on the patio when you’re enjoying walleye and a glass of wine at The Boulders, the place for non-fussy fine dining. Cafe Zona Rosa is a local favorite for low key Mexican food and The Piggy BBQ has gotten glowing reviews from Minnesota food writers as well as “The New York Times” for its Kansas City-style barbeque. It’s usually busy, so plan accordingly. “Get there early or call in your order, because when it’s gone, it’s gone,” advises Anderson.
Where to stay in Walker
Elegant, historic Chase On The Lake features a private beach and lake view rooms, an onsite spa, bowling alley and restaurant and bike and watercraft rentals in the marina.View Hotel
Like many places in the Northwoods, Bemidji draws its name from the Ojibwe language. (You’ll find shop signs that say “welcome,” “thank you” and other common phrases in Ojibwe in Bemidji, Park Rapids and Walker, part of a language project that acknowledges that region’s Ojibwe heritage and proximity to three reservations.) The translation means “a lake with crossing waters”, which describes how the Mississippi flows into Lake Bemidji.
You’ll find Lake Bemidji State Park’s swimming beach, spruce trees and unusual conifer bog habitat – where you can step out onto the quarter-mile boardwalk and observe the moss, orchids and carnivorous plants of this typically inaccessible landscape up close – on the north shore of the lake. The park is a geocaching hotspot (with more than 40 caches hidden within biking distance) and serves as the northernmost trailhead for the Paul Bunyan State Trail, which winds around the lake and continues more than 100 miles south. Bike rentals are available from Bemidji State University if you didn’t bring your own. (You can rent canoe, kayaks and camping gear too.)
This former logging town is now a nature obsessed college town with an artistic streak. Sign up for a pottery class at Headwaters Music and Arts, shop for unique gifts from local artisans at Gallery North or check out the galleries, classes, and workshops at Watermark Art Center. The Bemidji Sculpture Walk showcases new, large-scale installations in downtown Bemidji ever year, but the fact that the most photographed piece of public art is an oversized sculpture of the lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his trusty sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, shows that the city doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Take the selfie – this is touristy kitsch at its finest.)
The Bemidji shopping scene is great for a city of its size, with hardly a chain store in sight. Score leather earrings and boho kimonos at Yellow Umbrella, Minnesota-themed hoodies, tanks and Ts for guys and girls at 218 Home + Gift and traditional Ojibwe beadwork at Morrell’s Chippewa Trading Post. The quintessential Bemidji souvenir is a buffalo plaid blanket, shirt or scarf from Bemidji Woolen Mills, which has operated in downtown Bemidji since 1920.
Try Tutto Bene for ultra-fresh seafood and Minnesota-raised hanger steak on the vine-covered patio and Minnesota Nice Café for comfort food like homemade soups, hearty skillets smothered in country gravy and pancakes so good, they don’t even need syrup. The crew at The Cabin Coffee House and Café are wizards with breakfast and baked goods (think blueberry pie French Toast and decadent scones), but the tables are packed at lunch, too. Buy a loaf of fresh baked bread cranberry wild rice bread for a new take on an indigenous staple.
Then grab a growler from Bemidji Brewing. The light and refreshing German Blonde is the perfect thing to sip as the sun goes down over the lake of your choice.
Where to stay in Bemidji
Kohl’s Resort offers cabins deep in the Buena Vista State Forest. The pool, playground, and swimming beach make it family favorite.View Hotel
The Mississippi River city of Grand Rapids sits just east of the Chippewa National Forest, surrounded by more than 1,000 lakes bursting with bass, panfish, and walleye. If fishing isn’t your thing, Paddle Hoppers will rent you a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), kayak or canoe by the week or by the day. You can also paddle the Mississippi River or try a half-day or day trip in the region. Center Mind Body Fitness takes the SUP experience to the next level with Pokegama Lake day trips that include paddling sessions, a SUP yoga class and brunch on the beach.
Grand Rapids is the southern point on the Taconite State Trail. The first six miles are paved and popular for cycling. It’s also the southern gateway to the Mesabi Trail, a favorite with cyclists who want to test their stamina on the hills.
Less outdoorsy travelers won’t have any trouble keeping busy in Grand Rapids. “A trip to the Forest History Center to see the lumberjack camp is a must,” says Katie Krogstad Roed, a northwestern Minnesota resident who considers Grand Rapids her home away from home. The site offers hands-on exhibits that take you inside a forest service cabin, up to a 100-foot tall fire tower, and onto a cook shack moored on the river.
The city is known for being the childhood home of Judy Garland, who was born here in 1922. Her family home is now the Judy Garland Museum. It features “Wizard of Oz” memorabilia like the carriage from the film, as well as a children’s museum and gardens.
Grand Rapids has a historic downtown and shops with local flavor. To take the lake cabin look home, try Lake Lover Vintage for antiques and vintage accents as well as pottery, hand-dyed wool, jewelry and carvings from local artists. Red Willow specializes in rustic yet elegant home décor and perfectly crafted gifts, while Kindred House offers an ever-changing selection of shabby chic accents, antiques, repurposed furniture and textiles.
“Treat yourself to coffee and lunch at Brewed Awakenings,” advises Krogstad Roed. “Their homemade gelato and bakery items are seriously amazing.” Save room for an all-you-can-eat bluegill fish fry (Mondays) or hearty portions of prime rib (Saturdays) at The Pickled Loon Saloon. The lake view deck is the place to be on warm summer nights.
End your Northwoods getaway on the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway, a popular spot for motorists, motorcyclists and nature lovers. The road north from Grand Rapids winds past 36 lakes and back into pristine, protected forest. Keep an eye on the sky – this stretch of the Chippewa National Forest is home to the largest bald eagle breeding ground in the lower 48 states. You’ll be following the route the fur traders and loggers took when they first tried to tame this region. The watchful stillness of the Minnesota Northwoods reminds you that they only partially succeeded.
Where to stay near Grand Rapids
Ruttgers Sugar Lake Lodge in Cohasset (just outside Grand Rapids) features lakeside cabins, an 18-hole golf course and an exceptionally clear lake with a swimming beach.View Hotel