When logging was the mainstay of Park Rapids’ economy, town planners had the foresight to make Main Street wide enough so an eight-horse team pulling a load of white pine logs could make a U-turn. Today, that same Main Street is wide enough to allow angle parking as well as two parallel lines of vehicles in the middle of the street. This distinction makes it all the easier to linger downtown and get the pulse of a vibrant North Woods cultural and commercial center.

Water and woods define this city of about 3,700 people, part of a region whose population doubles with tourism and seasonal residents in summertime. Nature is always just out the door or window, even if it’s a glimpse of the Fish Hook River, which flows through downtown Park Rapids. More than 400 lakes and access to over 3 million acres of forest beckon within 25 miles of town.

Enjoy the outdoors: In winter, frozen lakes and deep woods laced with trails are big attractions.
One of the city’s symbols is the red footbridge spanning the river near Heartland Park, where you can access the Heartland State Trail, a 49-mile multiple-use trail between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. It connects with the Paul Bunyan State Trail 3 miles east of Akeley. (Trail information: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails/heartland)

Itasca State Park (23 miles north on Hwy. 71) contains the headwaters of the Mississippi River and is a 33,000-acre showpiece of the state park system. Itasca is the state’s second largest state park and the most visited. During winter, some of its cross-country ski trails wind through mature red and white pine forests, offering a distinctive outing under majestic trees (1-218-699-7251; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/itasca).

Two cross-country ski areas also bear noting, including Itasca State Park. It grooms 28 miles of classic and skate skiing trails. The Soaring Eagle Ski Trails and Nordic Center maintains about 21 miles of classical and skate trails (6 miles north of Park Rapids on Hwy. 71; http://itascatur.org).
Also within driving distance of Park Rapids is the Chippewa National Forest (17 miles east on Hwy. 34), one of the largest bald eagle breeding areas in the Lower 48. The 1.6 million-acre forest features more than 1,300 lakes and hundreds of trail miles. (1-218-335-8600; 200 Ash Av. NW, Cass Lake; www.fs.fed.us/r9/chippewa). And the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (24 miles west on Hwy. 34, then north on County 26) is a 43,000-acre sanctuary for migratory birds and other wildlife. (1-218-847-2641; 35704 County Hwy. 26, Rochert; www.fws.gov/midwest/

Enjoy the downtown: Among the shops downtown is Smoky Hills Art (winter hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thu.-Sat.), which offers an eclectic collection of original jewelry, woodcarving, watercolors, photography, mosaics, iron work and other creations by skilled regional artisans. (1-218-237-7625; 307 Main Av. S., Park Rapids; www.smokyhillsart.orbs.com).

Take a drive: The Lake Country Scenic Byway is worth the drive in any season. The route includes a 67-mile stretch of Hwy. 34 from Detroit Lakes through Park Rapids to Walker with a 21-mile spur from Park Rapids north to Itasca State Park on Hwy. 71. (www.lake

Fish the opener: Park Rapids plays host to the Governor’s Fishing Opener on May 10-11. The event includes tours of Itasca State Park on May 9 (1-218-732-4111; www.park

Bella Caffe is a cozy coffee shop serving great panini sandwiches (1-218-732-7625; 118 3rd St. W., Park Rapids). The Good Life Café uses fresh, local ingredients in a variety of traditional and more adventurous dishes (1-218-237-4212; 220 Main Av. S., Park Rapids; www.thegoodlifecafepr.com). Necce’s Ristorante features homemade Italian cuisine (1-218-237-4625; 311 Main Av. S., Park Rapids).

The Red Bridge Inn B&B overlooks the Fish Hook River (1-855-237-7337; 118 Washington Av. N.; Park Rapids; www.redbridgeinn.com). A year-round lodging option in nearby Itasca State Park is the Douglas Lodge Four Season Suites (1-218-699-7251; 36750 Main Park Dr.; www.star

The best one-stop information source for the area is the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce (1-800-247-0054; www.parkrapids.com).

Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.