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Experience Lake Life in Central Minnesota

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Sunset on Gull Lake / Eric Ward

Experience Lake Life in Central Minnesota

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

More than 11,000 Minnesota lakes draw people to their shores for all kinds of fun on the water, whether it’s a bright summer day, foggy fall morning or brisk winter weekend. In central Minnesota, these waters meld with every vacation desire, from dreamy naps on the dock and daybreak swims to pontoon parties and full-throttle speedboat or snowmobile thrills.

Big or small, calm or choppy, frozen or flowing, central Minnesota's waters are what "lake life" is all about.

Brainerd Lakes Area

With some of the state’s largest resorts along its shore, Gull Lake in the Brainerd Lakes area ranks among Minnesota’s most storied bodies of water and connects to seven other lakes. Take a two-hour brunch, lunch, dinner or sunset-and-moonlight trip on the 120-passenger Gull Lake Cruises' luxury yacht.

You can also hire a local fishing guide to help score a trophy catch or rent a ski boat for watersports. During the winter, buzz across lakes on snowmobiles or check out the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, one of the world’s largest and most legendary contests with more than 10,000 holes drilled into the ice.

Another option for laid-back cruising is hopping aboard the Breezy Belle paddleboat on nearby Pelican Lake, offered Wednesdays and Sundays in the summer. A weekend bonus: an Elvis impersonator who grooves and croons for guests at the marina or on the water.

In the winter, look for ice hockey, snow tubing, skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing and January’s Ice Fest.

Cabins and beach on a lake from the water

Small, family-run resorts welcome families year after year

Whitefish Chain

Due north of Brainerd, small and medium-sized family-run resorts on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes near Crosslake invite vacationers to spend the day fishing its bays, picnicking or rustic camping on Big Island, seeking high-speed thrills, and hanging out at Moonlit Bay during the annual Antique and Classic Wood Boat Rendezvous.

dog jumping into ottertail lake at sunset

Dog jumping off a dock into Ottertail Lake at sunset / Allie Hoeft

Otter Tail County

Boasting the most lakes in any U.S. county, Otter Tail Country—encompassing Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids, Perham, Wadena and 20 other communities—is a hot spot for water activities. Among the highlights are seven beaches and Otter Tail Lake, one of Minnesota’s 10 largest and deepest lakes. Outfitters such as Lakes Area Paddle Sports rent stand-up paddleboards and kayaks.

Alexandria

Visitors to the Alexandria Lakes area, home to one of America’s best bass lakes, should stop by the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum to learn about the state’s boat industry. Admire Chris-Craft, Larson Boats and handcrafted wooden boats and learn about historic resorts before heading onto the water or digging your toes into the sandy beach at Lake Carlos State Park.

Winter sunset on Lake Mille Lacs ice fishing shack

 Ice fishing shack, Lake Mille Lacs / Jim Hoffman

Mille Lacs

The big Lake Mille Lacs ranks in the top 10 in the country for bass fishing. For a festive experience, try one of the launch boats that can accommodate up to 50 people. Launches include restrooms and guides to find fishing hot spots, bait hooks and clean fish—everything a novice might be squeamish about.

The lake is also Minnesota’s most legendary place to find a posh ice house for overnight stays or to harness winter winds for kiteboarding, a mash-up of windsurfing and snowboarding that’s a thrill to watch.

McGregor

Northeast of Mille Lacs and near the Mississippi River, the McGregor area was part of a historic fur trade route heading northeast to Lake Superior. Today’s visitors can choose from nearly 60 campsites near Big Sandy Lake at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground or lodge at one of the lakeside resorts.

There’s good fishing to be found on both Big Sandy and Lake Minnewawa, and Savanna Portage State Park features four lakes (one allows swimming) and a river. 

Man stand up paddleboarding on the Mississippi River

Stand-up paddleboarding on the Mississippi River near St. Cloud / Lisa Meyers McClintick

St. Cloud

Follow the river back south, and you can literally dive into history with a jump off rock outcroppings into Melrose Deep Seven, a favorite destination within the 684-acre Quarry Park and Nature Preserve in St. Cloud. Spring-fed water stays extra-chilled thanks to the depth in dozens of quarries. A second swimming quarry is a more family-friendly option with a small beach and easier accessibility.

The Mississippi is also a destination here, offering canoe and kayak trips from the Beaver Islands and smallmouth bass fishing.

Willmar Lakes Area

Look for laughs and old-fashioned family fun at New London’s Neer Park in the Willmar Lakes area, where the Little Crow Ski Team performs waterski jumps and acrobatics on most weekends throughout the summer. Just west of town, you can camp and enjoy Andrew Lake Beach at Sibley State Park or hang out at the popular beach on Green Lake in nearby Spicer.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

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.