America’s healthiest city. Outside Magazine’s best town. The nation’s top city parks. These accolades, along with many others, have been bestowed upon Minnesota in recent years—and for good reason. With more than 4,000 miles of paved bike trails, 11,000 lakes, 500 golf courses and one of the world’s longest rivers starting its journey here, outdoor recreation is in our DNA.
But these activities aren’t just for locals. With equipment rentals, lessons, and plenty of friendly faces willing to show visitors the way, it’s easy to add a bike ride, fishing trip, round of golf or kayaking excursion to your Minnesota vacation.
Two Wheels, Endless Adventures
Minnesota is a biker’s paradise, offering riders every type of terrain from long, paved trails to urban and roadside paths to rugged mountain biking tracks. For these reasons and more, Minnesota is considered one of the best states for biking in the entire country. Some enthusiasts keep riding year-round with the help of special fat tire bikes designed to plow through the snow.
For those looking for a smooth, leisurely ride, major trails like the Root River Trail in the southeast, Casey Jones in the southwest and Paul Bunyan in the heart of the state are popular destinations. Start your trip in one of the trails’ anchor towns, where various lodging properties and local outfitters offer rentals for riders of all ages.
Many of the state’s top biking destinations, including Crosby on the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, Mankato on the Red Jacket and Sakatah Singing Hills trails, and Grand Rapids on the Mesabi Trail, have been designated as Bicycle Friendly Communities for making biking an integral part of the local culture. Visitors to these towns are sure to find plenty of trails, bike racks, and bike-friendly streets and businesses.
If you want to see skyscrapers and city neighborhoods from your bike seat, look no further than Minneapolis and St. Paul. Several trails, notably the Grand Rounds and Midtown Greenway, take riders through the heart of the city and past landmarks including the Stone Arch Bridge, Minnehaha Falls and the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. Bike lanes on major thoroughfares, such as St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, and paths along both banks of the Mississippi River offer postcard-worthy scenery worth braking for.
The Twin Cities make it easy for those without a bike to get on the trails thanks to numerous bike rental shops. Nice Ride, a public bike-sharing system, has over 400 locations throughout Minneapolis, allowing travelers to get from point A to point B without a car.
An entirely different kind of riding, mountain biking is gaining traction throughout the state. Of particular note is the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, one of only a few designated International Mountain Biking Association Ride Centers in the world. This purpose-built trail system in central Minnesota is carved into the rocky landscape, circling lakes and winding over hills, through the woods and across bridges. Trails range from easy to extremely difficult, and visitors can stay overnight at the adjacent campground.
Several areas known for downhill skiing in the winter transform into mountain biking destinations after the snow melts, including the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area in Detroit Lakes, Giants Ridge near Biwabik, Mount Kato in Mankato, and Afton Alps just east of the Twin Cities. Duluth, Winona, and parts of the Chippewa and Superior national forests are also big on mountain biking. Call ahead about bike rentals, and always wear a helmet.
In a state characterized by water, it’s no wonder that fishing is one of our most popular activities. Minnesota boasts the most fishing licenses per capita of any state, more than 162 species and 3.8 million acres of fishing waters, including more than 5,400 fishable lakes and 18,000 miles of fishable rivers and streams.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. For those who fish, spending time on the water, either with friends, family or alone, can be just as rewarding as the number of fish they catch. When someone’s “gone fishin’” in Minnesota, they’re really doing much more than that.
The walleye is the state fish, but big and smallmouth bass, northern pike, muskie, trout, perch and even salmon are also highly sought-after catches. A wide variety of waters of different sizes, temperatures and ecosystems offer a different fishing experience everywhere you go.
Coming to Minnesota without a boat? Resorts and outfitters are happy to set you up with a rental, and can even hook you up with a local guide who will provide all the equipment, lead you to the fish, and even clean and cook whatever you catch. On big lakes like Superior and Lake of the Woods, charter boats are the way to go; on Mille Lacs and a few other lakes, a launch excursion can take dozens of anglers out at once.
In addition to traditional boat fishing, Minnesota also has waters suited to fly fishing, particularly in rivers and streams in southeast Minnesota and on Lake Superior. Kids will love fishing from the dock on virtually any body of water.
Come winter, lakes once teeming with boats transform into villages of ice houses, where anglers drill holes in the ice and wait for the fish to bite. These houses range from basic to downright luxurious, with some equipped with beds, stoves and heaters for a comfortable retreat. Get in touch with resorts and outfitters on major bodies of water to try out this truly unique experience.
There’s a reason why Minnesota is the only state to have hosted all 13 USGA championships, in addition to the Walker, Curtis and Ryder Cup, as well as several other major tournaments. In fact, there are a few reasons, with beautiful natural settings, excellent course conditions and affordability chief among them.
Golfers will find close to 500 courses scattered throughout the state, 90 percent of which are open to the public. Another potential surprise to visitors is the length of Minnesota’s golf season, which can stretch from April to November depending on the weather. Summer is the most popular time to play thanks to the long days and warm air, and fall brings the added bonus of changing colors, smaller crowds and mild temperatures.
The wide variety of places to tee off ranges from city and suburban courses to rugged north woods terrain and sweeping Mississippi River Valley vistas. Some areas, including the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes area, and the North Shore and Iron Range in northeast Minnesota, have large concentrations of courses that draw both serious and casual golfers to their greens.
A handful of Minnesota’s premier courses were designed by the country’s top golf architects, including Robert Trent Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Minnesota’s own golf legend, Tom Lehman. Three are ranked among Golf Digest’s “100 Greatest Public Courses” in America: The Quarry at Giants Ridge (Biwabik), The Wilderness at Fortune Bay (Tower) and The Classic at Madden’s (Brainerd).
While resort courses have the added bonus of on-site lodging and offer stay-and-play packages, virtually every Minnesota course has hotels, resorts or campgrounds nearby. Variations on the sport, including disc golf, foot golf and mini-golf, can often be played on or near the traditional courses.
A Paddler's Paradise
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources maintains 32 designated water trails throughout the state for kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddleboarders. It’s the oldest water trail system in the nation, having started more than 50 years ago and now covering more than 4,500 miles.
These waterways range from quiet, designated wild and scenic stretches of the Mississippi River to whitewater rafting through rocky rapids in northeast Minnesota. Each one rewards paddlers with a distinct personality, and newcomers to the sport or now-and-again adventurers can find outfitters that offer equipment rentals, shuttles, fishing advice, guided outings and classes.
Winding more than 500 miles through the state, the Mississippi River offers many places to enjoy its scenery. The headwaters emerge as a placid, narrow stream in Itasca State Park near Bemidji, then the river widens and reaches a designated wild and scenic stretch near St. Cloud’s Beaver Islands, and continues on to the broad waters of Lake Pepin, with its barges and riverboats in southern Minnesota’s Bluff Country.
Another massive body of water, Lake Superior delivers some of the state’s most dramatic scenery, along with beloved state parks, roaring rivers and water so clear that a calm day can feel like paddling across glass. Resortsand outfitters from the St. Louis River near Duluth to the Pigeon River on the Canadian border can help paddlers pick the best segments and safest conditions.
Other popular water trails include the St. Louis River, with 7 miles of rapids through Jay Cooke State Park on the North Shore of Lake Superior; the St. Croix River, featuring a 200-foot gorge, ice age potholes and scenic rock formations on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border; and the Root River in southeast Minnesota, with calm water ideal for beginners and families.
But rivers aren’t the only places to get out and paddle. The state’s many lakes, including those in the heart of our biggest cities, are filled with people in kayaks, canoes and on paddleboards when the weather’s nice. Local outfitters rent equipment by the hour or day, and lakeside resorts often have watercraft available for guests to use during their stays.
Last but certainly not least, Minnesota is home to the world-renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, named one of National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.” This vast preserve of lakes and woods offers a wilderness experience like no other, with more than 1,500 miles of lakes, rivers and streams accessible only by canoe.
There are no roads, buildings, electricity or souvenir shops here; adventurers are as likely to spot wildlife like moose, deer, beavers and bald eagles as they are fellow humans. Nearly 2,200 designated campsites are scattered throughout the Boundary Waters, available without reservations and featuring little more than a patch of land for your tent and a steel fire grate. Area outfitters can help plan a trip that suits your interests and experience level, and will provide all necessary equipment and permits.
Erica Wacker is a Midwesterner through and through, growing up in Illinois, going to college in Wisconsin, and settling down in Minnesota. She loves to run, travel with her family, and go to concerts to relive her youth.
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