We’ve got you covered with a rundown of everything from low-key cocktails and bold craft beer to all the pristine trails and parks that make the great outdoors truly great….
1. Eat inside the mouth of a muskie at Big Fish Supper Club and Resort.
While it may have earned a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in National Lampoon’s Vacation nearly four decades ago, over the years Big Fish Supper Club fell into a state of extreme disrepair and, in 2009, ended up landing on a list of “Minnesota’s 10 Most Endangered Places.” Lucky for us, Al and Amy Hemme swooped in to restore the roadside attraction a year later. Whether you decide to dine and/or stay here, be sure to swing by for one of the region’s most iconic photo ops.
2. Bathe in the Chippewa National Forest.
Don’t get the wrong idea; forest bathing is more of a mindful metaphor than a suds-optional situation. A revered stress reliever in Japan since the ‘80s, shinrin-yoku has become a popular outdoor pastime in recent years, as more and more people worldwide realized they needed to drop their devices — for an afternoon, at least — and get back in touch with nature. And what better place to dip your proverbial toes than the first National Forest east of the Mississippi and the nearby Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area up north, which features an old-growth pine forest that loggers overlooked in the late 1800s.
3. Toast the 100th anniversaries of Norway Beach Resort and Tianna Country Club.
Also of note near the Chippewa National Forest is Tianna Country Club, which celebrates its centennial this year. Pay extra close attention to its second hole, a well-manicured wonder that was voted the state’s very best by WCCO viewers. Norway Beach Resort is another regional fav that’s aged gracefully since 1922. Owner Jimmy Williams is currently in the midst of renovating its well-reviewed cabins to make them ADA-compliant so “every person young or old [can] be introduced or reintroduced to the beautiful outdoors.”
A recreation area under the same name is also nearby. Stop by its visitor center to check out a historic 1936 building that stands as a tribute to the log-and-stone-splitters who originally built it.
4. Hike, bike or skate the Heartland State Trail.
One of the country’s first rail-to-trail projects runs from Cass Lake to Park Rapids, passing right on by Walker and linking up with the Shingobee Connection Trail for a 25-mile loop that’ll leave you breathless at several points along the way. Most of the Heartland State Trail's multi-use surface is paved, but horseback riders and mountain bikers can also take advantage of the grassy lane between Walker and Park Rapids.
5. Support the second life of Portage Brewing Company.
Minnesota’s entire craft beer community rallied around Portage Brewing Company when its Walker headquarters was destroyed by a devastating fire in early 2019 — enough to help it open a brand new taproom and small-batch facility a year-and-a-half later. Given this one-of-a-kind watering hole's prime location within the Chippewa National Forest and its dedication to dynamic beer like miel-inspired oatmeal porter (Moon Canyon) and malt-heavy Scotch ale (Northern Coast), we can’t think of a better place to take a break from hiking or biking.
6. Search for geocaching spots, well, everywhere.
A quick scan of the Geocachingapp’s massive user-generated maps reveals quite a few hidden treasures along the aforementioned Heartland State Trail stretch that passes through Northwest Minnesota. There are also geocaching stops along the nearby Paul Bunyan State Trail, several different waterways and even Walker itself.
7. Dine lakeside at The Merit.
Trapper’s Landing Lodge prides itself on having a private marina with a marquee restaurant (The Merit) that's one of Leech Lake’s only shoreside food options. Ring in the fishing season with brisket nachos, duck poutine, walleye chowder and a round (or two!) of robust cocktails.
8. Grab a cocktail and some groceries at Green Scene.
There’s nothing quite like Green Scene's multi-purpose space in Northeast Minnesota. The restaurant side of things shines with wood-fired pizzas and freshly made sandwiches, salads and soups, along with a full bar menu and creative, spirit-free cocktails like an herbal blend of Seedlip Garden 108, cucumber, mint, lemon, orange bitters and Topo Chico. Anyone who's in a hurry and looking for a proper shore lunch or elevated picnic essentials should also be able to find everything they need at Green Scene’s market/deli, along with what may be the world’s first wild rice crispy bar.
9. Fuel up for a long day on the water at Walker Bay Coffee Co.
Specialty lattes and a rotating selection of stellar house-made cheesecake (tart lemon undertones have starred alongside cardamom, chokecherries and raspberries in recent months) make Walker Bay Coffee Co. more than just a much-needed source of caffeine (although they certainly excel at that as well). Grab a large cold brew for a jolt that’ll last well into the afternoon.
10. Take a breather at Schoolcraft State Park.
If all the excitement surrounding opening weekend leaves you needing a couple hours alone, save the headwaters shots for another weekend and head straight for the largely overlooked picnic areas and pine tree paths of Schoolcraft State Park. While it’s relatively small, Schoolcraft’s boat area is a perfect launchpad for northern pike and walleye fishing, as well as widescreen views of the Mississippi River.
11. Rack up winnings at the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's gaming properties.
Between the area's two popular casino hotels, Northern Lights and the newly opened Cedar Lakes, there are more than a few ways to run the tables or max out slot machines while you're in the region. And don't forget about Shingobee on the Bay for a laid-back meal or quick beer run; its sports bar/marina offers both in spades. Not to mention a $14 all-you-can-eat fish fry special every Friday night.
12. Soak in the views along not one, but two Scenic Byways.
Wildflower fans may see the first signs of Minnesota's state flower along the Lady Slipper Scenic Byway that runs between Cass Lake and Blackduck and swings past two interpretative sites and the Camp Rabideau National Historic Landmark. The latter is a well-preserved CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp from the 1930s — one of just three that are still standing. (There used to be 2,650 of them.)
Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.
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