I spent my Up North summer vacations as a kid in Walker, Minn. I returned there recently wondering if it was as good as I remember. I wasn’t disappointed. The town — on Leech Lake’s Walker Bay — offers great fishing, a small-town feel and miles of trails. An expanding bike trail system proves that the town with a friendly, vintage vibe, also has changed with the times, striking a nice balance of nostalgia and modern amenities. As always, there’s Minnesota’s third largest inland lake to enjoy, a boon to fishermen, splashing children, and anyone who enjoys a sunset over water.
What to do
Exploring the trail systems in this area is a full-time job, but worth it. Be sure to grab the trail map before biking or hiking, as the system is mammoth. The area has put a lot of time and attention into its trail systems over the years, and it shows (www.leechlake.org/activities/minnesota-biking.htm).
Visitors can hop on the Heartland State Trail, which runs right through Walker (tinyurl.com/m49qj6s). This trail was one of the first-rail-to-trail projects in the country, and it runs 49 miles between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. It also links to the Shingobee Connection Trail, which can loop you back into Walker, or out to other trails, including the Paul Bunyan State Trail (www.paulbunyantrail.com/walker.html).
Paul’s Trail, when completed, will be 120 miles long and run from south of Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park. It’s the longest continuously paved trail in our state’s system. It’s also fun to see the “North Country National Trail” signs pop up along the way, as this major trail intersects the Bunyan trail in several places. The hiking trail, at 4,600 miles, is the longest footpath in the United States. This best-kept secret of a trail is also the only National Scenic Trail in the state of Minnesota (www.northcountrytrail.org).
Fishing is a no-brainer in this area. Leech Lake is massive, and I still remember seeing it for the first time as a child. It stretches out like an ocean, at 102,947 acres, but has wonderful islands peppered around its vast waters. Childhood favorites were Pelican Island and Gull Island, but there are 11 in all that cover about 1,600 acres of land.
Leech Lake is nestled in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest, so the scenery is superb. Fish species include all the favorites: walleye, northern pike, muskie, bass, bluegills and of course, in the winter, the eelpout, which spawned the famous Eelpout Festival.
Leech has shallow bays, deep and shallow water, and rocky points, so there’s a wealth of fishing hot spots to discover.
If you want some local help (which is a good idea, as the lake is so large), Leisure Outdoor Adventures has a stable of local fisherman who can help you find the honey holes (www.leisureoutdooradventures.com; 1-855-562-4665). Jeff Anderson is on their roster, a successful tournament angler who has been fishing the waters since he was a teenager. They can pick you up right from your dock.
If you want to take a break from the trails and waters, you can always walk Walker.
The downtown holds a treasure chest of shops and cafes. From the large cornerstone stores that include Reed’s Family Outdoor Outfitters (www.reedssports.com; 1-800-346-0019), Christmas Point Wild Rice store (www.christmaspoint.com; 1-218-547-2170) and the impressive Walker General Store (www.walkergeneralstore.com; 1-218-547-0686), to smaller shops such as the Artists Mall (full of local artists’ wares) (www.walkerartistmall.com; 1-218-547-4781) and Tiger Lily’s Boutique (www.tigerlilysboutique.com; 1-218-547-3727). If you head just outside of town, take a pit stop at the Leech Lake Brewing Co., a microbrewery complete with taproom and tasty samples, including Loon’s Eye Red and 47 North (www.leechlakebrewing.com; 1-218-547-4746).
Where to stay
For a place with history, Chase on the Lake wins. It first opened in 1922 as a modern hotel. In 1997, the restaurant caught fire, but this grand establishment is alive and well. The building has kept its historic feel while updating all its rooms, windows, woodwork and furnishings. Another bonus is the Copper Door Spa connected to the Chase, which offers massage packages specifically for bikers. There’s also no better deck view for watching a Leech Lake sunset (www.chaseonthelake.com; 1-888-242-7306).
Where to eat
The name says it all: the Piggy BBQ. With its pink, catchy logo and sign outside, the Piggy attracts both locals and the summer crowd, and rightly so. Walker locals Steve and Kathy Blake smoke their wares fresh each day and night, so when they’re out, they’re out. (Get there early — the last seating is at 6:30 p.m.)
The indoor decor sticks with the North Woods theme, with chunky log furniture and local art on the walls. There’s also a cute outdoor deck, complete with a bar carved out of logs and a fire pit. There’s no better place to get pulled pork sandwiches, beef brisket or ribs. The corn bread is a whole separate food pyramid. And don’t forget their signature root beer, for a sugary buzz for those bike trails (www.thepiggybbq.com; 1-218-547-6465).
For more fresh, local fare, peek behind the Piggy and you’ll spy the Green Scene market and deli (www.walkergreenscene.com; 1-218-547-2880). It’s a great spot to load up on healthy snacks and foods for the bike trails, and it also offers a weekly organic produce box full of recipes. Its shelves are stocked with local produce, and it offers a deli and catering counter with fresh salads, sandwiches and spreads.
The Walker Farmers Market is held in the Green Scene parking lot every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., June through September (www.walkerfarmersmarket.org).
In addition to the best lake view while you eat, Chase on the Lake’s 502 Bar and Restaurant offers some North Woods specialties, and the appetizers, including their signature walleye wild rice cakes, were spot-on. The long city docks are also right in front of the Chase, with benches perfect for watching sunrises and sunsets.
Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.