Enjoy the Lake Country Scenic Byway in All Seasons
By Lisa Meyers McClintick
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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. During the winter months, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and ice fishing draw visitors from far and wide. And all year round, you'll find small-town surprises, big-name festivals and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Take a Summer Road Trip
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.
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.
Itasca State Park
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's 2,553-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Back on Highway 34, take a spin through Dorset, one of Minnesota's tiniest towns and the self-proclaimed "Restaurant Capital of the World" due to having four restaurants in a town of just 22 people. Like many tourist destinations in Minnesota, a paved bike trail helps pull visitors away from the highway and into town. In Dorset’s case, it’s the Heartland State Trail, which opened in 1977 and has been a constant source of hungry visitors ever since.
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 Leech Lake, Minnesota's third-largest. Classic lakeside family-run resorts can be found on the shore of Leech Lake and the hundreds of others lakes on the byway.
Winter Activities on the Byway
Whether you seek the triumph of a good fish tale or the thrill of snowmobiling, there is plenty to enjoy along the byway in winter. Or, do nothing at all. Curl up in front of a fire and embrace hygge as you watch the snow softly fall across Lake Country.
Grab a set of Nordic skis to glide along groomed trails that wind through Itasca's deep-green forest and across blankets of brilliant white snow. You also can rent snowshoes and blaze your own way through the woods. On-site modern lodging and kitchens make it easy to nestle in for a relaxing winter weekend.
Heading east toward Walker, the Lake Country Scenic Byway winds into the Chippewa National Forest. Its hilly Shingobee recreational area, thick with tamarack and pine trees, is a favorite destination for cross-country skiers. Its steepest hill was a downhill ski run half a century ago and is now one of the state's biggest sledding hills. An historic warming house is a good place to rest before making the steep climb back to the top.
If you're in the mood for dining and shopping, head south to Park Rapids, the byway's midpoint and a good hub. You don't even need a car. Snowmobile trails thread through the Itasca and the entire Lake Country Area.
For many decades, ice anglers and others in search of a good time have converged on Walker for fun on the ice. While it's best known for an ugly bottom-dwelling fish called eelpout, Leech Lake is more than burbot. The walleye population is as strong as ever on Leech, and there's plenty of big perch, too.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.
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