Autumn in the Brainerd Lakes
In fall, this lake-resort area is a hideaway in plain sight.
It was a warm, sunny fall day in the heart of Minnesota. The woods were aglow with color, and there were many ways to wallow in it — on trails for hiking, paved paths for biking, lakes for boating.
But something was missing. Where were all the people?
Apparently, they were on the North Shore, fighting for space amid crowds that arrive as reliably as spawning salmon.
In Minnesota, we tend to get into ruts. We go to the lake in summer, but in fall, we head mainly to the North Shore and the Mississippi and St. Croix river valleys.
Those places are very nice, of course. But so are those most packed in summer — the Brainerd lakes, for example.
In fall, there's a hint of melancholy in lakes country; the faint echos of children's laughter and water-ski boats seem to hang in the air. But autumn colors are vibrant in the hardwood forests, and there's lots to do when the air is crisp.
Best of all, there are no crowds, and it's not hard to find a place to stay, even at the last minute.
One year, I spent the first weekend of October in the Brainerd lakes area, which is misleadingly named because few tourists spend time in Brainerd. Golfers and shoppers go to Nisswa, home of the largest resorts.
The best hiking and horseback-riding trails are in state forests — Foot Hills, Pillsbury, Crow Wing.
Bicyclists have the Paul Bunyan State Trail from Baxter and the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail from Crosby.
The 50 miles of mountain-biking trails in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area have turned Crosby into a mountain-biking destination.
Between 1907 and 1977, the Cuyuna Range yielded millions of tons of manganese ore. But aside from a few signs — an old ore cart in a yard, towns named Iron Hub and Ironton — it's hard to tell this was a mining community.
Today, the open pits are shimmering lakes, with 26 miles of thickly wooded shorelines that, unlike the busy lakes to the west, are undeveloped. Some people even compare parts of the area to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Paddlers are discovering the pit lakes, but scuba divers have been frequenting them for decades because the water is so clear.
From Crosby, my friends Judy and Marie and I rode the paved, eight-mile Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, which eventually will extend west to the Paul Bunyan State Trail and east to Aitkin.
It's short but beautiful, winding through a canopy of trees to the shorelines of some of the biggest pit lakes.
Then we headed north, crossing the Mississippi River and skirting Crow Wing State Forest on our way to a stay in Manhattan Beach, an old resort area on the Whitefish Chain.
In the morning, we drove along the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway to Pine River. From there, we drove four miles west to Pine River Riding Stable, a 240-acre ranch on the Pine River.
The sunny fall day called for a trail ride, but Marie was a little worried about handling the big steeds.
Our guide, Bonnie Savey, led us into a forest path cushioned with fallen leaves: "This makes you feel like you're walking the yellow brick road," she said. Then, to Marie's surprise, we crossed the river, and not on a bridge.
But we felt safe on our big mounts — Judy's horse, Hot Shot, a Paint-Shire cross, was more than 18 hands high, or 6 feet.
"You don't have any idea you can fall off that horse, because it's like sitting on a table," she said.
By the time we got back, Marie had lost her fear of horses.
"Thanks for forcing me," she said. Then we spent half an hour at the ranch's petting zoo, which had billy goats, donkeys, geese, potbellied pigs, sheep and emus.
Since we already were almost halfway to the Cut Lake Trail in Foot Hills State Forest, we drove another six miles west on County Road 2.
In fall, the trail system was even prettier than the last time I'd been there, on skis. We took the Bull Moose loop, a wide, grassy path through a rolling landscape of Norway pine, birch and tawny oaks.
Then Marie and Judy headed home. So did I, but I stopped for one last hike at the Northland Arboretum in Baxter, just east of the busy 371 commercial strip.
The arboretum has nearly 20 kilometers of trails, and on the Acorn Trail, I absorbed a last eyeful of fall hues: the fluorescent yellow of aspens, backlit against the blue sky; maples as red as the flocked wallpaper of a supper club; fiddlehead ferns the color of old leather.
When the colors are out and the weather is fair, every minute counts.
Trip Tips: Brainerd Lakes in fall
Getting there: It's about 2½ hours north of the Twin Cities.
Fall-color tours: The 54-mile Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway includes two loops around the Whitefish Chain of lakes, east of Minnesota 371 between Pequot Lakes and Pine River.
Pick up maps at the welcome center on Minnesota 371, eight miles south of Brainerd. The tourism bureau also suggests two other fall-color tours, the 38-mile Gull Lake Tour and 20-mile Round Lake Tour.
Horseback-riding: The Pine River Riding Stable is four miles west of Pine River, 218-587-5807. Another year, I also had a very nice fall ride at Outback Trail Rides in Pillsbury State Forest, 10 miles west of Brainerd. 218-746-3990.
Hiking: The Cut Lake Trail in Foot Hills State Forest, 10 miles west of Pine River on County Road 2, has 10 miles of loops.
Northland Arboretum (near the southern trailhead of the Paul Bunyan State Trail) is a mile east of 371 in Baxter. Turn east onto Excelsior Road (at Mills Fleet Farm) and go almost a mile to Conservation Drive.
Bicycling: The Crosby trailhead of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail is on the north edge of town at Croft Mine Historical Park.
The Paul Bunyan State Trail is 123 miles between the Brainerd area and Bemidji. The 15 miles between Northland Arboretum in Baxter and Nisswa are among the prettiest and most serene.
For more, see Bicycling the Bunyan.
In Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, ride 50 miles of mountain-biking trails. In the winter, 40 miles are groomed for fat-tire biking and snowshoeing.
Accommodations: Many lake resorts, especially those without golf courses, offer special deals after Labor Day. For an extensive list of resorts, see The buzz on Brainerd.
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area rents three yurts, $80, on the west side of Yawkey Mine Lake. They sleep seven and have wood stoves but no electricity.
On the west side of Crosby, True North Basecamp rents cabins, cabin tents and campsites, catering to bikers and paddlers.
Shopping: Nisswa has dozens of shops. For more, see Fast times in Nisswa.
Nightlife: The nonprofit Grassroots Concerts presents a fall series at Nisswa's Community Center.
Information: Brainerd tourism, 800-450-2838.