Sunrise over Grace Lake in the Boundary Waters

Discover Minnesota's Most Magnificent Lakes

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A colorful sunrise over Grace Lake in the Boundary Waters / Gary Hamer

Discover Minnesota's Most Magnificent Lakes

By Erica Wacker

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes (actual number: 11,842), it's impossible to say which ones are the best. These 12 represent just a handful of the many great places to start your Minnesota lake adventure. Explore them all, then find more fun on the water statewide.

summer kite and lighthouse on lake superior in grand marais

Summer kite flying over Grand Marais lighthouse on Lake Superior

Lake Superior

You'll need to catch your breath after your first glimpse of Lake Superior from Minnesota's North Shore. This magnificent body of water looks like an ocean, living up to its status as the largest freshwater lake in the country, bigger than the other four Great Lakes combined. Start your visit in the vibrant port city of Duluth, where your kids can skip rocks into the water while you watch the freighters pass under the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge. Continue your journey up the shore, and you'll discover the gorgeous scenery and charming lakeside towns that make this 154-mile stretch one of Minnesota's top vacation destinations. 

charter boat lake mille lacs at sunset

Charter boat on Lake Mille Lacs at sunset

Lake Mille Lacs

Stretching as far as the eye can see, this huge lake in the heart of the state is a fisherman's paradise, ranked a top 10 bass lake by Bassmaster and, come winter, one of Minnesota's premier ice fishing destinations. It's also home to a large sandy beach at Father Hennepin State Park, and is one of the few Minnesota lakes that's big enough for launch fishing.

sailboats and skyline on minneapolis chain of lakes

Sailboats and Minneapolis skyline on Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis

Minneapolis Chain of Lakes

Essentially five lakes in one, Bde Maka Ska (pictured), Harriet, Cedar, Brownie and Lake of the Isles offer a taste of the great outdoors in the heart of Minnesota's biggest city. Three of the four are connected and can be paddled as one; in some spots, you can't even tell you're in the city. Biking and running along the shores, dining at the lakeside eateries, and hitting the beaches are popular summer activities, with ice skating and hockey taking over in winter.

float plane over oak island and lake of the woods

A float plane flies over Oak Island in Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods

After Superior, this 950,000-acre lake in far northwest Minnesota is the state's second-largest border lake, known for four seasons of great fishing for walleye, saugers, northerns and other species. In fact, winter fishing is even more popular than summer here, with resorts renting ice houses that have all the amenities of a deluxe cabin out on the frozen lake. Lake of the Woods is also home to the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the continental U.S., which can only be reached by boat or by driving through Canada.

young girl on motorboat on lake vermilion

Young girl learns how to drive an outboard motor for the first time on Lake Vermilion / Courtney Anderson

Lake Vermilion

This large, beautiful lake in northeast Minnesota is rimmed with thick forest and studded with 365 pine-topped islands spread throughout its 37 miles. Largely undeveloped, Vermilion provides a wilderness escape at the peaceful resorts and campgrounds along its shores. It's also a hot spot for fishing and a don't-miss fall color destination.

Woman in red shirt canoeing in the Boundary Waters, surrounded by dense forests and clear blue skies

Accessible primarily by canoe, the Boundary Waters is one of America's most remote and cherished wilderness areas / Paul Vincent

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

A bucket list destination for any adventurer, this federally protected preserve stretches 150 miles along the Canadian border and is home to more than 1,000 bodies of water, with canoes as the primary mode of transportation. The Boundary Waters are a true wilderness; there are no cars, hotels, restaurants, electricity or other modern conveniences. The lakes range from tiny to vast, with portages, hiking trails, abundant wildlife and campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis.

sunset on gull lake

Sunset on Gull Lake / Eric Ward

Gull Lake

The Brainerd Lakes area is a popular vacation destination in central Minnesota, and one of the biggest reasons is its biggest lake. With several resorts along its shores, Gull Lake is a draw for fishermen, families and anyone else looking for some fun on the water. Hop on a jet ski, pontoon, paddleboard or cruise ship, or come for the massive Ice Fishing Extravaganza that takes over the lake every January.

Paddlewheel boat on Lake Pepin

Treat yourself to a scenic cruise of Lake Pepin with a Pearl of the Lake paddlewheel boat tour / Ben Threinen

Lake Pepin

A naturally occurring lake that makes it the widest part of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin's claim to fame is the birthplace of water skiing, with the annual Water Ski Days dedicated to the sport. Take a cruise on the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheeler, book a sailing or fishing charter, or experience the lake by canoe, kayak or paddleboard. In winter, it's a great place to spot nesting bald eagles.

winter kite surfing on lake minnetonka

Winter kite surfing on Lake Minnetonka / Dan Rogness

Lake Minnetonka

Made famous by Prince's movie "Purple Rain," this large lake west of Minneapolis draws crowds seeking summertime fun, from sunbathing to sailing to wakesurfing, a mash-up of wakeboarding and surfing. In winter, it plays host to ice fishing, snowkiting and the Chilly Open, an on-ice golf tournament. It's also one of the first lakes in the state to "ice out," signaling spring is on the horizon.

houseboat on rainy lake at sunset voyageurs national park

Houseboat on Rainy Lake at sunset in Voyageurs National Park / Jim Umhoffer

Rainy Lake

The gateway to Voyageurs National Park, this vast lake on the Canadian border can be explored on guided boat and canoe tours, via personal canoe, kayak or motorboat, or on a houseboat, which serves as transportation and lodging in one. Once frozen, the lake is a haven for ice fishing and snowmobiling, and an ice road is plowed for cars and trucks. Rainy is one of four large (and dozens of smaller) lakes that make up Minnesota's uniquely water-based national park.

Man catching a fish while ice fishing on Leech Lake

Ice fishing on Leech Lake

Leech Lake

Every winter, thousands of people descend on Leech Lake in the small northwest Minnesota town of Walker in search of eelpout, one of the world's ugliest bottom-dwelling fish. The fishing here is good year-round, with walleye, muskie, largemouth bass, perch and bluegill among the popular catches.

dog jumping into ottertail lake at sunset

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

Otter Tail Lake

In a county with more than 1,000 lakes, Otter Tail stands out for its size, depth and popularity. Along the shore you'll find resorts, campgrounds, lakeside dining and golf courses, and expert fishing guides can help you find walleye, bass, panfish and more. The lake has played host to the Governor's Fishing Opener, a Minnesota tradition that's celebrated the beginning of the fishing season for over 70 years.

Erica Wacker

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.