Shafts of sunlight waft through through the trees in Itasca State Park

5 Things to Do in Northwest Minnesota

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Shafts of sunlight waft through through the trees in Itasca State Park

5 Things to Do in Northwest Minnesota

By Ashlea Halpern

Home to some of the state’s largest lakes, fairytale forests and the headwaters of the Mississippi, the northwestern corner of Minnesota is a playground for outdoor adventurers. From ATV escapades to world-class fishing, there are countless ways to get on the water and embrace nature — even when it’s 30 below zero.

Here are five ideas to get you started....

Mississippi headwaters, Itasca State Park

The Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park / Kvidt Creative

1. Walk across the historic Mississippi River headwaters 

The mighty Mississippi River can be traced 2,552 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to a humble wilderness stream at Lake Itasca. One of more than 100 lakes in Itasca State Park, the 32,000-acre park has a sandy swimming beach and boat dock perfect for launching canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, all of which you can rent by the hour or day.

After you’ve stepped barefoot across the stones at the headwaters of the Mississippi, check out Preacher’s Grove, a towering thicket of centuries-old red pines, and Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for early Itascan homesteaders. The park also offers a 16-mile paved bike trail and boat excursions aboard the 141-passenger Chester Charles II, whose tours trace the same path taken by Ojibwa interpreter Ozawindib when she led Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to the headwaters in 1832.

Doc's Harbor Inn skate path, Warroad

The skate path at Doc's Harbor Inn / Andrew Fisher

2. Skate the country's longest ice path

Hockeytown U.S.A. made headlines when it introduced the Riverbend Skate Path in 2020. The record-breaking ice track was created when residents living along the Warroad River decided to connect their backyard hockey rinks by plowing a route on the frozen waterway.

By its second season, the trail measured 21 feet wide and 5.2 miles long, establishing it as the longest ice skating trail in the nation. Lined with firepits and Christmas trees, it has become a vibrant seasonal hub for the local community. Warroad volunteers groom and maintain it and even helped construct two warming huts where skaters, sledders and broomballers can pull up for a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

The path is free to use, and skate, ski and snowshoe rentals are available at Doc’s Harbor Inn.

Kids on ATVs and dirt bikes round river drive

Round River Drive Trail winds through a variety of terrain, some of which is perfect for beginning off-road riders. / Dave Halsey

3. Tackle the trails in ATV central

No part of Minnesota is friendlier toward all-terrain vehicles than the one that birthed ATV manufacturers Polaris and Arctic Cat. Here, riders will find a diversity of landscapes, including dense forest, windswept western prairie and fields of wildflowers.

The Bemidji area alone boasts three popular trail systems. The 37-mile Wilton Trails Northwest runs along an abandoned railroad grade and offers an easy entry point for newbie riders. The Round River Drive Trail, by contrast, links 113 miles of epic sand trails in Paul Bunyan State Forest and has enough steep hills and switchbacks to keep OHV enthusiasts on the edge of their seats.

Rumbling along paths in the Fourtown-Grygla Trail System? Remember to cut your engine now and again for a chance at spotting moose, black bear or sandhill cranes.

Captain Tim Wingnut Hill holding a pike on Lake of the Woods

Captain Tim Wingnut Hill holding a pike on Lake of the Woods

4. Fish all year long in the Walleye Capital of the World

Lake of the Woods is so gigantic, it borders two Canadian provinces and the state of Minnesota. Anglers flock here from far and wide to reel in northern pike, jumbo perch, muskies, sauger sturgeon, and walleye, which are so plentiful that they put this area on the map as the Walleye Capital of the World.

The area comprises Lake of the Woods, Rainy River and the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the Lower 48, and has an abundance of public access points and lakeside resorts. Summer is the best time to charter a boat with a downrigger, often with a tasty shore lunch included.

Come winter, Lake of the Woods is also a popular destination for ice fishing, with many resorts providing fish houses so guests can jig in comfort. If you still can’t catch a live one, stop by the 40-foot-tall Willie the Walleye statue in Baudette for a guaranteed trophy photo.

People posing for a picture in the ice palace at Detroit Lakes Polar Fest

Ice palace at Detroit Lakes Polar Fest / Paul Vincent

5. Cut loose at a quirky festival

Minnesotans are a hardy lot, and their winter shenanigans are the stuff of legend: No sub-zero thermometer reading is going to get in their way of a good time. Moorhead’s Frostival stretches for six weeks over January and February and finds locals racing cardboard sleds, doing yoga poses in the snow, and playing kickball and volleyball in knee-deep powder. The annual Polar Fest in Detroit Lakes features a sparkling ice palace, ice-fishing derby, polar plunge and ultra snowmobile rally, while the Yeti Fest in Warroad hosts a toboggan run, hockey puck shoot and candlelit skate race.

The fun rages long after the snow melts, too. The Muskie Days music festival in Nevis celebrates its 70th anniversary this July with more than a dozen musical acts and dancing in the streets. And at the four-day Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival in August, teams of up to 20 paddlers (plus a drummer) take to the water for spirited 200- and 400-meter dragon boat races. The opening ceremony is led by staff and students of Concordia’s Sen Lin Hu Chinese language village; other draws include cultural performances, a 5K race and kids fun run, food trucks galore and a cut-throat cornhole tournament.

Ashlea Halpern

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and a writer for Dwell, New York Magazine, Bon Appétit, AFAR, Airbnb, Midwest Living, Artful Living, and Minnesota Monthly. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.