Lake Superior:Minnesota's northeast corner follows the North Shore of Lake Superior, a magnificent body of water that lives up to its name as the largest freshwater lake in the country, bigger than all of the other Great Lakes combined. The vibrant port city of Duluth welcomes nearly 1,000 ships a year as the western end of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and all the way up the shore, gorgeous scenery and welcoming communities make this 154-mile stretch one of Minnesota's top vacation destinations.
Lake Mille Lacs: Stretching as far as the eye can see, this huge lake in the heart of the state is a fisherman's paradise, ranked a top 10 bass lake by Bassmaster and, come winter, one of Minnesota's premier ice-fishing destinations. It's also home to a large sandy beach at Father Hennepin State Park, and is one of the few Minnesota lakes that's big enough for launch fishing. Photo by Douglas Anderson
Minneapolis Chain of Lakes: Essentially four lakes in one, Calhoun (pictured), Harriet, Cedar and Lake of the Isles offer a piece of the great outdoors in the heart of Minnesota's biggest city. Three of the four are connected and can be paddled as one; in some spots, you can't even tell you're in the city. Biking and running along the shores, dining at the lakeside eateries, and hitting the beaches are popular summer activities, with ice skating and hockey taking over in winter.
Lake of the Woods: Excluding Superior, this 950,000-acre lake is Minnesota's largest border lake, known for four seasons of great fishing for walleye, saugers, northerns and other species. Ice fishing is popular here, with resorts offering ice houses that have all the amenities of a deluxe cabin. It's also home to the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the continental U.S. that's only accessible by water or via Canada on land.
Lake Vermilion: This large, beautiful lake in northeast Minnesota is rimmed with thick forest and studded with 365 pine-topped islands spread throughout its 37 miles. Largely undeveloped, Vermilion provides a wilderness escape at the peaceful resorts and campgrounds along its shores. It's also a hot spot for fishing, and a don't-miss fall color destination. Photo by Wayne Moran
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: This federally protected preserve stretches 100 miles along the Canadian border and is home to more than 1,000 bodies of water, with canoes as the primary mode of transportation. A true wilderness, there are no cars, hotels, restaurants, electricity or other modern conveniences. The lakes range from tiny to vast, with portages, hiking trails, abundant wildlife, and campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Photo by Gary Hamer
Gull Lake: The Brainerd Lakes area is a popular vacation destination in central Minnesota, and one of the biggest reasons is its biggest lake. With several resorts along its shores, Gull Lake is a draw for fishermen, families and anyone else looking for some fun on the water. Hop on a jet ski, pontoon, paddleboard or cruise ship, or come for the Ice Fishing Extravaganza every January. Photo by Eric Ward
Lake Pepin: A naturally occurring lake and the widest part of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin's claim to fame is as the birthplace of water skiing, with an annual summer festival dedicated to the sport. An old-fashioned paddlewheeler and sailing charters are available, as well as canoes, kayaks and fishing charters. In winter, it's a great place to spot nesting bald eagles. Photo by Ben Threinen
Lake Minnetonka: Made famous by Prince's movie "Purple Rain," this large lake west of Minneapolis draws crowds seeking summertime fun, from sunbathing to sailing to wakesurfing, a mash-up of wakeboarding and surfing. In winter, it plays host to ice fishing, snowkiting and an on-ice golf tournament. It's also one of the first lakes in the state to "ice out," signaling spring is on the horizon. Photo by Jon Sadeh
Rainy Lake: The gateway to Voyageurs National Park, this vast border lake can be explored on guided boat and canoe tours, via personal canoe, kayak or motorboat, or on a houseboat, which serves as transportation and lodging in one. Once frozen, the lake is a haven for ice fishing and snowmobiling, and an ice road is plowed for cars and trucks. Rainy is one of four large (and dozens of smaller) lakes that make up Minnesota's uniquely water-based national park. Photo by Jim Umhoffer
Leech Lake: Every February, 10,000 or so people descend on the small northwest Minnesota town of Walker for the International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake, a celebration of one of the world's ugliest bottom-dwelling fish complete with on-ice bars, a polar plunge, eelpout curling and an ice fishing tournament. The fishing here is good year-round, with walleye, muskie, largemouth bass, perch and bluegill among the popular catches.
Otter Tail Lake: In a county with more than 1,000 lakes, Otter Tail stands out for its size, depth and popularity. Along the shore you'll find resorts, campgrounds, lakeside dining and golf courses, and expert fishing guides can help you find walleye, bass, panfish and more. Photo by Eric Ward
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes (actual number: 11,842), it's impossible to say which ones are the best. But these 12 represent just a handful of the many great places to start your Minnesota lake adventure. View the slideshow, then find more fun on the water statewide.
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