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Autumn in the Brainerd Lakes

In fall, this lake-resort area is a hideaway in plain sight.

Fall hiking near Pine River.

© Beth Gauper

Hikers head onto the Bull Moose loop of Cut Lake Trail near Pine River, Minn.

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 easy 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. The Paul Bunyan State Trail starts in Baxter and the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail in Crosby, also the area's antiques capital.

The new Cuyuna Lakes trail is turning Crosby into a bicycling destination, too, and on Saturday morning, I rode on the third annual Tour de Cuyuna.

From Crosby Ironton High School, we headed north on the county roads that circle the Cuyuna Range, which yielded millions of tons of manganese ore between 1907 and 1977.

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.

"A lot of it looks like the BWCA," says Steve Weber, manager of Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, which preserves 5,000 acres of the old mining land.

Near Crosby, the Pennington overlook has a view of mine-pit

© Beth Gauper

Near Crosby, the Pennington overlook in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has a view of mine-pit lakes.

Paddlers are discovering the pit lakes, but scuba divers have been frequenting them for decades.

"They say it's the clearest water between Lake Superior and the Keys," said John Schaubach of the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association.

Today, the county roads once traversed by dump trucks are a joy to bicycle. On the Tour de Cuyuna, we followed a nearly unbroken backdrop of colorful forest, turning off onto country lanes that wound between lakes and reed-lined marshes.

At the first rest stop, I met Judy Sladek and Jeanette Dieterich, who live in Merrifield, on the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and had come over to support the new trail.

"Just because we love to bike, and because it's such a beautiful area," Sladek said. "If a person gets off the main path, it's so gorgeous. You can still find the wild roads."

Heading west toward Deerwood, we rode along Long Lake, whose fiord-like appearance must have attracted Scandinavians; the next lake was named Snoosebox. From Deerwood, we headed south on a pretty loop past Nokay Lake before returning to Crosby and Serpent Lake.

In Crosby, I met my friends Judy and Marie, who take a more leisurely approach to bicycling. After a few hours in the antiques shops, we tried out the 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 Manhattan Beach, an old resort area on the Whitefish Chain. On the shore of Big Trout Lake, the handsome Manhattan Beach Lodge, built in the 1920s and renovated in 1995, is an outpost of comfort.

In the morning, we followed 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.

"They do know if you haven't had a lot of experience, and they're not going to take advantage," guide Patrick Wolfe reassured her. "They're going to take it nice and easy."

Our 16-year-old 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. 

Two bicyclists pedal on the Tour de Cuyuna in fall.

© Beth Gauper

Bicyclists pedal down a country road near Crosby on the annual Tour de Cuyuna.

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.

My horse, Apine, was the boss, however, and I ended up leading our little pack.

"She's the mayor," Savey said. "She's kind of the head honcho of the herd."

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.

"It looks like Old MacDonald's Farm," Marie said, nuzzling a furry gray kitten.

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 and found that Savey and Wolfe and the other guides from the stable already were there, getting ready for a trail ride of their own.

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 2 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 in autumn.

© Beth Gauper

Pine River Riding Stable offers trail rides.

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, now five miles between Crosby and Riverton, 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.

Rentals: In Crosby, Cycle Path & Paddle rents road and mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks and in-line skates, 218-545-4545.

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.

Manhattan Beach Lodge, east of Pine River, has 18 attractive rooms and suites, all with lake views. Weekday stays include continental breakfast.

Dining: For a comprehensive list of great places to eat, see Dining up north: Brainerd to Nisswa and Dining up north: Pequot to Crosslake.

Shopping: Nisswa has dozens of shops. For more, see Fast times in Nisswa.

For antiquing, go to Crosby. For more, see Cuyuna lode.

Nightlife: The nonprofit Grassroots Concerts presents a fall series at Nisswa's Community Center.

Information: Brainerd tourism, 800-450-2838. Crosby area tourism, 218-546-8131.

Last updated on September 19, 2017