Brainerd Lakes in winter

When this Minnesota resort area slows down, it's time to take to the forest.

Hoarfrost in Pequot Lakes.
Hoarfrost covers branches near the old train depot in Pequot Lakes.

In winter, the famous Brainerd Lakes freeze over, ice houses replace pontoon boats and skiers and snowmobilers ply the forests.

There's a lot to do. But in winter, many tourists forget about Brainerd.

That makes it a good time to find a deal. We got one and didn't feel too deprived by the lack of snow.

We hiked under bright-blue skies in a frosted forest, crossing bogs and watching for wildlife. And because we had time, we finally discovered something we'd bypassed dozens of times.

The first time we got a winter deal in the Brainerd area, it was at Cragun's. Our kids were little, so we signed up for one of the big resort's family weekends, which included sleigh rides, bonfires and poolside games.

The area has become even more kid-friendly since then, with small indoor water-parks opening at hotels and tubing at Ski Gull.

Now that we're empty-nesters, we wanted to be out in the forest, snow or no snow.

First, we checked in at Good Ol' Days, a handsome resort on Lower Cullen Lake and the Paul Bunyan State Trail. From there, it's less than a mile to downtown Nisswa, where we had pizza and beer at friendly Rafferty's.

In the morning, it looked as if snow had fallen — into the trees, anyway. Like pixie dust, hoarfrost turns everything it touches into fairy land, and we marveled at the glittering landscape as we drove to Pequot Lakes.

Heading east from its trailside depot, we stopped at the first marked site on the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, a steel fire tower atop a hill.

On a colorful kiosk, "Paul" tells how the tower came to be: Frustrated by winter's short days, the hard-working lumberjack got Ole the blacksmith to make a giant torch. Then Paul and Babe the Blue Ox went to Wisconsin, where giant bees helped them roll up a giant ball of wax.

They put the wax atop the torch and voila! A giant candle that lighted the forest, allowing Paul to work into the evening.

Winter hiking near Crosslake.
Boardwalks hug the edges of ponds in Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area.

It was a corker of a tale. "Who comes up with this stuff?" my appreciative husband wondered.

Crosslake was holding WinterFest, and we passed the ice-car races as we drove to Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area, where we were surprised to see skiers braving the lumpy trails.

"It's not bad at all; we just went to the quiet place and back," said Paula Schaub of nearby Ideal Corners, out with her grandson. She also gave us a rundown of other good ski trails.

"Cut Lake near Pine River is the good one, and Breezy Point — it's kind of the prairie there on the golf course, but it's pretty."

The Quiet Place turned out to be a real place, a circle of benches overlooking a pond bisected by two sets of meandering animal tracks. The 110-acre preserve has two ponds, both edged by boardwalk.

One was called the Tadpole Walkway, and we could see the little mites squirting through the dark water. On the other, we spotted a bald eagle circling overhead, though it soon was blasted away by the helicopter offering rides during WinterFest.

We walked another boardwalk on the Veterans Trail, farther down County Road 16 near Upper Hay Lake. Interpretive markers on the Island Loop explained that we were walking through shrub swamp, evolving from wetland into forest.

A snowman sat on a bench at the edge of golden meadow, and a tiny one sat in the middle of the boardwalk, like a cairn.

Both their heads fell off as we passed, but we squashed them back on and climbed up the hill on Whiskey Island for a spectacular view of Hay Creek winding through the swamp.

The Veterans Trail is just 2½ miles from 371, and from there we drove back to Nisswa, where we checked out the sales. There were people in the tiny downtown, but nothing like summer, when resorters flood in for mini-doughnuts, cappuccino and a shopping fix.

Next to the old train depot, the icons painted on Smiley the Nisswa Ox tells what Nisswa is all about: ice cream, turtle races, pizza, fishing, souvenir shops and lakes.

The town was born in 1900 as Smiley Township; Nisswa comes from the Ojibwe word nessawae, meaning "in the middle of three" — three lakes now called Cullen, Clark and Nisswa.

Babe the Blue Ox in Nisswa.
Smiley the Blue Ox stands near Nisswa's old depot.

The bakery was closed for the day, but we returned in the morning to snag an apple fritter. Then we drove back down 371 to Northland Arboretum, which has reliably groomed ski trails.

It's also the southern trailhead of the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and on the way, we saw the beautiful bike bridge that crosses Minnesota 210 and takes bicyclists nine miles farther south to Crow Wing State Park on the Mississippi River.

We'd hiked at the arboretum but never at the state park, so we decided to keep going. It was a revelation — instead of the ordinary trails we'd expected, we found the remnants of a ghost town.

In the 1860s, Old Crow Wing was the home of nearly 700 people plus hotels, saloons and three churches. Before that, it was the home of Ojibwe leaders, including Hole-in-the-Day, then a crossroads for fur traders and ox-cart drivers on the Red River Trail.

The last remaining house belonged to prosperous French-Ojibwe trader Clement Beaulieu, who moved — that is, was moved — to the White Earth reservation in 1868, at age 62. Looking in the windows of the still-stately 1849 house, we could see tree-branch rebar in walls of mud mortar.

A boardwalk lined with interpretive plaques lines the riverfront town site. From there, we hiked on one of the last unaltered stretches of the Red River Trail between Winnipeg and St. Paul.

Old Crow Wing ghost town.
Old Crow Wing now is a ghost town.

Seven noisy trumpeter swans flew overhead, followed by another four. Hidden under slabs of bark, I spotted a camouflaged metal box, one of the official state park geocaches, filled with beaver cards and frog tattoos for kids.

We passed the former Episcopal mission, on a suitably high part of the river banks, then wound around an oxbow of the wide river. In our mind's eye, we could see ourselves paddling down it in a canoe.

Even in the depths of winter, this was one of the most beautiful state parks we'd seen, with trails that hug the Mississippi closer than any others we could think of.

Its ghosts also seem closer. Next time, we won't zip by without a visit.

Trip Tips: Minnesota's Brainerd Lakes in winter

Getting there: It's 2½ hours north of the Twin Cities.

For more about the area in summer, see Summer in the Brainerd Lakes.

Events: First week of January, Breezy Point Ice Fest. End of January, Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza. Beginning of February, WinterFest in Crosslake. Mid-February, Winter Jubilee in Nisswa. March, St. Patrick's Day Parade & Celebration in Crosslake.

Winter deals: The more rooms a resort needs to fill, the better the deals.

On the northern shore of Gull Lake near Nisswa, Grand View Lodge is a 1919 log classic with a spa and a detached indoor pool complex on the beach. Lodgings are in the lodge or a large variety of cottages and townhouses.

On the south shore of Gull Lake, Cragun's has a large indoor pool complex and Sports Centre and offers winter family weekend packages that include buffets, bonfires and entertainment. There's a Saturday-morning camp for kids 4-12.

Down the road from Cragun's, Kavanaugh's Resort on Sylvan Lake has an indoor  pool and cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals.

East of Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake has an indoor pool complex, lighted ice rink, lake bonfires and a nine-hole snow golf course.

Just north of Nisswa, the smaller Good Ol' Days Family Resort on Lower Cullen Lake is right on the Paul Bunyan State Trail and popular with snowmobilers. It has a newly built Arts and Crafts-style lodge and cottages.

Snowshoeing/hiking: Two beautiful areas are along County Road 16; on the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway. The Veterans Trail is just 2.2 miles east of Minnesota 371 just north of Pequot Lakes.

Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area is about three miles east of Ideal Corners, across from Boyd Lodge.

Cross-country skiing: The best bet for groomed trails is Northland Arboretum in Baxter, which has nearly 20 kilometers of easy to moderate trails groomed by the Brainerd Nordic Ski Club.

Nearly 5 kilometers are lighted. Gate/trail fee is $5, and a Minnesota Ski Pass is required.

Between Brainerd and Deerwood, Crow Wing County maintains the 5.6-mile, classic-only Wolf Lake Trail, one of several county-maintained ski trails.

Cattails on a bog near Crosslake.
Cattails line the beaver pond at Uppgaard Wildlife Management Area.

The Cut Lake ski trails in Foothills State Forest west of Pine River are no longer groomed, though they're scenic.

When there's enough snow, the larger resorts groom trails on their golf courses.

Tubing, boarding and skiing: The non-profit, community-owned Mount Ski Gull hill is on the northwest shore of Gull Lake, on County Road 77, seven miles from the Grand View Lodge turn off Minnesota 371.

Many resorts and hotels offer their guests discounts at the hill.

Snowmobiling: There are 1,200 miles of trails, including the Paul Bunyan State Trail to Bemidji, and many businesses rent sleds.

Crow Wing State Park: The park has scenic hiking trails along the Mississippi River that can be skied when there's enough snow. It's across Minnesota 371 from the Brainerd Lakes Welcome Center, nine miles south of Brainerd.

Indoor water parks: There are three small ones in Baxter. The Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes includes the 30,000-square-foot Paul Bunyan Water Park, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites includes the Three Bear Waterpark and Rapid River Lodge has a large waterpark. Check for day-pass availability.

Dining: For a guide, see Dining up north: Brainerd to Nisswa and Dining up north: Pequot to Crosslake.

Paul Bunyan State Trail: The trail starts in Baxter, just east of the junction of Minnesota 371 and 210 (take Excelsior Road, a block north of the intersection, east to Northland Arboretum).

The 15 miles from the arboretum in Baxter to Nisswa are quiet and scenic.

For more, see Bicycling the Bunyan.

Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway: Its 54 miles include two loops east of Pequot Lakes and Pine River. Interesting sites are marked by signs and have information kiosks with Paul Bunyan lore and tall tales.

Information: Brainerd Lakes tourism, 800-450-2838.

Last updated on January 4, 2021

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