Tucked into a state forest north of Park Rapids, Two Inlets Lake plays a starring role in summer vacation memories for generations of northwest Minnesota vacationers. A trio of resorts lines its shores, all small and family run. They offer warm welcomes and inspire loyal guests to return the same week, year after year, as they get to know fellow vacationers.
“This place is all about connections and relationship-building,” says Joanna Wallenderg, who runs Brookside Resort with her brother Jamie and their young families. They’ve taken over the traditions started by their parents, from a pool party and competitive games to Thursday night silliness when a cape-wearing “Captain Bingo” climbs onto the lodge roof and saves the day.
While destinations such as the North Shore and Brainerd Lakes area draw urban and luxury travelers with sizable and sleek resorts, northwest Minnesota getaways tend to include small resorts near small towns or on remote lakes. The mom-and-pop operations often follow a longtime tradition of renting cabins by the week and might be welcoming a second, third or fourth generation of guests.
Kids at Brookside take their first water ski lessons, race minnows and clamor for a “bait sundae” in the lodge—ice cream loaded with crushed cookie “dirt” and wiggly gummy worms.
At Detroit Lakes’ Fair Hills Resort, music fills the lodge Tuesday nights when guests gather to sing, dance and perform in the “Hootenanny and Smorgasbord,” a more than 50-year-old summer tradition.
Beyond the resorts themselves, northwest Minnesota’s small towns, such as Thief River Falls, Nevis, Longville, Crookston and others, offer their own personalities, longtime traditions and old-fashioned fun.
Detroit Lakes draws birders to spot hundreds of birds drawn to meadows, wetlands and northern forests at the annual spring Festival of Birds and the 200-mile Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, which connects wildlife refuges and other parks and forests. Music lovers head to the Historic Holmes Theatre or City Park band shell for laid-back concerts, and 50 giant sunfish painted in whimsical themes dot the town and keep kids searching to spot more.
To the east, the buzz of chainsaws reverberates through Park Rapids as it celebrates forestry heritage at its Legends and Logging Days. Rapid River Logging Camp, tucked into the forest north of town, has been serving family-style flapjacks and dinner every summer since the 1950s. Visitors can find an ice cream fountain, movie theater and Ben Franklin on Park Rapids’ main street year-round.
In Walker, the elegantly restored, historic Chase on the Lake hotel offers diners a stellar lakeside view of Leech Lake, one of the largest lakes in Minnesota. Like Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids and other quintessential Minnesota resort towns, Walker has bait and outdoor stores, T-shirt shops and boutiques, homey cafes, and candy shops or bakeries that send sweet aromas wafting into the street.
Craving a good selfie? Crawl into Paul Bunyan’s ginormous hand in Akeley or pose with the giant and his beloved Babe the Big Blue Ox on the shores of Lake Bemidji. Heading north, the supersized statue of Willie the Walleye looms near Baudette on the massive Lake of the Woods, which celebrates Willie Walleye Days each June.
A drive in any direction takes travelers to the events that stitch together summer vacations: rodeos, pow-wows, turtle and pig races, county fairs and hometown festivals with parades, flea markets, carnival rides, and all manner of foods-on-a-stick.
But while events might entice families for a day or two, most days are spent on the lakes—trolling for fish, cannonballing off rafts, learning to swim and enjoying the timeless need to unwind, kick back and recharge while sounds of happy shrieks, slapping waves and the laughing call of loons fill the air.
Find more fun in northwest Minnesota, including places to stay, things to do, restaurants and more.