Whether you wake up at the crack of dawn to get on the lake, sleep in til noon at a Minnesota resort or head into town for a mimosa-filled brunch, our visitors guide will help you find what you're looking for in Bemidji.
From its headwaters at northwest Minnesota’s Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River first wiggles its way north to Bemidji. The first city on the Mississippi River, Bemidji is an #OnlyinMN destination defined by its small town charms and North Woods beauty. The blue water shimmers behind the folksy statues of Paul Bunyan in his red-checked plaid shirt and his trusty sidekick, Babe the Big Blue Ox. Together, they’ve welcomed tourists since 1937.
The city of about 14,440 people, the largest in the region, is home to Bemidji State University, the Paul Bunyan State Trail, Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji Woolen Mills and Concordia Language Villages, and a lively downtown dotted with sculptures. Together, they reflect a passion for the outdoors, Ojibwe heritage, global influences and an artistic spirit.
What to Do
Few things scream “Selfie!” quite like the giant Paul and Babe statues found outside the Bemidji Visitor Center where countless Bemidji vacations begin. Inside the center, an eclectic, comical display of supersized artifacts continues the Paul Bunyan theme: a baby moccasin, rattle, rifle and more. In addition to Paul’s artifacts, the center’s unique Fireplace of States was built with stones from every Minnesota county and every U.S. state.
From the visitor center, it’s just a short walk to the charming streets and storefronts of downtown Bemidji, where you’ll find things to do for everyone in the family.
Young families love the animals and kid-focused exhibits at the Headwaters Science Center. The nearby Beltrami County Historical Society delves into the area’s rich history from its earliest inhabitants and Ojibwe culture to the arrival of fur traders and loggers—and is located inside the historic Great Northern train depot.
Art appreciators can find dozens of conversation-sparking artworks in front of local boutiques, antique and sports shops as part of the Bemidji Downtown Sculpture Walk. Or head to Morell’s Chippewa Trading Post, which specializes in beaded butterflies, porcupine-quill-and-birchbark decor and other indigenous Ojibwe crafts.
Regionally inspired paintings, jewelry, pottery and more can be found at the Miikanan Gallery, which is dedicated to indigenous art and part of the newly expanded Watermark Art Center. The center also organizes the Bemidji First City of Arts Studio Cruise the third weekend in October and the Pine to Prairie Fiber Arts Trail weekend featuring basketry, beadwork and rugs influenced by pioneer, voyageur and indigenous heritage in April.
The Historic Chief Theater plays home to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota’s oldest professional summer stock theater with almost seven decades of comedies and musicals under its belt. The theater also hosts Bemidji Community Theater productions, movies and special events.
Made-in-Bemidji wool blankets, shirts, coats and warm outdoor gear can be found at the almost 100-year-old Bemidji Woolen Mills, which also sells socks, felted footwear, knits, hats and Paul Bunyan souvenirs. Shoppers can sometimes get an impromptu behind-the-scenes tour.
Outside of Town
From Bemidji, it’s about a 25-mile drive south through the woods to Itasca State Park, where the mighty Mississippi begins its journey as a small wilderness stream at Lake Itasca. You can walk across the headwaters by bridge or on stones. Interpretive displays tell the interesting stories of this park’s history, and a variety of naturalist programs are offered. Take a boat excursion on the lake, rent a boat yourself, or rent a bike to enjoy the park’s trail.
About 7 miles north of downtown, Lake Bemidji State Park on the lake’s northern shore offers a beach, boat launch, hiking trails, and a rare 1.25-mile spruce-and-tamarack bog walk. Unique plants and flowers along the bog include magenta dragon’s mouth, water-collecting pitcher plants, insect-eating sundews and the state flower—the pink-and-white showy lady’s slipper orchid. In addition to 95 semi-modern campsites, the park rents four log camper cabins.
People come from across the country to visit Concordia Language Villages, which hosts nationally known language and cultural immersion programs at replicated Finnish, Spanish, French, German and Norwegian villages. Adults can join family weeks or weekends or try adults-only cultural workshops with crafts and global meals.
For a bike ride as legendary as its namesake, be sure to explore the Paul Bunyan State Trail, the longest continuously paved rail-trail in the country. The 115-mile trail begins at Bemidji State Park and extends all the way down to Crow Wing State Park in Brainerd. Whether you ride for a few hours or a few days, the scenic lakeside trail is a true treat for cyclists in Minnesota’s North Woods.
Bemidji Brewing makes a thirst-quenching German blonde beer (among its dozen other styles), walleye po’ boys, smoked lake trout dip and crackers and beer brats—all fittingly casual when you’re fresh off the trails.
With a sweet patio and menu fit for special occasions, Tutto Bene features seasonal Italian fare such as snow crab ravioli, green olive soup, bacon-and-truffled-egg pizza and gelato. Juicy Lucy burgers, pizzas and everything from Thai lettuce wraps to walleye tacos are served up at the casual and popular Bar 209 downtown.
For dessert, head across the street from the visitor center to try a five-flavor sampler at Big River Scoop Ice Cream, which features creative flavors and options from soy ice cream to dairy-free sorbets.
Traditional Minnesota resorts with cabins and lake homes can be found throughout the area and offer direct access to Bemidji’s many lakes, including Big Turtle and Pimushe Lake. A bed-and-breakfast and several nationally known hotel chains on Lake Bemidji also offer picturesque views and easy access to the shore.
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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