The great Minnesota outdoors

Brian Thacker discovers pristine waters and phenomenal hiking in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Paid partnership with Explore Minnesota

The great Minnesota outdoors

Brian Thacker discovers pristine waters and phenomenal hiking in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

The Great Minnesota Outdoors: to listen along to this story, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

I crawled out of my sleeping bag into the crisp morning air, awoken by nature’s alarm clock as adolescent loons wailed in the distance. As the mist lifted off the lake, the sun’s rays crept across the water creating shimmering diamonds in the ripples.

When the loons took a break there was perfect silence. Even our voices seemed out of place here, as my friend and I quietly fired up our camp stove to make coffee. 

We are camped on a small island in the middle of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border. We are in the middle of 1,200 miles of completely untouched, bewitchingly beautiful lakes, rivers and streams—all only accessible by canoe. It’s also probably the most pristine wilderness area in the United States. 

And the reason it’s so pristine and blissfully quiet? Motorized boats are not permitted and there are no buildings, roads, electricity – or souvenir shops. Planes aren’t even allowed to fly over the area. 

Even though it was late summer, by mid-morning the sun was bright and warm. With the wind at our back, we passed a family of turtles sunning themselves on scattered logs. These turtles’ ancestors would have been swimming in these same lakes over 12,000 years ago, sharing this land with woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed cats and 500-pound beavers.

The land feels so ancient that I wouldn’t be surprised to stumble across one of these primitive creatures.

The turtles and loons are the only living things we see that morning. In fact, you are more likely to spot one of the 50 species of critters (including wolves, black bears, bobcats, otters, bald eagles and loons) than you are another human. 

We paddle for most of the morning in silence. Disconnecting from the world is getting harder and harder, but here it’s easy (although you don’t have much choice because in many parts there is no mobile service). As you navigate your way through this seemingly endless chain of waterways, you can’t help but feel a sense of calm.

If lakes and water do that for you, then Minnesota is the place to be. Their license plates read ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’, even though they have undersold themselves somewhat —there are actually 11,842.

In the summer the locals flock to their lakeside cabins to swim, kayak, canoe, paddleboard and water ski (which, not surprisingly with all these lakes, was invented in Minnesota).

A couple of hours west is Voyageurs National Park, where you can stay on the water. Many visitors opt to rent houseboats to cruise through this floating landscape of glacially carved lakes fringed with thick boreal forests.

Time it for autumn, and not only do you get to see trees exploding in brilliant shades of red and gold, but you might also catch Waawaate (the northern lights) as they twirl like green and yellow ribbons across the night sky.

Minnesota also has one very big lake. Lake Superior is the most expansive body of fresh water by area in the world and, as you stand on the shore, the lake disappears into the horizon and feels more like the ocean. Tracing along the rocky ridgeline of the lake, all the way from Wisconsin to the border of Canada, is the 300-mile Superior Hiking Trail.

I feel more like an inferior hiker, as I trek only a few miles of the track. But even on my abbreviated hike, the vistas are plentiful and rewarding – rushing rivers, deep gorges, crystal clear lakes, rocky outcrops, waterfalls and frequent overlooks of Lake Superior.

The sound changed, too—from a quiet woodland thrum to thundering waterfalls, to the gentle crashing of waves against time-worn rocks flanking the lake below. 

While I hike, playful squirrels cavorted in the trees and a doe with her perfectly Bambi-esque fawn eye me before dancing off into the forest. Stopping at a bluff, I look up to see a bald eagle soaring high above me. (I did also get to see a bald eagle up close, but that was while I was driving back to my lodge: the giant bird stood on the side of the road, gleefully tearing up some roadkill.)

The shores of Lake Superior are dotted with cabins and historic lodges. Some are positioned just a few steps away from the water (at night, the crashing waves sounded like they were lapping up against the foot of my bed). Others, such as the charming 1930s-style Cascade Lodge, boast access to the Superior Hiking Trail just a few hundred metres from your room.

Nature and outdoor pursuits are never far away in Minnesota. In the state’s largest city (or two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul) you can circumnavigate the city on a bike on the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, a 51-mile off-street urban loop that sweeps its way through parks, hugs lakes and edges past the shores of the Mississippi River.

I tackle the route with some local friends – who also know all the great places to refuel along the way. Our urban adventure comes with Clam Fries at Sea Salt restaurant overlooking Minnehaha Falls and a Pragmatic Pils at Pryes Brewing on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Highlights abound as our first leg cruises along the Chain of Lakes. We are joined by throngs of locals cycling, running, roller skiing (cross-country skis on wheels) and rollerblading (also invented in Minnesota).

The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is not a race, and we take our time to take in the multitude of sights along the way from the trendy North Loop converted warehouses to winding paths through Theodore Wirth Park, the city’s largest park.

We end our urban biking adventure sitting on a wide sandy beach at Lake Nokomis. On this warm summer’s day, the lake is awash with active locals out on the water. In Minnesota, adventurous pursuits are just a way of life.

Need to know

Getting there

International flights serve the Minneapolis St Paul International Airport; the light-rail transit (LRT) connects to downtown Minneapolis.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area is approximately a 5-hour and 30-minute drive from Minneapolis.

There are various trailheads for the Superior Hiking Trail. Purchase a guidebook for more information on each trail.

Rainy Lake Visitor Centre (for Voyageurs National Park) is approximately a 5-hour drive from Minneapolis.

Best time to go:

Unless you love lots of snow and cold, summer is the best time to visit. From June to August, daily highs flutter around 30º degrees.

Fall is also a magical time to hike the Superior Hiking Trail with the forest blanketed in a sea of red, orange and yellow leaves.

Where to stay/eat:

Stay at the Four Seasons (245 Hennepin Ave) where you can dine at Mara Mediterranean Restaurant, run by Gavin Kaysen.

Cascade Lodge offers a rustic and cosy retreat, providing guests with comfortable accommodations, breathtaking views, and easy access to outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and exploring nearby state parks.

Must-pack items:

If you do visit in the summer, you are never far away from one of those lakes, so bring some mosquito repellent. The locals jokingly refer to mosquitos as the State Bird.

How to do it:

Hire a car to explore Minnesota at your own pace. Alternatively, book a tour through America as you like it.

Click here to navigate to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness location.

Click here to navigate to the Voyageurs National Park visitor centre.

Anything else:

If you want indoor exercise check out all 520 stores at the largest mall in America (called… Mall of America). There’s even a huge amusement park smack in the middle of it.

The Rainy Lake Visitor Center telephone number: (218) 286-5258.

FEATURED TOUR:

Land of 10,000 Lakes | Discover the best of Minnesota on this 14-night fly-drive holiday with America as you like it.

Explore Minnesota with this comprehensive tour of the state. Includes visits to the Twin Cities, Duluth, Lutsen, International Falls, Voyagers National Park, Bemidji, St Cloud, Pipestone, Rochester and Bloomington.

Price: £1,935 per person. Find out more.

More information

This article on the great Minnesota outdoors was brought to you in partnership with Explore Minnesota. Go to exploreminnesota.com for more details, suggested itineraries and booking.


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