The fire tower at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park takes a dizzy flight upward, a zigzag of 137 steps that get smaller and steeper with each turn. My daughter and I do-si-do around a couple heading down, who warn us that the return trip — with its daunting view of the ground 100 feet below — may be trickier than the climb toward the sky.
“But it’s totally worth it!” they laughingly agree. So we trudge upward until tree branches thin out and we breach the forest canopy. It’s a “ta-da!” moment to suddenly see a bird’s-eye view that unfurls for miles.
We were too early for fall colors in September, but waves of gold and green march toward a glittering strip of blue across an autumn-crisp horizon. Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota’s fourth-largest lake contained entirely within state borders, anchors the area — it’s 19 miles long and 14 miles wide.
Wind whooshes above the trees as we ponder the history beneath us. On this land where Mille Lacs empties into the Rum River, people have lived for 9,000 years, following the bounty of each season, from spring syruping to winter spearing. The park interpretive center shows off shards of pottery and models of dwellings from the prehistoric Woodland period, which makes the more than 10,000-acre state park one of Minnesota’s most significant historic sites.
This National Historic Landmark District also is considered the ancestral home of the Mdewakanton Dakota, whose name comes from Mdewakan Lake (meaning “spiritual” or “sacred”), which French explorers dubbed Mille Lacs. By about 1750, the Dakota were moving to southern Minnesota as Ojibwe tribes were pushed west on prophets’ advice to find lakes with food on the water. They found wild rice and stayed.
At the nearby Mille Lacs Indian Museum, interpreter Windy Morrison tosses a few handfuls of newly harvested rice into a kettle over a smoking wood fire. As part of traditional ricing demonstrations every September, he pours roasted rice into a hole lined with a tarp and begins to “jig,” gently kneading it with moccasin-clad feet to loosen chaff that whisks into the wind as he tosses the rice in a birchbark container.
Anyone who leaves with a wild rice craving can buy it hand-harvested from the Indian Trading Post, which is part of the museum and has the state’s best selection of native gifts from books and birchbark to elaborate beading.
Across from the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park turnoff, the Launch Bar & Grill at Eddy’s Resort serves a wild rice meatloaf with roasted vegetables, along with walleye cakes and a pistachio-crusted walleye.
Balconies overlook the lake where the resort’s iconic red-and-white hand-built boats bob in the waves. The deep-blue lake beckons visitors onto the water, as it’s done since the days of dugout and birchbark canoes, its vastness disappearing somewhere over the horizon.
Brush up on history: In the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, a Four Seasons Room takes visitors through Ojibwe camps that include spring maple syruping in the woods, summer fishing and gardening along the lakeshore, wild rice harvests and hunting in the fall, and winter camps when elders told stories. Exhibits show traditional powwow dances, the local origins of a jingle dress and how to pronounce long, vowel-rich and often-musical Ojibwe words. Workshops include beading, making moccasins and other native arts ($6-$9; 1-320-532-3632; sites.mnhs.org).
State parks: Rent a canoe, kayak or rowboat for the Rum River, Ogechie and Shakopee lakes or try heritage fishing at Black Bass Lake, all within Mille Lacs Kathio State Park on the lake’s southwest corner. It also includes 35 miles of hiking trails, 27 miles of horse trails and 70 campsites. Father Hennepin State Park, on the southeast side of the lake, is much smaller, but has more than 100 campsites, claims the most popular beach, and is home to the occasional albino deer ($5 day pass; dnr.state.mn.us).
Try a launch: Anyone without fishing equipment or experience can find an affordable way to try the sport with one of Mille Lacs’ many launch boat operators. Resorts such as McQuoid’s, Fisher’s and Eddy’s take groups from six to 50 people to the best spots for bass, northerns, muskies and more. It’s possible to catch a sunset cruise that may circle around the tumble of glacial rock known as Spirit Island. Together with Hennepin Island, where not-so-common common terns nest, they make up the smallest national wildlife refuge in the country.
Wander through Isle, Minn.: Order fruit-stuffed crispies and strawberry and cream cheese kolaches, or go for the delicious old-fashioned doughnuts and wild rice bread at Isle Bakery (1-320-676-0222). Someday Isle, a shop with about 40 local and regional crafters, offers a playful mix of mosaics, rocking chairs, rock collections, woven rugs and photography.
Ice season: Vast villages of ice-fishing houses sit on the shore just waiting for Mille Lacs to freeze over. Resorts rent every kind, from rustic to homey. Mille Lacs Kathio also rents cross-country skis and snowshoes. Bring your own sled for the sledding hill.
Where to sleep
Eddy’s Resort, completely rebuilt and reopened in May by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, features a sleek, modern design inspired by its 1960s heyday. It has 64 rooms and four cabins, including one that sleeps 12 people. Diners at its Launch Bar & Grill can enjoy lake views from indoors or the patio while trying beer flights, deep-fried deviled eggs, flatbread with tangy bourbon-bacon jam, in-house smoked brisket sandwiches and from-scratch pastas (from $79; 320-532-3657; eddysresort.com).
The Village at Izatys townhomes sleep at least six and include access to the Izatys Resort for the outdoor pool, golf course, restaurant, bar and marina (from $120; 1-320-532-5121; thevillageatizatysresort.com).
Grand Casino often fills its 494 rooms above its trio of restaurants. It’s one of the state’s largest casinos, and a concert venue with entertainers such as Craig Ferguson this Friday (from $80; 1-800-468-3517; grand casinomn.com).
Where to eat
Farm Market Café in Onamia serves locally sourced breakfast sandwiches and hash browns, plus veggie burgers, wraps, salads, homemade breads and soups such as creamy vegetable wild rice. Leave room for fruit and seasonal pies and locally roasted coffees (1-320-532-4880; farmmarketcafe.com).
Onamia and other communities strung along the southwest corner of Mille Lacs are about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities, a straight shot up Hwy. 169.
Mille Lacs Area Tourism: 1-888-350-2692; millelacs.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the latest edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”