A loon bobbles to the surface of Gull Lake while a boat grumbles awake and trolls across a nearby bay, leaving a “V” in waters gilded by the sun still hugging the horizon.
It’s the start of another promising day in one of Minnesota’s summer hubs — a day filled with sunscreen and sweat, sticky ice cream and frothy beer, dreamy dockside reading with toes in the water and the welcome weariness from a full day of wakeboarding or fishing, paddling or cruising.
Minnesotans head north like it’s part of their genetic coding, and perhaps by now it is. We first began flocking to the Brainerd Lakes Area after embracing cars in the 1920s and dusting off from the Great Depression in the mid-1930s.
We still do, and for the same reason: to seek a slice of summer paradise on lakes ringed by forests.
Boyd Lodge in Crosslake continues to draw new generations of the same families. Its vehicles are faster, the boats are more powerful and many come toting electronics, said Mike Schwieters, Boyd’s third-generation owner. But, he added, “There’s still the allure of going to the lake and spending the time together.”
Some of the mom-and-pop resorts that once lined the 500 or so lakes in the Brainerd area have disappeared, but vacationers still have a mind-boggling array of lodging choices.
Madden’s on Gull Lake
Want to let everyone in the family loose until the suitcases overflow with sandy clothes? Madden’s Resort, ideal for multiple generations, might be your place. Known for its timeless throwback feel, the Brainerd resort serves up an all-you-can-do buffet of activities that could be tough to cram into a week.
Tweens wander to ice cream shops and climb into a Paul Bunyan-sized Adirondack chair for goofy photo ops. Teens launch one another from water toys and shriek through wakeboarding lessons. Parents relax in the lakeside spa, go paddling or challenge one another with 63 holes of golf while kids ages 4 to 12 are at the Adventure Cove day camp. Grandparents help younger kids learn to lawn bowl and bait a fishing hook or grab a book for the beach or pool.
The resort, celebrating its 85th year, sprawls across 1,500 acres and covers a peninsula that juts into the south end of Gull Lake between Wilson Bay and Steamboat Bay. It feels big enough to be a stand-alone village after consolidating what were once several resorts. There are 287 units of lodging with a variety of styles, from historic hotel rooms at Madden’s Inn and newly remodeled Sunrise Villas to sunset-facing Wilson Bay hotel rooms and vintage yellow Mission Point cabins anchored by the Madden Lodge restaurant, with one of the area’s best lake views for dining.
Some parts feel more dated than others, but you might not notice when you’re taking trapshooting lessons or learning to fly a floatplane. It’s the breadth of activities that draws vacationers here. Lighted trails and a footbridge lead to restaurants, a coffee shop, art gallery, playground and the tennis and croquet club in the center of the peninsula.
Come evening, the sweet scent of campfire marshmallows drifts across the peninsula, and families gather to watch the sunset at Wilson Bay.
(Rates start at $179/ night, with lodging-only and all-inclusive options; 1-218-829-2811; www.maddens.com)
The new luxury vacation homes and 1980s townhouses (22 units in all) that make up Boyd Lodge sit along a channel of Rush Lake and a short stroll from Lower Whitefish Lake.
While Gull Lake claims the region’s biggest, grandest resorts, small and midsize family-run resorts still dot the Whitefish chain of 14 lakes, anchored by the town of Crosslake. Many, like Boyd Lodge, still require a week’s stay in the summer and are in the midst of expanding or building new accommodations with upscale furnishings, fireplaces, waterfall showers, granite and stone kitchen accents and screen porches.
It’s a big change from its early days, when owner Mike Schwieters’ mother chipped ice from the icehouse and hand-pumped water from the well. The remaining historic building — a red-trimmed log house that served as the main lodge for decades — sits by a new outdoor pool, kids’ pool and sauna debuting this summer.
A new two-story Boyd Lodge check-in area includes meeting spaces for weddings and reunions, a gift shop with candy and treats, and an inviting fire pit surrounded by chairs. It faces a large pond and footbridge where kids race across to reach the beach unless they’re trolling the perimeter for turtles.