3 Days of Family Adventures in Otter Tail County

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

3 Days of Family Adventures in Otter Tail County

By Cinnamon Janzer

A three-day itinerary of family adventures in central Minnesota's laid back, lake-filled paradise of Otter Tail County.

If you’re planning a trip to Otter Tail County and happen to call their visitors bureau in the process, the specially made jingle you’ll hear on the other end nicely sums up what you should expect during a long weekend there: a warm, sometimes quirky, quintessential small-town Minnesota experience.

Located in west-central Minnesota, Otter Tail is one of the state’s largest counties at over 2,200 square miles, encompassing 21 towns from tiny Vining (pop. 78) to the county seat of Fergus Falls (pop. 13,000). One of the standout features of Otter Tail County is its mesmerizing natural environment. Comprised of rolling prairie lands—and the most lakes in any U.S. county, including the namesake Otter Tail Lake—the county exudes a classic, laid-back Minnesota lakeside vibe.

The best way to explore the region is to pick one place to stay for a few nights and venture out from there. Whether you stay in a yurt at Glendalough State Park, a hotel in Fergus Falls or a B&B in Perham, you’re never more than a hop, skip and a jump away from all of Otter Tail County’s many attractions.

Downtown Perham

Take a stroll through downtown Perham in while exploring central Minnesota / Whiskey Creek Media

Day 1: Explore Charming Small Towns

Start your three-day weekend in Fergus Falls, the county’s biggest small town and a hub for arts and culture. The Center for the Arts focuses on all things performance art, and the Lakes Region Arts Council and Kaddatz Art Galleries specialize in visual art. Next, head over to The Market to scoop up some souvenirs like a pair of classic Minnetonka Moccasins, or fancy soaps and other bath products perfect for pampering. While you’re there, be sure to stop at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center to soak up some knowledge about the 325 acres of prairie wetlands that span the northern Great Plains.

About half an hour east of Fergus Falls, the tiny town of Vining is nearly impossible to miss, despite its small size. Just watch for the giant metal sculptures! This quiet central Minnesota town has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to the massive metal structures at Nyberg Sculpture Park. In addition to a giant metal watermelon—an homage to the town’s annual Watermelon Day, held the third Saturday in August—the park features about 10 other sculptures, include a giant coffee cup, an elephant made entirely out of lawnmower blades and an infamous “big foot” sculpture you need to see to believe.

After traipsing around Fergus Falls and Vining, head over to the town that Smithsonian magazine named one of the “20 Best Small Towns to Visit” in 2018, Perham. First, there are the International Turtle Races that take place every Wednesday morning from June to August. Believe it or not, people come from all over the world to compete. The races kick off alongside Turtle Fest, a series of festivities throughout the month of June that include a half-marathon, street dance, brew fest and a parade.

Of course, there’s plenty to do in Perham all year long, like sipping coffee at Gathering Grounds, a two-story coffee shop housed in a 100-year-old building. Visitors can also peruse the handmade goods sold at Your Porch, which run the gamut from kids toys to health and beauty products and a surprisingly large selection of teas. For dinner, a night in Perham gives you the chance to finally make it to Zorbaz after hearing about it forever. A Minnesota take on a beach bar, Zorbaz is an “up north” favorite for pizza, nachos, burritos and fun summer drinks adorned with plastic bobbers instead of paper umbrellas.

Day 2: Fun on the Water

After spending your first day taking in the towns of Otter Tail County, make day two about spending some time on the water. With 1,048 lakes in the county, your options for aquatic adventure are practically unlimited. For the marquee “Lake Life” experience, head to the biggest among them—the county’s namesake, Otter Tail Lake.

Nearly the entire lake is less than 15 feet deep—ideal conditions for catching smallmouth and largemouth bass—but ardent anglers will also find active populations of walleye, northern pike and crappie. No gear? No problem. Contact one of the region’s many local fishing guides for rod and reel rentals or guided fishing adventures, and leave the work to them.

Looking to get on the water without hiring a guide? Many resorts in the area have boats available for guests, including Barky’s Resort on Otter Tail’s western edge, just up the road from the lake’s public swimming beach. Barky’s is especially notable as one of the few places in Otter Tail County that offers boat rentals to the general public, with jet skis, pontoons and motorboats among the many options.

paddling the Otter Tail River is a unique way to explore the region’s many lakes and ecosystems

For canoers and kayakers, paddling the Otter Tail River is a unique way to explore the region’s many lakes and ecosystems. The linear, 30-mile water trail weaves through pine forests, deciduous forests and prairie grasslands and flows through several lakes including Rice, Little and Big Pine, Rush, Deer, Mud and Otter Tail, offering a stunning and picturesque adventure ideal for both families and thrill-seekers.

When it comes to dining, seek out spots with a view of the lake. The patio at Shoreline Restaurant, Bar & Bowl overlooks West Battle Lake, and after watching the sunset, head back inside for a round of cosmic bowling. Overlooking the western shoreline of Otter Tail Lake, you can sip margaritas and play beanbag toss from the large outdoor seating area at Beach Bums Bar & Eatery. Or, for anyone trying to fill up their “pazzport,” you’ll also find Otter Tail County’s second Zorbaz location just down the road.

Biking Central Lakes Trail

The 55-mile Central Lakes State Trail runs beside wildflowers, prairie grass, wetland ponds and wildlife between Fergus Falls and Osakis

Day 3: Take to the Trails

On the final day of your blissful central Minnesota vacation, set aside the life jacket, strap on a helmet and explore the rolling hills and abundant lakes of Otter Tail County from the saddle of your bike.

The Central Lakes State Trail winds through picturesque countryside and communities from Fergus Falls to Osakis. Like other trails built on former railroad lines, Central Lakes is relatively flat and easy to ride—perfect for families and groups of all ages and abilities.

Nearby, the Glendalough Trail serves up a 12-mile loop of easy riding between the town of Battle Lake, along the shore of West Battle Lake, around tranquil Glendalough State Park and back into town. Like much of Otter Tail County, Glendalough is nestled in the transition zone between prairie and hardwood forest, and the trail offers a uniquely serene perspective of the area’s understated and sublime landscape.

Glendalough State Park is also a fantastic destination for hiking, with numerous trails that meander around the park’s lakes, and through its hardwood forest and wild prairie. Altogether, you’ll find 9 miles of hiking trails in the park, including two interpretive nature trails. If you’ve only got time for one, try the brief but dazzling 3.3-mile hike around Annie Battle Lake.

hikers north country national scenic trail elevated trail

Hikers on elevated trail on North Country National Scenic Trail / Marcus Schaffer

For something more ambitious, the North Country National Scenic Trail is an absolute gem. The entire trail spans 4,600 miles between North Dakota and Vermont, with 800 of its best miles in Minnesota. The trail’s path through Minnesota slices right through Otter Tail County, with easily accessible trailheads in Maplewood State Park and Fergus Falls.

Playing a round at one of the 10 (yes, 10!) golf courses in the county is another excellent outdoor activity. For those who prefer driving on the road more than the range, a cruise along the 150-mile Otter Trail Scenic Byway is another great way to take in the scenery before heading home after a relaxing yet adventurous weekend in Otter Tail County.

Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis who writes broadly about culture, business and travel. Her words have been published in National Geographic, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Eater and USA Today.