“Biindigen!” (or “Come in!”) says the sign at Morell’s Chippewa Trading Post in downtown Bemidji, Minn. Inside, thick strands of tiny beads stream like a rainbow along one wall, while beaded butterflies, barrettes and earrings line a glass case. Birch-bark containers — with lichen left intact, and looking like rustic green rosettes — fill other shelves.
It’s one of many places in this city of 14,440 where Ojibwe art reflects reverence for nature, and the community at large is finely tuned to the outdoors. Seasonal events range from summer dragon boat races and camping to frigid February ice-fishing and parking on the frozen Lake Bemidji for Bemidji State University classes.
The Mississippi River, which begins humbly 30 miles away, flows to Lake Bemidji before squiggling east and south. It inspired the city’s Ojibwe name, Bemejigamaug (“a lake with water flowing through it”), and Bemidji counts as the first city along the Great River. There’s evidence along the lakeshore of villages that stretch back thousands of years.
Downtown Bemidji hugs the southwest shores, where tourists grin and wave beneath 1937 statues of Paul Bunyan and his vibrant blue sidekick, Babe. They provide perfect selfie bait and make it easy to spot the tourist information center.
Inside, visitors spot comical displays of Paul Bunyan’s supersized belongings — a baby moccasin, a rattle, a rifle and, yeah, even toenails. Bunyan bobbleheads entice shoppers while others study the fireplace, with rock from every county in Minnesota and every state in the nation.
On the northern shore, Lake Bemidji State Park beckons nature lovers. While some beeline for the campgrounds, the beach or the playground, I duck into the woods and head for the milelong bog walk.
Elevated above thick carpets of sphagnum moss, interpretive signs point out blueberries, grass pink orchids, insect-trapping pitcher plants and, finally, the showy lady’s slipper. With its delicate pink-and-white blooms, the state flower should rank with Paul and Babe on any Minnesota bucket list. It blooms in June or July, but later visitors can find other wildflowers and enjoy the palette of fall, when shrubs turn red and deep-green spruce contrasts with the brilliant gold of tamaracks, rising above the boggy landscape.
Diamond Point beach and park offers a playground, paths and place to swim. It abuts the university boathouse, which rents kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and bikes (1-218-755-2999; bemidjistate.edu/students/recreation).
Lake Bemidji State Park rents out canoes, kayaks and boats, as well as bikes from a Nice Ride station. It’s about 8 miles to bike around the lake to downtown. Campers can choose from 95 semi-modern sites and four log camper cabins. Trails include a trek up Rocky Point, highest spot along the lake, and the bog (1-218-308-2300; mndnr.gov/lakebemidji).
Look for regionally inspired paintings, jewelry, pottery and more at Watermark Art Center, which has a major expansion underway that includes the Miikanan Gallery, dedicated to indigenous art. The center organizes the Studio Cruise (Oct. 20-22) and the Pine to Prairie Fiber Arts Trail weekend (1-218-444-7570; watermarkartcenter.org).
Downtown features several boutiques, sports shops and antique shops. The Historic Chief Theater hosts community theater, movies and events. It’s also home to Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota’s oldest professional summer stock theater, which just wrapped up its 67th season (1-218-751-7270; paulbunyanplayhouse.org).
Concordia Language Villages hum with young campers all summer, with language and cultural immersion programs at replicated Finnish, Spanish, French, German and Norwegian villages. Adults-only workshops range from a voyageur-themed French week with canoeing and singing to a Nordic holiday weekend packed with crafts and baking (1-800-222-4750; concordialanguagevillages.org).
With its fleece-lined blankets and woolen shirts, the century-old Bemidji Woolen Mills makes staying warm stylish. The store features other made-in-America and woolen products such as hiking socks, felted footwear, Filson and Woolrich clothing, hats, scarves and knits (1-888-751-5166; bemidjiwoolenmills.com).
Where to eat
Grab a gourmet hot dog at Lucky Dogs (1-218-444-0288; luckydogsbemidji.com) or order a five-flavor Paul’s Canoe sampler at Big River Scoop Ice Cream to taste Scotch ale caramel crunch, espresso Oreo soy, carrot mango sorbet and more (1-218-444-3898; bigriverscoop.com).
The Cabin Coffee House & Cafe’s breakfast and lunch options include a pear grilled cheese sandwich, a crabcake biscuit and sweets such as an oatmeal cream whoopee pie (1-218-444-2899; @CabinCoffeeBemidji).
Wild Hare Bistro serves breakfast and lunch, including blueberry muffins with wild rice, a vegetable wild rice salad, a Cuban burrito and hearty soups and sandwiches (1-218-444-5282; wildharebistro.com).
Look for a homey breakfast and lunch at Raphael’s Bakery (1-218-759-2015; gr8buns.com), with its delicious old-fashioned doughnuts; and Minnesota Nice Cafe with a wild rice and veggie skillet (1-218-444-6656; minnesotanicecafe.com).
Tutto Bene presents special-occasion and seasonal dining with from-scratch wild snow crab ravioli, Sicilian green olive soup, grilled octopus salad, pizza and cakes, tarts and gelato (1-218-751-1100; tuttobene.us).
Beer fans can swing into Bemidji Brewing for a cucumber-lime German blonde, espresso porter or raspberry sour red. Easy eats include locally made brats, smoked fish dip and a fishing-themed “snackle box” (1-218-444-7011; bemidjibeer.com).
Where to sleep
Pimushe Resort has a dozen knotty-pine-paneled cabins with modern kitchens, porches and fireplaces along the uncrowded shore of Pimushe Lake (1-218-586-2094; mnresortvacation.com).
Lake Bemidji Bed & Breakfast boasts three bedrooms, sunrise views and a three-season porch 200 feet from the lakeshore. Innkeeper Dick Beardsley has a fishing guide business with everything you need to catch walleye, bass, pike and panfish (1-218-556-8815; lakebemidjibandb.com).
Request a lake view at Hampton Inn & Suites on Lake Bemidji. Guests can use the 700-foot beach, connect to trails, rent canoes or paddleboats, or swim in the indoor pool (1-855-605-0317; hamptoninn3.hilton.com).
It’s a 220-mile drive from the Twin Cities via Hwys. 10, 64, 200 and 71.
Visit Bemidji: 1-218-759-0164; visitbemidji.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”