Need a reason for a road trip? Got a taste for adventure (or just fudge)? Here are 10 small towns—from Ely and Walker to Luverne and Lanesboro—that feature artisan gems, tasty eateries, historic treasures, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. Grap a map and go.
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Paul Bunyan’s Backyard
Paul Bunyan may be Bemidji’s patron saint, but beneath this town’s lumberjack exterior broods a far more bohemian soul. Hip-hop and punk shows happen every weekend at Blue Ox Bar and Grill. Tattooed yogis shop for ginger chews at Harmony Natural Food Co-op. And teenage Tony Hawks, long banned from skating downtown, now practice board tricks legally at top-of-the-line Bemidji Skate Park. There’s even a flat-track roller-derby team, the Babe City Rollers. Tourists may come to Bemidji to escape the big city, but they can’t avoid the town’s plucky cosmopolitanism.
Start off with a tour. The self-guided Bemidji Sculpture Walk takes visitors through perhaps the most densely art-populated downtown in all of Minnesota. With more than 20 works from local and international artists (down from 50 last year), there is literally an installation on every block. By the time you’re through, you’ll have scouted out the best lunch destination, too: Wild Hare Bistro.
It’s a beatnik woodsman scene at this café-and-gallery, where the menu skews local and organic, and everything can be made to accommodate vegans, vegetarians, and the gluten-sensitive. For dessert, stroll a few blocks to Chocolates Plus, where you can sample the finest truffles this side of Switzerland. Down an “Aztec” truffle, made with chili oil and chipotle, and you’ll have enough kick to power you through a shopping spree.
Kelsey’s is the spot for jewelry, where self-taught designer Michael Kelsey makes magic with Minnesota’s state gem, the Lake Superior agate. Urban crafters need to hit up Yellow Umbrella and Bad Cat Creations, both too-cute boutiques featuring handmade creations from local artists. Grandma’s Attic packs more treasures into an antique mall than thought possible. And for an authentic lumberjack jacket—because you are still in Bemidji, after all—swing over to Woolen Mills.
For dinner, it’s a soul-warming shepherd’s pie and a pint of black-and-tan at Irish pub Brigid’s Cross. Pop in on Monday night for the pub quiz, but watch for ringers: profs from Bemidji State University tend to dominate the competition.
Where to go: Blue Ox Bar and Grill, 128 First St. NW; Harmony Co-Op, 117 Third St. NW; Bemidji Skate Park, 1224 23rd St. NW.; Wild Hare Bistro, 523 Minnesota Ave. NW; Chocolates Plus, 315 Beltrami Ave. NW; Kelsey’s Jewelry, 318 Beltrami Ave. NW; Yellow Umbrella, 204 Third St.; Bad Cat Creations, 315 Irving Ave. NW; Grandma’s Attic, 502 Third St. NW; Woolen Mills, 301 Irvine Ave. NW; Brigid’s Cross, 317 Beltrami Ave. NW
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More Than Just Muskie
Walker is an angler’s paradise. It’s built so close to Leech Lake that Main Street is practically a dock, and a billboard-sized welcome sign declares without a hint of doubt that the town is the “Muskie Capital of the Nation.” But you don’t have to fish to have fun. In fact, Walker’s downtown is so distractingly diverse that travelers with any number of interests could pass a whole day or two here without ever casting a line.
The Girly Girl
The Aveda-sanctioned Beehive Salon (506 Michigan Ave. W.) offers a full menu of pampering, from pedicures and massages to paraffin hand dips. Across the street, in a pastel-painted former church, The Cabin Up North (409 Michigan Ave. W.) imports women’s summer styles from southern California. Shop for scented candles at the grandmotherly Christmas Point Wild Rice Co. (523 Minnesota Ave. W.), and then nose through a few romance novels at Little Apple Bookstore (513 Main St.).
The Beer Snob
No joke, one of the state’s newest microbreweries is located in a teeny metal shed hidden in a clearing in the woods just outside Walker. Three times a week, Leech Lake Brewing Company (195 Walker Industries Blvd.) opens its miniature taproom to sell 64-ounce growlers and offer samples of its six brews, including the Loch Leech Monster, a popular Scottish ale. Of course, you can always grab a Grain Belt at macho sports bar Benson’s (400 Minnesota Ave. W.).
The Art Lover
Walker is a haven for woodworking, and the specialty of the town’s galleries is the “lake carving”: a layered, three-dimensional model, cut with a scroll saw, that depicts the depth of a local body of water. Check out Tory Kaupang’s masterpieces at the Artist Mall of Walker (406 Minnesota Ave.), or peruse a whole wall’s worth—plus a fleet of hand carved, basswood birds—at Carol and Jeff Groth’s Whittle Shop (514 Minnesota Ave.).
The R&R Seeker
Unwinding is at its most elegant at Chase on the Lake resort (502 Cleveland Blvd.), where you can melt into a chakra massage at The Copper Door spa, kick back with a craft cocktail on the lakeside patio of 502 restaurant, or even bowl a few frames at the private, onsite bowling facility, Chaser’s Alley. For a dinner out, treat yourself to some finer-than-fine-dining at white-tablecloth steakhouse The Boulders (8363 Lake Land Trail NW).