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Brainerd Lakes area/Mississippi headwaters, Minnesota

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • A raindrop falling into Lake Itasca arrives at the Mississippi Delta 90 days later.
  • At its headwaters, the Mississippi River moves roughly 1.2 miles an hour, about a third as fast as a walking human.
  • More than 50 cities rely on the Mississippi for their daily water supply.
  • In four hours, 100 volunteers can drill 20,000 holes for the Brainerd ice fishing competition.
  • The Mississippi River, at its start, is 1,475 feet above sea level.

An angler’s dream

The state that calls itself the Land of 10,000 Lakes is also where the Mississippi — North America’s longest river — gets its start. The river originates at Itasca in north central Minnesota, after which it flows north through its first riverside city Bemidji and travels east through the Leech Lake Indian Reservation before finding its true southward course en route to the Gulf of Mexico.

The river path extends for 680 miles in Minnesota, and it covers more than half that mileage before reaching the state’s midpoint, the town of Brainerd.

As for all those lakes, the river passes through some, is fed by others and is otherwise surrounded by them. Three of the state’s eight largest lakes, Cass, Leech and Winnibigoshish, are within the Indian reservation and surrounded by the Chippewa National Forest (the forest overlaps with a large chunk of the 865,000-acre reservation).
These lakes and the forest are established recreation areas with opportunities for fishing, swimming, water sports, biking and hiking; accommodations range from campgrounds to resorts.

The region to the south is marketed as a single tourist destination, the Brainerd Lakes area, encompassing some 465 lakes — including the state’s second-largest lake, Mille Lacs Lake, and the Mississippi. The Brainerd area offers a suitably well-developed infrastructure for accommodations, eateries and entertainment including theater and a casino.

Vacationers may enjoy the lakes at a stately pace, paddling kayaks or paddleboards, or ramp up the adrenalin on wakeboards or waterskis — while fishing and swimming hold their appeal across all personality types. Tourists may canoe down the Mississippi or cycle a trail along its side. When water isn’t front and center, diversions range from auto races and bird-watching to mountain biking and skiing.

But, when all is said and done, fishing is the big thing in these lake regions. Not to say a visitor must fish to have a good time, but the opportunities for fanatic anglers are legion.

Things to do for Venturers

  • At Cuyuna Recreation Area, scuba dive in water-filled historic mine pits and see a standing underwater forest and the variety of fish that have found a home there.
  • Take part in the performance driving school at the Brainerd International Speedway. Go to the races, too.
  • Get ready for three days of rock and country music in early summer at the Lakes Jam Music Fest on the grounds of Brainerd International Raceway, with space for camping.
  • The Brainerd area boasts hundreds of miles of ATV trails. Some choices are the 31-mile Fort Ripley Trail and Ripley Connection and the 19-mile Miller-Black Bear Trail. If an out-of-stater, you’ll need a nonresident trail pass.
  • Attend one of the powwows on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. There are several.
  • Be active at the lakes. Some choices include waterskiing, wakeboarding and windsurfing. Another option: stand-up paddle surfing, a lively version of stand-up paddleboard.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Birding is an option in several parks from the headwaters to the Brainerd Lakes area. At Itasca State Park, birders are urged to help spot and record the birds they see there.
  • Compete in the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza, the world’s largest charitable ice fishing contest with more than 10,000 competitors.
  • Regardless of energy or ambition, there are hiking trails for everyone across the area. As examples, Itasca State Park counts 49 miles of such trails. Also, trails wind through the Crow Wing State Park, Cuyuna Recreational Area and Pillsbury State Forest.
  • There are lakes everywhere. Go fishing in the Lake Brainerd Lakes area, or at Lake Winnibigoshish or Leech Lake in the Chippewa National Forest or at Lake Bemidji.
  • Sample some of the Brainerd Lakes area’s 1,200 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails. In summer, look for the cycling alternatives.
  • Outfit yourself with a canoe, kayak or paddleboard for a quiet float and look-around on one of Brainerd’s smaller lakes or a river, such as the Crow Wing, Gull or Mississippi.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take a sightseer’s cruise on Gull Lake near Brainerd. Also, choose a narrated boat trip in Itasca State Park.
  • Find a beach for relaxation and swimming. Sites range from Lake Bemidji in the north to Mille Lacs Lake east of Brainerd.
  • See a performance at the Stage North Theatre Company in Brainerd.
  • Walk across the Mississippi River — at its starting point in Itasca State Park where the water is shallow.
  • The Brainerd area maintains 16 groomed trails for cross-country skiing. Give them a try.
  • Join the kids at one of Brainerd’s indoor waterparks.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Explore Minnesota at