by Lisa McClintick
When forests are lush and summer hits full throttle, the lakes are the big lure for Minnesota's Lake Country Scenic Byway. More than 400 of them glimmer blue and beckon vacationers north.
But there's more than fishing and swimming on this 88-mile byway. You'll find small-town surprises, big-name festivals and the birthplace of the Mississippi River, one of the world's largest river systems.
Start at Detroit Lakes with its mile-long beach and whimsically painted giant sunfish throughout town. In May, Festival of Birds celebrates the 250 species that may be seen in the area thanks to the town's unique location at the convergence of tallgrass prairie, hardwood and coniferous forests. Take a hike or drive through Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge while heading east on Highway 34.
Country music fans know the area well. Detroit Lakes draws top acts for WE Fest and crowds of up to 50,000 fans every August. On the other end of the byway, Walker's Moondance Jam throbs with four days of classic rock. Both events rank among the biggest and best music fests in the country.
More intimate entertainment can be found in Park Rapids. See summer stock shows at Long Lake Theater, opera and popular musicals at Northern Light Opera Company, or a family variety show at Jasper's Theater.
Park Rapids is an ideal place to take the kids. Visitors park in the middle lane of the bustling downtown to explore boutiques, cafes, a dime store, candy shop, and old-fashioned soda fountain. In August, hear the buzz of saws and thud of axes as world champion loggers compete at the Legends and Logging Festival.
Detour north on Highway 71 to enjoy Minnesota's oldest state park and one of its largest with 32,000 acres and more than 100 lakes. Itasca State Park's biggest attraction is its humblest: the chance to walk across the small stream that starts the Mississippi River 2,553-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Back on Highway 34, take a spin through Dorset, a favorite stop for hungry road-trippers and bicyclists enjoying the Heartland Trail as it runs from Park Rapids to Walker and north to Cass Lake. At Akeley, playfully pose in Paul Bunyan's gigantic hand or enjoy a show at folksy Woodtick Theater.
Walker's downtown town bustles with boutiques, restaurants, bait shops and outdoors stores, fitting every vacation speed, from sporty to laid-back. Stroll down to the city pier and gaze across Minnesota's third-largest lake.
Classic lakeside family-run resorts can be found on the shore of Leech Lake and the hundreds of others lakes on the byway. So grab a tackle box or dig your toes into warm sand and cool water.