Top Things to Do in Brainerd Lakes | Midwest Living

Top Things to Do in Brainerd Lakes

The laid-back lakeside life of the Brainerd Lakes region has drawn families for generations. Our trip guide gives tips on what to do, where to eat and where to stay.

It’s the day before the summer solstice, when triumphant rays of orange and red should streak the northern Minnesota sky until well past 10 p.m. But today, clouds thicken over little Lost Lake like cotton batting from an old quilting basket, turning lily pad-flecked water into an inky pool. A loon paddles past, mindless of the whir of fishing reels along the docks at Lost Lake Lodge. The kids holding the fishing rods peer into the water, waiting. A few minutes slip past. The lines tug, and kids shriek. Their parents look on with smiles, remembering their own catches on docks that looked remarkably like this one.

For generations, dozens of resorts in the Brainerd Lakes region have sold moments like these, and families have been eager buyers, joining the Friday afternoon cabin traffic as
it snakes the 130 miles northwest from the Twin Cities. Some land at resorts like Lost Lake Lodge, a quiet escape with a fantastic dining room and simple lakeside cabins decorated with fish-pattern carpet and other Up North decor. Others choose places like golf-friendly Madden’s on Gull Lake or stately Grand View Lodge.

No matter the locale, evenings tend to go something like this: Twilight spills its palette of pinks, purples and blues across the water; boats putter across the lake; bald eagles dive for dinner; and screen doors slam as kids grab the makings for s’mores. The next day, more vacation memories are waiting to be made: at turtle races, beside the Babe the Blue Ox statue and alongside lakes stocked with so many fish, they’ll almost bite bare hooks.

Staffers at Grand View Lodge help guests light a fire for s'mores.

Grand View Lodge


Croft Mine Learn about the Crosby area’s brief iron mining history during self-guided tours of a mine shaft. In the adjacent dry house-turned-museum, exhibits detail a 1924 disaster that killed 41 miners.

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area Once a landscape of mining pits and rock stockpiles, the area now attracts recreation enthusiasts with mountain bike trails and paved bike trails, camping, yurts and lakes with 25 miles of shoreline. In Crosby, rent bikes at Cycle Path.

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area

Fishing Whether you’re a veteran angler or just want to expose a kid to a few hours out on the lake, the region offers thousands of places to go. (Minnesota residents can fish for free in most state parks.) For a guided experience, try Walleye Dan.

Gull Dam Brewing The Nisswa brewery incorporates locally grown hops into many of its IPAs. Stop by the taproom for a Scotch Ale, with a touch of caramel.

Paul Bunyan Land Since 1950, families have come to enjoy the talking Paul Bunyan figure, Babe the Blue Ox statue and amusement rides, like the Tilt-a-Whirl and merry-go-round. This Old Farm Pioneer Village contains 30 buildings dating to the 1800s, including a blacksmith shop and school.

Paul Bunyan Land

Paul Bunyan Land

Paul Bunyan State Trail Bring your bike to explore this 112-mile paved path, or rent one from Trailblazer Bikes (with shops in Nisswa and Brainerd). (218) 963-0699 Though the state’s longest bike path has entry points off of many busy intersections, you only have to pedal a few minutes before you find yourself alone, listening to the wind and the wildlife.

Shopping Nisswa’s downtown concentrates quality shops into a few blocks: The Chocolate Ox for candies and ice cream; Zaiser’s for North Woods gifts, home items and fashion accessories; and Lundrigan’s for clothing.

Turtle Races For more than 50 years in Nisswa, thousands of kids have urged their surprisingly zippy turtles across the finish line with splashes and yells. Register in person.

Nisswa turtle race

Turtle Races


Antlers Restaurant Chandeliers made from mule deer antlers sparkle over surf-and-turf fine-dining at Whitebirch Golf Course in Breezy Point.

The Barn Loose-meat sandwiches, fluffy buttermilk pancakes and slices of homemade pie draw crowds to the Brainerd diner. The Barn Facebook

The Classic Grill Large windows overlook the golf course at Madden’s on Gull Lake resort. Menu standouts: juicy burgers, pork rib chops and a seasonal risotto.

Lost Lake Lodge The dining room is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner; offerings run the gamut from fluffy buttermilk pancakes and a simple but well-prepared burger to exquisite sea scallops and walleye cooked in parchment packets. It’s a good idea to make reservations for dinner.

Northwoods Pub For affordable dining at Grand View Lodge, stop here and try the creamy walleye chowder with sweet corn, bacon and skin-on potatoes; a nicely spiced broiled walleye fillet with tangy remoulade on grilled ciabatta; and crisp, perfectly seasoned fries.

Sherwood Forest Regionally inspired foods, such as beer-battered walleye tacos and bison meatloaf sliders, fit right in with the early 1900s log cabin design in Nisswa.

StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery Enjoy beans roasted in-house and scones made with the Nisswa roastery’s own ground wheat.

Where to stay

Breezy Point Resort The Dockside restaurant has live music, and the double-decker Breezy Belle takes guests out for leisurely lake tours. Lodging ranges from inn rooms to spacious vacation homes.

Cragun’s Resort and Hotel Families band together for karaoke, horse-drawn trolley rides and water-skiing lessons. Most of the 263 cabins and rooms overlook Gull Lake.

Grand View Lodge Expansion plans include a 60-room boutique hotel and a recreation center with indoor-outdoor pool, both due to open in summer 2019. Guests can still enjoy three golf courses, a spa and lake activities such as paddleboard yoga. Lodging choices include cabins, villas and townhomes.

Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort One- to three-bedroom cottages and condos overlook Sylvan Lake. When you’re not at the beach or on the lake, try recreation options such as indoor and outdoor pools, tennis, rental bikes, and hiking trails.

Lost Lake Lodge It’s small—14 cabins—but service is fantastic, and the dining room dishes up creative fare like smoked salmon with ricotta dumplings.

Madden’s on Gull Lake Families prefer lakeside cabins; golfers score rooms facing fairways at this resort perched on its own peninsula. Spend days playing tennis, boating, golfing, trap shooting, biking or jumping off the trampoline in the lake

For more information: Brainerd Lakes Chamber


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