MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Otter trail country

Giant surprises pop up along a scenic byway in western Minnesota.

A giant otter is Fergus Falls' mascot.

© Beth Gauper

A 22-foot otter lives in Fergus Falls, on Grotto Lake.

Sinclair Lewis was thinking about Otter Tail County when he chided Minnesotans for not knowing about their own "haunts of beauty.''

Few know that Otter Tail County has more lakes than any other county in Minnesota  1,048 or even that it has lakes at all.

It also has the state's densest concentration of giant mascots and roadside sculpture, as well as two state parks, a picture-postcard mill and Inspiration Peak, the state's second-highest point after Eagle Mountain on the North Shore.

The rolling landscape was created by the back-and-forth scraping of glaciers from four ice ages, which left a glacial moraine of kames, piles of sand and gravel dropped by glacial meltwater, and kettles, created when block of ice fell off the glaciers, pressed into the earth, melted and filled up again as ponds and lakes.

It's the kettles the Nobel Prize-winning author saw when he climbed Inspiration Peak, a high kame atop the hilly moraine.

His ode to the view of "a glorious 20-mile circle of some 50 lakes, scattered among fields and pastures like sequins fallen on an old paisley shawl,'' led people to begin calling it Inspiration Peak, and the name stuck.

Today, a short but steep asphalt path leads to the summit, cloaked with prairie wildflowers. From there, fields and woods undulate into the far-off haze; just to the west, the eastern hardwood forest gives way to what once, below the arrival of the plow, was a sea of tall-grass prairie.

Inspiration Peak is a prominent stop on the Otter Trail Scenic Byway, a 150-mile loop that passes the most interesting parts of this big county.

Citizens here think big  big as in a 22-foot otter, a 1,200-pound foot and a 15-foot pelican. Big as in the 23-foot fiberglass warrior who looms over one of the county's many resort towns.

From the peak, the byway heads west, through Dalton, where the threshing days of the early 1900s are re-created the weekend after Labor Day, and to the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, where four miles of nature trails and boardwalks wind through 200 acres of restored grasslands and 38 acres of wetlands.

The center is on the edge of Fergus Falls, where the giant otter crouches alongside Grotto Lake and a tree-lined Riverwalk winds through a pretty downtown that includes A Center for the Arts, a 1921 vaudeville house that now is a venue for music, theater and film.

From Fergus, the route heads east to Phelps Mill Park. Set deep in lake country, it's a captivating place that evokes a nostalgia for a time most of us never knew. Above the dam, on nice summer days, teen-agers swing from a tree into the Otter Tail River; below, families gather to fish.

Inside the 1889 brick and clapboard mill, the video "River of Wheat'' explains that the mill, once the center of a bucolic rural community, was made obsolete by the rise of the huge mills in Minneapolis, and the rails that brought local grain directly to them.

A sculpted cup pouring coffee in Vining.

© Beth Gauper

A steel cup pouring steel coffee is one of the many oddities found in Vining.

The mill closed in 1939, but its grounds host one of the region's most popular festivals, which is held the second weekend in July and features a juried arts and crafts fair, children's activities and music. In the old general store across the street, visitors can buy ice cream and gifts.

To the north, the byway skirts the southern border of Maplewood State Park, a big park with more than 20 kettle lakes amid a series of high hills, created when one glacier rear-ended another and dumped piles of debris.

Stands of basswood, sugar maple and oak here mark the very end of the hardwood forest, and the park's overlooks are a good place to spot fall color.

In Pelican Rapids, a 15-foot concrete pelican stands in the froth from Mill Pond Dam, just off the main street. Early settlers saw pelicans feeding at the original rapids; now, the birds stop at nearby Lake Lida, which the scenic byway passes on its route east.

Perham is the home of turtle races, held on Wednesday mornings in summer.

From there, the byway heads south, around the eastern shore of big Otter Tail Lake and into Battle Lake.

An early resort town frequented by millionaires from Missouri and points west, the village of 700 has become a laid-back hub for the local cottagers and tourists, who can stop in the gift shops that line wide Lake Avenue.

Just north of downtown, the stern, 23-foot-tall Chief Wenonga stands along the shore of West Battle Lake, named for a 1795 battle between the Dakota and Ojibwe, who were badly beaten and renamed the lake Ish-quan-a-de-win-ing, meaning, "where but few survived.''

This area, a coveted hunting ground, was for many years thereafter part of the "war road'' between the rival tribes.

Two miles east of the byway, Glendalough State Park includes six undeveloped lakes, two of them havens for waterfowl. Formerly a private game preserve, it's kept more primitive than most state parks.

To the east, construction foreman Ken Nyberg has turned the tiny village of Vining into a sculpture mecca.

In his spare time, he's furnished the town with a whole set of quirky scrap-metal sculptures: a foot with an oversized big toe, a square knot, a coffee cup poised in mid-air, a 20-foot clothes pin and a pliers gripping a cockroach. There's a more traditional cowboy, too, and an Indian on a horse.

Pelican under a dam.

© Beth Gauper

A concrete pelican stands below a dam in Pelican Rapids.

From Vining, the route dips down to Urbank, and back to Inspiration Peak. From there, it's just a short sprint to I-94  and the real world.

Trip Tips: Otter Trail Scenic Byway

Getting there: From the Twin Cities, Inspiration Peak is the closest point along the 150-mile route. Get off I-94 at the Brandon exit, just west of Alexandria, and head north on Minnesota 7.

If you want to take short cuts or explore off the byway, bring a good map, preferably a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer.

Bicycling: You can see the southern part of Otter Trail country on the paved, 55-mile Central Lakes Trail between Fergus Falls and Osakis; see Bicycling the Central Lakes.

Accommodations: Maplewood State Park rents two unheated camper cabins, $40, and Glendalough State Park rents four cabins, two of them heated, $40-$45. Reserve up to a year in advance at www.stayatmnparks.com.

Near Fergus Falls, guests at Aloft in the Pines has three rooms, one with fireplace and one with double whirlpool. It's on Pickerel Lake, four miles north of Phelps Mill.

Five miles west of Battle Lake, Xanadu Island B&B is a 1920 stone and wood lodge on a seven-acre island, reached by bridge.

Events: Summerfest in Fergus Falls, second weekend of June. Perham Turtle Fest, third weekend in June. Phelps Mill Festival, second weekend in July. Turkey Festival in Pelican Rapids, second weekend in July. Chief Wenonga Days in Battle Lake, last weekend in July. Art in the Park in Pelican Rapids, fourth Saturday in July.

Vining Watermelon Days, third Saturday in August. Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen's Show in Dalton, weekend after Labor Day.

Nightlife: A Center for the Arts in Fergus Falls schedules events most weekends.

Otter Trail Scenic Byway: Call Fergus Falls tourism, 800-726-8959, for a map of the scenic byway.

Last updated on January 21, 2013

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter

Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early — directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.

* indicates required