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There is no better destination than the Brainerd lakes area to enjoy the great outdoors with all the comforts of home, to be closer to all that nature can provide — sparkling water bodies and 2,000 miles of shoreland amid tall pines, with hundreds of miles of bicycle, walking, jogging and snowmobile trails. There are deep mine pit lakes for a quiet kayak ride or scuba dive, lakes and rivers for fishing and recreation.
Load up the bike (or rent one) to try the Cuyuna Range mountain bike trails, then take a break in an area coffee shop or eatery. The area has 45 resorts and more than 400 holes of golf, plus a zip line. Or camp and see the glorious Milky Way, away from city lights.
While nature and the outdoor experience are the stars here, that’s not the only attraction. Visit historic homesteads in area parks — from early settlements to the nearby boyhood home of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh — along with local history museums and art galleries.
But the area offers so much more, from Brainerd-Baxter to Pine River, Pequot Lakes to Crosslake, Crosby to Pillager, there are unique experiences available, whether walking on a nature trail or shopping along a main street. With numerous festivals and events all year long, a visitor can be as active as they want to be or simply relax with a book at the beach.
The Brainerd micropolitan offers diverse shopping, theater productions and world-class summer music fests with everything from bluegrass to symphonic orchestra to opera, and a regional airport with commercial and general aviation. Go to visitbrainerd.com and explorebrainerdlakes.com/events for more information and calendars of events.
LOCALS LOVE THESE:
'The Bigs'. Take a selfie-photo tour with 'The Bigs' — the giant walleye on the shores of Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison, the leaping deer in Deerwood, a waving Paul Bunyan at the Brainerd Lakes Area Welcome Center, the colorful serpent on the shores of Serpent Lake in Crosby, or Babe the legendary blue ox at Paul Bunyan Land near Brainerd, or the big man himself — the 26-foot-tall talking Paul Bunyan.
The fire tower. The historic 100-foot Pequot Lakes fire tower, north of County Highway 11 and east of Highway 371, is on the National Register of Historic Places and provides a bird’s eye view of the lakes area. The fire tower is open for people to climb the 135 steps from dawn to dusk daily in the warm months. Interpretive signs along the crushed granite walking path to the fire tower share information about the history of the park and of fire towers, Minnesota landscapes, and fires and firefighting. Two trails lead to the fire tower -- a 0.3 mile Fire Tower Trail and a 0.4 mile Wildlife Loop. Dogs are welcome, with two Mutt Mitt stations for people to clean up after their dogs.
Cuyuna Pump Track. Enjoy more than 2,000 feet of continuous circuit of dirt rollers, berms and jumps for a variety of skill levels with tent and RV campsites, pavilion and playground and all near the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails. “This pump track is a hidden gem in the Cuyuna area,” Lindsay Leet wrote in a review. “With loads of dirt trails, hills, mounds and more tucked into a relatively small area, it offers lots of opportunity for practice and fun.”
Lakes Area Music Festival. This captivating festival brings nearly 200 world-class classical musicians to audiences for a summer series of free concerts. Outdoor yoga and ballet performances are sometimes incorporated into the concerts, too. Pre-concert lectures provide greater insight into the music, authors and musicians.
NOTEWORTHY THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Stay in a yurt at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
Enjoy heart-pumping action with tight turns and scenic vistas along 28 miles of trails spread across 800 acres of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Trails wind around mine pits and lakes with breathtaking overlooks. With more than 30 purpose-built routes to choose from, mountain bikers from beginner to pro can enjoy a ride. Find more info at cuyunalakesmtb.com. Bonus pro tip: You can stay in a yurt while at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Three seven-person yurts are available for rent year-round along the Yawkey Mine Lake.
Meet talking Paul Bunyan: He's kind of a big deal
Generations of children have heard the larger-than-life and animated Paul Bunyan greet them by name. He’s been a Minnesota tradition since 1954. The 26-foot-tall legendary lumberjack continues this tradition at Paul Bunyan Land, an amusement park 6 miles east of Brainerd on Highway 18. Paul’s faithful friend Babe the Blue Ox is nearby. The amusement park has about 30 rides for kids.
This world-class racing facility combines a road course and dragstrip, and continues to grow and bring in top names in racing and rising stars. The 600-acre facility attracts a weekend population of 100,000 for its annual marquee drag racing event — Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. Nitro-fueled NHRA drag racing returns to BIR for the 39th Annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals on Aug. 19-22, 2021. The raceway offers 200 acres of camping, a playground, driving school, band stage, and bar and grille, along with 164 full-service recreational sites, shower trailers and in-field deluxe condominiums. For more information on events, go to brainerdraceway.com.
Go to the Lakes Area Music Festival
This festival brings nearly 200 world-class classical musicians to audiences of upwards of 14,000 people for a series of free concerts. Outdoor yoga and ballet performances are sometimes incorporated into the concerts, too. Pre-concert lectures provide greater insight into the music, authors and musicians.
Play a round
The Brainerd lakes area, known for its recreational lakes popular for fishing and boating, is also home to numerous nationally recognized championship golf courses. Golfers could play a different championship course every day for a week. Golfing legends Arnold Palmer, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Joel Goldstrand all have developed courses in the lakes area.
Connect with nature with a peaceful paddle
Whether by canoe or kayak, paddle the peaceful expanse of the Pine River, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-designated canoe route with nearly 60 miles marked as a water trail for travel. This river flows through the Whitefish Chain of Lakes.
Or, take a historic Mississippi River trek to the Crow Wing State Park. You can also enjoy the calm, deep, turquoise-colored waters of the Cuyuna Range mine pit lakes. Glide above the outstretched limbs of mature trees entombed in the clear water that reclaimed the mine pits.
Bring your own kayak or canoe, or rent one from area establishments that will deliver them to the launch point and pick them up when the paddling adventure is complete. Or try a stand-up paddle board on any number of Crow Wing County’s more than 400 glorious lakes.
The mighty Mississippi River runs through the Brainerd lakes area, offering opportunities to bike or walk along its banks, or boat, kayak or canoe down the water. Or, you can simply watch the bald eagles who live along its expanse.
Celebrate at Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes
A midsummer day brings throngs to Pequot Lakes to take part in the annual Bean Hole Days celebration, where cast iron kettles of beans are buried so they can cook overnight and be served free of charge at noon the following day in Trailside Park. The community picnic tradition stretches back 82 years. People move quickly through the lines to receive their free cup of beans, bun and water. A King Bean and Queen Bean are crowned each year during the event. Bean Hole Days is scheduled July 14, 2021, with a crafter show.
Mount Ski Gull: Ski in winter, zip line in summer
Mount Ski Gull offers skiing, snowboarding and tubing in one convenient location near the shores of Gull Lake, off Cass County Highway 77 in Fairview Township between East Gull Lake and Lake Shore. Mount Ski Gull offers another way to see the lakes area’s beauty — on a zip line. The Brainerd Zip Line Tour boasts seven zip lines of varying length, with bridges and tree platforms connecting them. The daring rider can jump off the edge into a 50-foot free fall. The longest zip line is more than 950 feet long. For more information, call 218-963-4353 or visit mountskigull.com.
See the beauty of the lakes area from the back of a horse on a guided trail ride through the Pillsbury State Forest near Pillager. The scenic trail rides are designed for riders of all ages and experience levels. The family-owned ranch also provides riding lessons.
Experience the Paul Bunyan State Trail
With 123 miles of continuously paved trail from Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park in Bemidji, this longest recreational trail in Minnesota ranges from flat and open to hilly and scenic. It passes through 15 communities — including Brainerd, Baxter, Nisswa and Pequot Lakes — and connects with the Heartland Trail, Blue Ox Trail and Cuyuna Lakes State Trail. It is popular with bikers, hikers, walkers, runners, inline skaters and snowmobilers. It’s a member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, with more than 650,000 users a year visiting the trail, making it one of the premier state trails in Minnesota. Bring a bike or rent one, including multi-passenger options, from a number of local providers.
Give a breweries tour a taste
The Brainerd area is home to several craft beer options with local brews. Make it a daylong outing by visiting Jack Pine Brewery’s tap house in Baxter, Big Axe Brewing Co. in Nisswa, 14 Lakes Brewery in Crosslake, Cuyuna Brewing Co. in Crosby, the Roundhouse Brewery in Nisswa, Block North Brew Pub in Aitkin and Starry Eyed Brewing in Little Falls. In Brainerd, 5 Rocks Distilling Co. offers a microdistrillery. Also venture to the Dennis Drummond Wine Co. near Brainerd with wine tasting, retail, a bistro and wedding venue.
Take a walk on the wild side: Visit Safari North Wildlife Park
The mission of Safari North Wildlife Park is to promote conservation and preservation through safe, affordable and memorable experiences with a quality recreational and educational environment dedicated to wildlife care and conservation. There are hundreds of mammals, birds, reptiles and primates that make their home in the wildlife park. People can take camel rides and view the African and Asian grasslands exhibits from the viewing areas. Hand-feed the white-tailed deer, or step up high and feed a giraffe from the comforts of a feeding station.
Be part of the largest charitable ice fishing contest
The Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza, hosted annually 10 miles north of Brainerd, is the largest charitable ice fishing contest. Founded in 1991, the event draws thousands of anglers to the ice of Hole-in-the-Day Bay on Gull Lake with the promise of more than $200,000 in prizes. All proceeds from the volunteer-driven extravaganza go to about 45 area charities; since the event began, it has raised $3.3 million.
BEST BETS FOR SHORT TRIPS:
STAY FOR THE WEEKEND: Whether a beginner or an expert mountain biker, the 30 miles of mountain bike trails, or miles of paved walking and biking trails, or hours of kayaking on the clear waters of the mine pit lakes provide an outdoor escape in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, which is known for its “breath-taking rides” and scenic overlooks. The Cuyuna Lakes State Trail provides 8 miles of paved trail. There are multiple options for a weekend getaway, from camping to hotel rooms, cabins and resorts, along with eateries and breweries throughout the area. Hike or bike to the top of Miner’s Mountain, the highest point in the recreation area, to put it all in perspective.
STAY FOR A DAY: Bike or drive from Brainerd and Baxter to the Crow Wing State Park for a day trip to the park to hike scenic trails, step back into history for unspoiled sweeping views of the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers and the historic Old Crow Wing Town Site. Interpretive signs provide a look into the past for the frontier town. “Start from the picnic area parking lot. From the boat landing, climb the stairs to Chippewa Lookout. Stand high atop the Mississippi River for distant views,” the park notes, adding along with canoeing or kayaking, the park provides a great place to get back to nature and observe wildlife.