More than a century ago, Midwesterners from as far away as Kansas City and St. Louis began traveling to Brainerd, Minn., then a railroad hub 130 miles north of Minneapolis, to escape the relentless summer heat. Minnesota’s Lake Country, then largely undeveloped, offered a temperate climate, a picturesque setting and endless possibilities.
Those trailblazers laid the groundwork for what has become one of the finest vacation destinations in the Upper Midwest. The Brainerd Lakes region is teeming with amenity-rich resorts. Golf has been a staple here for decades, and the fishing and other watersports are world-class.
Here’s a look at how you might spend three days in the Brainerd area.
Day 1: Start your morning at Madden’s on Gull Lake by playing The Classic, ranked No. 4 on Golfweek’s list of Minnesota public courses. The Classic opened in 1996, but true to its name, it feels as if it has been there for a century. But it presents modern-day challenges: forced carries, slick greens and some tight, tree-lined fairways.
Gull Lake is one of the region’s biggest attractions, and Madden’s marina offers every conceivable means to experience it. You can rent a boat and enjoy lakeside dining – say, the walleye tacos at Ernie’s or the IPA-braised twin brats at Bar Harbor. Madden’s also has everything you’ll need for waterskiing and tubing. Given that one of the region’s best-known personalities answers to the name “Walleye Dan,” you’ll want to drop a line in the water at some point during your stay.
After a busy day on the water, you might want to wind down on one of Madden’s three sand beaches or enjoy a lakeside dinner at Mission Point.
Day 2: In the Brainerd Lakes area, good golf is as prevalent as good fishing holes, with nearly
20 courses from which to choose. Consider starting the second day of your trip with a visit to Madden’s neighbor on the southern end of Gull Lake, Cragun’s Resort, which is home to the two Legacy courses, Dutch’s and Bobby’s. Opinions vary on which of these Robert Trent Jones Jr. designs is the better test, but neither will disappoint.
After golf, consider spending the afternoon hiking or biking on the Paul Bunyan Trail, a 120-mile paved path. If you’d prefer a more leisurely afternoon, Cragun’s beach is never a bad option.
Day 3: Make the short drive north to Breezy Point Resort for a round at Deacon’s Lodge, a visually stunning Arnold Palmer design that Golfweek ranks No. 3 in the state. The first hole – a dogleg right with a fairway sloped toward a hazard – is a good harbinger of what to expect. There are constant elevation changes, and while the fairways are relatively generous, the dramatic contours place a premium on accuracy. There are a number of memorable holes: the second shot down the hill on No. 5, with Lynch Lake to your right; the difficult par-4 seventh, which wraps around wetlands; and the all-carry par 3 17th with Douglas Lake in the background.
After golf, you’ll have a number of recreation options from which to choose. Breezy Point Resort sits on Pelican Lake, and all manner of motorized and non-motorized watercraft are available for rental. Another option: Drive down to Crosby, an old mining town that has been resurrected over the past decade thanks to the popularity of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails. If you’d prefer a more leisurely afternoon, Crosby also bills itself as the “Antique Capital of the Lakes Area,” with more than a half dozen shops lining Main Street.