Brainerd, one of the largest cities in Central Minnesota, straddles the Mississippi River and, with 450 area waterways, offers easy access to year-round adventures.
The adorable small towns surrounding Brainerd focus their tourism on cycling in the summer and snow sports like cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and especially ice fishing in the winter. The Gull Lake ice fishing tournament, for example, is the largest in the world, allowing 15,000 anglers to drill holes and fish across its 9,947 acres.
These small towns offer artisan shopping, old-fashioned hometown charm, and welcoming people who make you glad to visit.
CBS affiliate WCCO named Nisswa 2018’s Best Small Town in Minnesota. Nisswa, the activity hub of the Brainerd Lakes region, has a population of 1,817. This soars by thousands in the summer.
Nisswa, founded in 1900 under the name “Smiley Township,” was renamed in 1908, from the Ojibwe word nessawae, meaning “in the middle” or “three.” Apropos, as Nisswa likes to be in the middle of it all.
Stop for the turtle races every summer Wednesday and stay for the history and local restaurants.
Cross the highway through the well-lit underpass and visit a peaceful lakeside park complete with lecture space, bike rack, and gazebo. Follow the path down to the small harbor dock, pass the American flag and bench, or sit a spell.
Visit in August for the annual Viking Festival. Participate in Norwegian-themed activities throughout the year. Return for one of the best Christmas light displays in the country.
Pro Tip: Taste the best scones in the world, perfected by owners Mike and Julie French, at the Stonehouse Coffee & Roastery.
2. Breezy Point
Once owned by Captain Billy Fawcett of Whiz Bang comics, this resort town has hosted famous Hollywood celebrities including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
Many first-timers to the area stay at the resort on Pelican Lake to boat, camp, or golf. Golf Digest ranks the Deacon’s Lodge, Grand View Lodge’s Pines, and the Preserve golf courses among the top golf destinations in the world.
While farming and logging have existed in this region since the 1700s, mining in the Cuyuna Iron Range began in the late 1800s. The resulting landscape led to both natural and pit lakes that lend themselves to hiking, diving, camping, and biking trails.
The 800 acres traversed by the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails are among the state’s finest. The system includes more than 30 “purpose-built trails with breathtaking rides and overlooks challenge riders.”
Sadly, the worst mining accident in Minnesota history occurred here in Crosby at the Milford Mine, when a mine shaft collapsed and flooded, killing 41 miners. While you’re in the area, visit Milford Mine Memorial Park. The memorial is a peaceful walk with the miners’ names on steps across the bridge.
4. Little Falls
Little Falls developed at the Mississippi’s waterfalls. With two claims to fame — the boyhood home of aviator Charles Lindbergh and Camp Ripley — there’s something for everyone in this adorable town.
Charles Lindbergh’s childhood home has been preserved and opens for tours.
Camp Ripley allows visitors with valid driver’s licenses into the Minnesota Military Museum. Its mission to preserve the contributions of Minnesotans who served in times of peace and war helps the public understand how “armed conflicts and military institutions have shaped Minnesota’s state and national experience.”
To commemorate the WWI Centennial, a 30-foot mural featuring 100 individuals who helped shape modern America is on permanent display in the museum’s library.
When you see the dam with flowers in bloom, it’s easy to see why this is a favorite wedding destination. And in the summertime, come for the outdoor movie held in the park to the right.
6. Pequot Lakes
Pequot Lakes is one of the most picturesque, adorable small towns near Brainerd. The historical society created extensive displays on the lower level of the Cole Memorial Building, and Paul Bunyan folklore runs rampant here. Legend has it that Paul Bunyan rested his fishing bobber on the Pequot Lakes water tower and would keep an eye on it while resting in his oversized chair. The Paul Bunyan Trail, which runs right through downtown, may not be quite as long as the tall tales or the fish tales that come from the area!
With a proper county courthouse, Aitkin will remind you of many middle America towns of yesteryear.
Their festivals, including the Aitkin Airport Fly-In, founded by Jackie Hakes in 1992, breathed new life into the airfield. A stroll around the hangars reveals several antique planes, a few Cessnas, Pipers, and even a helicopter.
Park near the steamboat in town and explore the playground, just a short walk from the Mississippi River. With Riverboat Heritage Days the first week of August, you’ll see why Aitkin is called a Historic Mississippi Riverboat Town.
8. Pine River
This small town, population 911, along the banks of the Pine River, a state-designated canoe route, has a history more befitting the Wild West.
Originally inhabited by Dakota Indians, the Ojibwa moved in during the early 1700s. The fur traders simultaneously recognized the plethora of fur-bearing animals in the area and opened Red River routes between St. Paul and Winnipeg.
In 1878, George and Amarilla Barclay started operating Barclay’s Trading Post. The couple is credited with founding Pine River as a fur trading and logging community. George later served as postmaster and opened a hotel in town. In 1898, George Barclay was shot through a window of his hotel. Multiple arrests were made, but his murderer was never found.
Today, Pine River welcomes guests via the Pine River Visitor Information Center, which has one of Minnesota’s uniquely decorated statues of Babe the Blue Ox, and a historic train car at the Pine River depot.
Visit the Pine River Dam on Fridays when you can “rent” a duck for $1 and race it down the river for various prizes. For nearly an hour, race after race of ducks wafts down the river to a bend where volunteers collect them for the next race.
9. Fifty Lakes
Since Minnesota has more than 10,000 lakes, it’s no surprise that much of rural Minnesota life occurs around lakes.
This tiny town, population approximately 400, enjoys the cross traffic and created 50 Lakes Fun Days to welcome locals and tourists alike into a combination farmers market and festival with live music, bingo, and mega meat raffles. Summer activities in Fifty Lakes include birding, biking, hiking, walking, and boating.
Baxter, the second-largest city in the Brainerd Lakes Region, is just north of the geographic center of Minnesota. Tourism is one of the leading businesses in the region, with a heavy emphasis on cycling during the summer and ice fishing and snowmobiling in winter.
Pro Tip: While locals visit Baxter most often for big box store shopping, tourists most enjoy cycling or fishing, catching walleye, northern pike, large-mouth bass, sunfish, or crappies in the local lakes.
Pro Tips: More On Brainerd
Brainerd, declared a city on March 6, 1873, developed for the Northern Pacific Railroad to exploit lumber and iron deposits as well as to complete Abraham Lincoln’s directive for a cross country rail line to Tacoma, Washington. Today, the city provides much to see.
For historic walks, follow the blue signs with QR codes for self-guided tours across 1.4 miles of downtown. Learn about the first concrete poured water tower, the Brainerd Sheriff Museum and Home, and the Baby Face Nelson robbery of 1933. Ultimately, the bank robbers stole $32,000 from the bank. Read more about the robbery in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch.
The murals on Brainerd’s buildings, though some are faded, make great backdrops for group photos or selfies.
The summertime Brainerd Lakes Area Musical Festival is the seventh-largest music festival in the world, with musicians coming from around the globe.
But for real fast action, you’ll want to visit the Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) with drag racing and superbike racing and the annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, which bring the “best drag racers and the fastest cars, to the world-renown BIR track.”