Prairie potholes

  • Bicycling the Central Lakes

    In western Minnesota, a 55-mile trail is a window onto the natural world.

    Cruising along western Minnesota's Central Lakes Trail, it's tempting to keep a scorecard. Egret, five. Blue herons, seven. Beavers, three. Turtles, two. Loons, three. Pelicans, 20. Giant concrete coots, one. Lots of warblers, hurtling over the trail like guided missiles, and warbler-sized dragonflies. Chipmunks racing the bike across blacktop. Patches of wild rose, and fountain grasses waving their pink heads in the breeze.

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  • Bicycling to Lake Wobegon

    In central Minnesota, cyclists enter a storied land.

    To a bicyclist setting out on the Lake Wobegon Trail, there are few signs that this is a storied landscape. There's a lake surrounded by cattails and frequented by fishermen and canoeists. There's another lake across the road, where teen-agers flirt and toddlers play in the sand. Down the trail, a clump of showy lady slippers pops out of the weeds. A great blue heron rises from a slough with languid flaps. A painted turtle scrapes at the dirt next to the trail, making a nest for its eggs.

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  • Happy days at Maplelag

    Winter is as good as it gets at a friendly cross-country ski resort near Detroit Lakes.

    It was an early January day in western Minnesota. A biting wind was blowing off the prairie, and the mercury was sinking faster than the Titanic. But it didn't matter. I was at Maplelag, where the world is my iceberg . . . um, oyster. At Maplelag, no matter how inhospitable the outside world is, the lodge's stained-glass windows turn the wan rays of winter into gleaming golds and apricots. The steam billowing from the giant hot tub creates a dome of warmth amid the tundra. Bottomless cookie jars and baskets of hot fry bread keep guests fat and happy.

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  • Alexandria's enigma

    This resort town, not far from the Twin Cities, has many lakes and one mysterious stone.

    There are many colossal lumberjacks, voyageurs and Indian chiefs scattered around Minnesota, all paying tribute to a colorful past. But there's only one Big Ole. He stands at the end of Alexandria's Broadway Street, 28 feet of glowering Viking, brandishing a spear and clutching a glistening silver shield that reads "Alexandria, Birthplace of America.''

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  • Minnesota's Little Crow lakes

    West of the Twin Cities, the lakes around Sibley State Park make a good beach getaway.

    It's a radical idea, but here goes: In Minnesota, you can go up to the lake by heading west. These lakes not only are out west, they're less than two hours from the Twin Cities, in a pocket of the state many overlook. "It was a secret to me,'' said Michele Stillinger, a former Twin Citian working as a naturalist at Sibley State Park. "I thought I wouldn't find anything out here; I was very surprised.''

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  • Road Trip: Otter Tail County

    Big surprises pop up along a scenic route west of Alexandria.

    In Minnesota's Otter Tail County, everything comes extra-large and in multiples. Few know that this county near the North Dakota border has more lakes than any other in Minnesota — 1,048 — or even that it has lakes at all.

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  • Camping in Kandiyohi

    Not far from the Twin Cities, county parks provide easy access to beach life.

    In Kandiyohi County, it's thanks to the last Ice Age that life's a beach today. Near Willmar, a lobe of the last glacier came to a grinding halt 12,000 years ago, dumping massive blocks of ice that made big dents in the ground. Now, they're lakes, popping up like mirages at the edge of soybean fields, behind screens of ash and cottonwoods. Farther north, they're hidden amid rocky meadows and rolling hillocks full of glacial rubble.

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