As we continued on our journey around Minnesota with Explore Minnesota, we discovered an outdoor paradise in central Minnesota, a beautiful region just a couple of hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul: Brainerd Lakes! The region has luxury resorts, gorgeous golf courses, fine dining, spas, and an abundance of activities and fun things to do, from zip lining to yacht cruises to amusement parks. And, watching a spectacular Minnesota sunset is a truly amazing way to end the day in Brainerd Lakes.
The Brainerd Lakes area is located in the center of Minnesota and home to multiple cities and several countries. With over 500 lakes and rivers, including beautiful Gull Lake, it’s no wonder that the Brainerd Lakes region is so widely known as a premier vacation destination.
Things to do when exploring Brainerd Lakes
While the list of things to do in Brainerd Lakes is long, there are a few adventures that are “must do” activities and attractions when visiting the area.
Our cruise aboard Destiny Cruises’ luxury yacht was one of the highlights of our time spent exploring Minnesota.
A relaxing afternoon enjoying delicious food and beverages while gazing at the shimmering, blue waters of Gull Lake, it was the perfect way to explore Gull Lake and view the beautiful coastline. The Destiny Cruises crew is fun and provide excellent service, delivering an authentic Minnesota welcome aboard their beautiful boat. While we experienced a lunch cruise, Destiny Cruises also offers happy hour, dinner, brunch and sunset cruises, as well as private charters.
Once you’ve seen Brainerd Lakes from the water, you need to see it from the air.
Ziplining at Brainerd Zip Line Tour is exciting, fun and offers some of the most amazing views you’ll find in the Brainerd Lakes area. With 7 zip lines of varying lengths, a 65-foot suspension bridge, and an optional 50-foot free fall jump, Brainerd Zip Line Tour will have you soaring at top speeds over the trees at Mount Ski Gull, while taking in spectacular, panoramas of Agate Lake and Gull Lake.
Spend a day playing at a lake
Celebrate the natural beauty found in the state of 10,000 lakes with a day of water activities and family fun. Whatever your water sports preference may be – boating, paddleboarding, snorkeling, tubing, water skiing, fishing, canoeing or simply floating on a raft – the crystal clear waters of the Brainerd Lakes region is the place to play on the water.
Hit the links
Nationally recognized by leading golf publications as a top golfing destination, the Brainerd Lakes area is home to courses that are nestled amidst tall trees and set against a backdrop of stunning lakeside landscapes. Emerald greens and fairways, resorts with vast amenities, and a variety of courses playable by all skill levels attract golfers from across the nation to this section of central Minnesota.
Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake is home to four courses, including Minnesota’s oldest 18-hole resort golf course and the top-rated Classics course.
No visit to the Brainerd Lakes area is complete without a visit to see and talk to the legend himself, Paul Bunyan. Greeted by the giant Babe the Blue Ox in the parking lot, a visit to Paul Bunyan Land offers a full day of family fun with 40 amusement rides and attractions, Paul’s petting barn, The Pioneer Village, and of course, the famous 26 foot tall lumberjack with eyes that blink and a head that swivels, that greets you by name as you enter.
Where to stay at Brainerd Lakes
With accommodation options in the Brainerd Lakes area ranging from campgrounds to luxury resorts, there’s a perfect place to stay for every taste and budget. A fabulous choice for the utmost in relaxation and amenities is Madden’s on Gull Lake. From time on the fairway to luxuriating at the spa, to enjoying fine dining, Madden’s is the spot for enjoying all that Minnesota has to offer in peaceful, laid-back luxury.
Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota is approximately 200 miles north of Minneapolis-St Paul in central Minnesota.
Summer temperatures (June-August) in the Brainerd Lakes area range from 76°F to 80°F, with average lows between 52°F to 57°F. January is the coldest month of the year, with average daytime highs of 20°F and average lows of -4°F.
Disclosure & Disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota and the Explore Brainerd Lakes for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.
Ready for some high-flying fun in the Brainerd Lakes area? Head over to Brainerd Zip Line at Mount Ski Gull for a few hours of soaring over the treetops while enjoying spectacular views of Gull Lake!
We’d wanted to try ziplining for years, so when Explore Minnesota presented the opportunity to try out the newly built zip line course presented itself, we were all in – and it was a blast!
After signing waivers, we headed out to gear up. Gear is provided by Brainerd Zip Line Tour and includes harnesses, gloves, and a helmet.
After getting into our harnesses and helmets, we selected gloves, which are for braking along the line. Ready to go, we boarded a van and headed to the training course.
Each group has two guides – ours were Hollie and Amanda, who were professional and, it was obvious throughout our adventure, they had been well-trained to have our safety in mind.
Hollie and Amanda helped us gear up and taught us ziplining basics at a training course site. Once we were trained, they sent and caught us, as we moved from tower to tower along the zip line course.
They also were a lot of fun and shared facts about the area and the course throughout the experience.
For anyone that would have any anxiety before ziplining, the training course sets those fears to rest. Amanda and Hollie first explained the basics, like how to hold on and how to brake, and answered any of our questions. Amanda then demonstrated how to zip line.
Next up, we each gave it a try. Low to the ground, the training zip line gives everyone a chance to try out their new skills before encountering heights. Amanda and Hollie took time to make sure everyone was comfortable before moving on.
Training completed, we walked a short distance to the zip lines. Arriving at the course, we climbed up a five-story flight of stairs to the first tower. The reward for the climb – aside from getting to begin your zip line adventure – are the views. From the tower, you can see for miles across Agate Lake and Gull Lake.
Let’s go ziplining!
The Brainerd Zip Line Tour course consists of 7 lines of varying lengths, a 65-foot suspension bridge, and an optional 50-foot free fall jump. Everyone is clipped in during the experience – even while waiting on the towers. Getting things started, Hollie went first to be on the receiving end tower at the end of the line. From there, she guided us as we approached on when to begin braking and was there to catch us and assist with our landing.
Now it was our turn. Amanda secured us, communicated with Hollie on the other side via radio, and when we were clear – away we went! As with repelling when rock climbing, the first step off is the most difficult and then, it is just a blast.
So, what’s it like zipping along above the trees? Check it out…
Navigating the suspension bridge
In addition to the seven zip lines, the Brainerd Zip Line Tour includes a trek across a 65-foot long suspension bridge. Even though it sounds easy, the boards get further apart near the uphill finish, making it a bit challenging – although I did manage to pose for a photo opp…
A 50-foot free fall finale
As our zip line adventure drew to a close, there was just one more thing to do – the optional 50 foot free fall jump!
After arriving at the last tower, there are two ways down. Walk down the stairs or opt for a 50-foot free fall finale. Of course, we jumped. Not a bungee jump, it’s a controlled free fall and a great way to end a fabulous zip line adventure!
Know before you go
Dress for the adventure. Unless lightning or high winds are present, zip line tours are conducted regardless of weather conditions, including rain and snow. Given you will be zipping through the air above the tree line, dress appropriately. Additionally, closed toe and heel shoes and shirts are required. Long pants are recommended because the safety harness straps can irritate your skin. Hair should be tied back.
Mosquito repellent. Even though you don’t think about mosquitos when soaring above the trees, in the training area there were mosquitos, so put on some repellant before going to the mountain.
Age and weight restrictions. Brainerd Zip Line Tour participants must be between 70 and 250 pounds and 10 years old or older.
Photography. While we were allowed to bring our cameras during the experience for this article, guests are not allowed to bring cameras with the exception of a GoPro (which we also used) with a helmet mount, which Brainerd Zip Lines provides. If you do not have a GoPro, Brainerd Zip Lines rents units for $20.
Time. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your reserved time and allow 2 to 2/12 hours for your zip line adventure.
Wait until after your adventure for a beer.
Reservations are recommended. Find out more and reserve your spot for a Brainerd Zip Line Tour on their website.
Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota, Explore Brainerd Lakes and Brainerd Zip Line Tour for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.
Nestled amidst a lush forest and bordered by the sparkling waters of Gull Lake, Madden’s Resort is home to world-class golf, stunning sunsets, an excellent staff and a laid-back lifestyle with something for everyone. A true retreat in every sense of the word, Madden’s has an activity to fill every minute of the day or, for those seeking a more tranquil experience, serenity for a quiet, scenic escape.
With four golf courses, delicious dining options, more water activities than you could fit into a week, beautiful accommodations, and a fabulous spa, it is understandable why so many have visited and returned to this wonderful resort over the last 87 years.
On our first visit to the highly acclaimed Midwest resort, we spent our time exploring all Madden’s has to offer, while also taking a bit of time to marvel in the peaceful beauty of central Minnesota.
Madden’s Resort has a wide variety of rooms and locations across the sprawling resort. Our room was in the recently remodeled Voyageur complex on the west side of the resort near the spa. If you love magnificent sunsets – there’s no place quite like it.
In 2015, the Brainerd Lakes area was hit by a massive storm that toppled thousands of trees in the region, with Madden’s taking the brunt of the storm, which destroyed much of the Voyageur building and several others on the property. Fresh off of the renovation, we were among the first to stay in the newly re-opened rooms.
Upon entering the room we were greeted with a welcome note and an assortment of locally made caramels that were spectacular!
The oversized room was immaculate and decorated in neutrals with slate blue accents. With a comfy chair, desk, flat-screen TV, a luxurious bath and a kitchenette, the room was both relaxing and well-equipped. The cozy bed covered with white, plush linens and pillows was incredibly comfortable. Glass doors led to the large private patio with a couple of chairs and fabulous Wilson Bay views.
The resort has 285 guest rooms with varying accommodation types and location options. In addition to Wilson Bay, where we stayed, there are golf villas near Madden Inn & Golf Club, Mission Bay accommodations that are close to the beach and water, and Madden’s offers all-inclusive stays at Madden’s Lodge on the Steamboat Bay side of the resort.
One of the first thoughts I had when we drove into Madden’s was what a spectacular job they’ve done in blending their landscaping and development with the natural environment. Built across 1000 acres, of which, over 600 acres remain undeveloped, the natural habitat is accentuated by colorful plants, fountains, and art. The natural and developed elements blend harmoniously to create an enhanced landscape that celebrates the natural beauty of Minnesota.
Part of embracing natural beauty is protecting it and Madden’s green initiatives for the resort are apparent throughout. Outdoor bars use reusable drinkware, the wine list features & identifies several organic or sustainable wines, guests are encouraged to reuse towels and recycle, the resort has water and energy efficiency practices in place throughout and there’s an on-property chef’s garden that supplies fresh vegetables and herbs for the restaurants.
Madden’s four golf courses
Shortly after checking in, we made our way to the Classic Golf Course, which is consistently recognized by golf publications as one of the best courses in the Midwest, as well as the world. Built in 1997, The Classic at Madden’s meanders over gentle hills and through towering trees, with pristine bent-grass tees, fairways and greens, and stunning views.
Early evening on a course is such a pleasant time of day. As the heat of the day fades and shadows dance across the fairways, a quieter pace permeates. As we made our way around Madden’s Classic course, my thoughts turned back to childhood evenings getting a few holes in with my Dad after he arrived home from work. The unhurried outings where he’d casually correct my stance and we’d take time to practice an approach to a challenging green came flooding back with a smile as we drove along on the cart.
In the distance, just across one of the Classic’s picturesque bridges spanning a pond with lily pads, a foursome shared a laugh as they headed toward their cart en route to the 17th hole.
While the park-like setting of the 6,101-yard Classic course is astonishingly beautiful, challenges await around every turn with water on 15 holes and over 50 bunkers on the par 72 course. And – the Classic Course is actually only one of four courses at Madden’s Resort.
The Pine Beach East course, Minnesota’s oldest 18-hole resort golf course, dates back to 1926 when it was built by James Dalgleish, attracting golfers from the area to the links on the shores of Gull Lake.
Located directly behind the Madden Lodge, Pine Beach East offers 5,944 yards of golf on well-manicured, generous fairways and gorgeous greens. A mix of a traditional layout and modern golfing challenges, Pine Beach East is also home to a rare par 6 hole – the 618-yard sixth hole.
On the southwest section of the resort, yet another first class golf experience is for the taking at the 18 hole Pine Beach West. Narrow fairways and fast greens put the challenge into this wooded 5,070 yard par 67 course.
For the family outing or a quick warm up, the Social 9 course offers eight par threes and one par four in a relaxing atmosphere.
The Spa at Madden’s
A world away from the hustle and bustle of the daily life, the Spa at Madden’s is the perfect place for rejuvenation and pampering. Overlooking peaceful Wilson Bay, the Spa offers a full menu of services including massages, pedicures, manicures, facials, waxing and wraps.
Grab a cup of tea, take a stroll by the lake behind the Spa and admire the J. Kreitz artwork, then indulge in a day of relaxation and watch the stress melt away.
Dining at Madden’s
While at Madden’s we had the opportunity to visit several of the restaurants. Casual & inviting, each restaurant offered fresh, modern dishes, and exceptional service.
The first evening we dined at the Classic Grill, which delivered all the way around – great food, excellent service and marvelous views. We started off the evening with a couple of martinis and then progressed to salads. The Madden’s house salad is amazing with mixed greens, craisins, walnuts, feta cheese, and honey mustard. Next up, I had the Walleye and Greg had the scallops and shrimp. As we often do, we each ate half, then swapped plates. Both entrées were delicious and the sear on the scallops was perfect, with a gorgeous caramelized crust on the outside and tender and sweet on the inside. The service was outstanding and the view was spectacular.
After sunset, we took a walk around the resort, stopping for a glass of wine at Parfecto Pizza, a fun, casual restaurant featuring pizzas, flatbreads, calzones, and salads with items available for takeout or room delivery.
Finishing our wine, we strolled back to our room to the sounds of frogs, surrounded by the beauty of the Minnesota night.
The next morning, we took an early walk around the resort with a stop by Madden Bros. Market for a chai latte and a heavenly donut.
Located in a village of shops across from Madden Inn, Madden Bros. Market is the resort’s version of a general store, with a coffee bar, gift shop, wine shop and practically anything else one may need or want on their vacation from s’more supplies to souvenirs.
Madden’s also has a variety of other restaurants, including The Restaurant at Madden Inn & Golf Club, the Dining Room at Madden Lodge, the 19th Hole & Pool Deck, The O’Madden Pub, and the Lobby Café.
There is no better way to experience the beauty of Gull Lake than from the water. Simply name your sport and Madden’s is there to make it happen. From kayaks, canoes, rowing skulls and paddle boats to water bikes, a banana boat, or stand up paddle boards, it’s on the agenda. If fun on the water includes fishing or a boat ride, fishing boats, a tritoon, pontoons and speedboats are also available at the resort.
Prefer a bit of poolside leisure or perhaps some sand between your toes? Madden’s Resort has three indoor pools, one outdoor pool, an outdoor hot, and three beaches.
Meetings, conferences, and weddings
While exploring, we happened upon several beautiful buildings for hosting events and meetings. With its copper covered tower, Madden’s Town Hall Conference Center is large enough to host 700 for meetings, conferences, and trade shows.
Next to the spa, the newly rebuilt Wilson Bay private venue space is a spectacular location for a wedding set against a backdrop of Gull Lake and room to host a reception and dance with a private bar, casual seating areas and fine dining.
5 things we loved about Madden’s
The staff at Madden’s was helpful and friendly and always quick to answer a question or lend a hand.
The golf courses are lush, not overcrowded and exceptionally well-maintained.
The resort is serene, beautiful and epitomizes approachable, lake-side luxury.
The food is outstanding.
There’s so much to do, with activities of every type, or one can simply take a stroll or quietly relax with a glass of wine and watch the sun set.
Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota, Explore Brainerd Lakes and Madden’s on Gull Lake for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.
A couple of hours gliding on clear waters, while enjoying delicious food and a beverage under clear blue skies, makes for one of our favorite ways to spend an afternoon.
When the lake is Gull Lake, one of the largest in the Brainerd, Minnesota area, with 38 miles of picturesque coastline and sparkling waters, and the boat it is the luxury Destiny Cruises yacht, the North Star, the experience is elevated to a superb afternoon of relaxation and leisure.
Destiny Cruises on Gull Lake
Our two-hour lunch excursion aboard the beautiful motor yacht began at the docks at Ernie’s on Gull, about six miles north of Brainerd. Welcomed aboard with a warm, Minnesota welcome, guests have the option of relaxing downstairs in the air-conditioned, glass-enclosed cabin, or opting for the open-air upstairs deck. We headed straight upstairs to bask in the Minnesota sunshine.
The yacht is large – 65 feet long and 22 feet wide – providing guests plenty of room to spread out, get comfortable and enjoy the captivating views.
Custom built by SkipperLiner in LaCrosse, WI for Destiny Cruises, the North Star took a year to build and was delivered in 2014. Now in her third season on Gull Lake, the North Star was the first public cruise vessel to operate on the lake for many years. The elegant boat’s public cruises, which include lunch, brunch, happy hour, dinner and sunset cruises, have been warmly welcomed by the community and visitors to the area. The yacht is also a popular venue for private chartered events and weddings.
With two cash bars, one upstairs and one down, guests can partake of a beverage, as we did, selecting a refreshing cocktail to enjoy as we pulled away from the dock and headed out on the sparkling waters of Gull Lake.
One of the largest lakes in the Brainerd area, Gull Lake is three miles wide and fifteen miles long. Along the way, our captain provided some of the area’s history and facts about the lake itself. Gull Lake is 70 – 85 feet deep in most places and contains most types of fish common to Minnesota’s waters.
As the relaxation and fun continued, we took turns “diving the boat” and I even donned the captain’s cap while at the helm.
Lunch was a delicious selection of BBQ chicken and salmon, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad and turtle pudding for dessert.
We made our way around the lake, passing Hole in the Day Bay, where an ice fishing championship is held each winter with 20,000 pre-drilled holes created in advance for the competition. On this warm, sunny day as the lake sparkled in a thousand shades of blue, it was hard to imagine it being cold enough for ice fishing a few months earlier. The magic of Minnesota.
There are 19 resorts on Gull Lake, including Madden’s, where we stayed while visiting the Brainerd area, and which we highly recommend. A beautiful, sprawling resort, Madden’s has five restaurants, four pools, two lounges, three golf courses, spa, full-service marina and so much more. If you are staying at Madden’s and would like to schedule a private Destiny Cruise for your group, Destiny Cruise can even pick you up at the resort.
As our wonderful time aboard the North Star drew to a close, we savored the last moments of peaceful relaxation and stunning views on Gull Lake. The entire two-hour cruise was perfect thanks to the beautiful surroundings, the large, elegant yacht, and the excellent crew.
Know before you go
Prepare for changing weather. Except when severe weather conditions are present, cruises depart rain or shine. Wear sunscreen and a hat, and bring a light jacket, especially in the evening or on a cloudy day.
Cruises. Destiny Cruises offers public brunch, lunch, happy hour, dinner and sunset cruises. Private charters for events such as weddings, rehearsal dinners, family gatherings or corporate getaways are also available. Visit the Destiny Cruises website for more information and to book your cruise or private event.
Bring some cash. The crew provides excellent service and gratuity for the onboard staff is not included in the ticket price.
Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota, Explore Brainerd Lakes and Destiny Cruises for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.
As you enter Paul Bunyan Land, the famous lumberjack sits directly in front of you, 26 feet tall with eyes that blink and a head that swivels, and he greets you by name. After that, he answers any questions you may have.
We had a few – check out Paul telling us how old he is and what his favorite food is…
Paul went on to tell us about how his dog, Sport, the Reversible Dog, who ended up with his legs upside down. Evidently, Sport accidentally got cut in half and when the nearby doctor sewed him back together he made the mistake. Now sport runs on his front legs, then flops over and runs on his hind legs when he gets tired.
As much as we loved it, children are mesmerized. Watching from a short distance, nostalgia is in the air as parents and grandparents relive their own childhood memories with the plaid-shirted animated giant.
A local attraction and tradition in the Brainerd Lakes Area since the 1950s, Paul and his friends’ futures were looking bleak when the original amusement park, Paul Bunyan Amusement Center, closed in 2002 to make way for a Kohl’s department store. Hoping to obtain a few items from the park as it was sold off, the owners of Pioneer Village, located about 6 miles away, ended up purchasing the entire amusement park. Combining the two attractions, they relocated the rides, buildings, Paul, Sport, and Paul’s ox, Babe the Blue Ox, to their new home on 23 acres, which is now Paul Bunyan Land and This Old Farm Pioneer Village.
The park now has something for everyone, offering a day of fun and exploration for the entire family. Paul Bunyan Land has 40 rides and attractions, a petting barn, and the Pioneer Village is home to 30 buildings filled with the largest one man collection of antiques from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s in Minnesota.
The amusement park
With 40 amusement rides and attractions, the kiddos will be entertained all day – and they can be because all rides are included in the admission price.
There are rides like the Flight Commander and Mini Roller Coaster for the little ones.
For the older family members, the Tilt-A-Whirl, Dodge-em-Cars and Flying Cages provide whirls and thrills. And, for everyone in the family, climb on the ferris wheel or explore the Magnetic Mine.
In addition to the amusement park, Paul Bunyan Land has a candy store and jail, which are conveniently, oh I mean curiously, next door to each other.
Paul’s petting barn
Paul’s petting barn is between the amusement park and the Pioneer Village and a chance to stop by and see the horses, chickens and pigs up close.
This Old Farm Pioneer Village
Thirty buildings await exploration in The Pioneer Village, including a train depot, blacksmith, saw mill, fire station, church, sweet shoppe, log house, fire station and many more.
Each of the buildings are filled with antiques primarily from the collection of Dick and Marian Rademacher, who started the Village, and from other donors who wanted to see their collections enjoyed by the many visitors to the park.
Great care in preserving history is visible throughout Pioneer Village. The Rad’s Groceries building was the actual structure of the store operated about six miles away by Rademacher’s parents. The building was moved from its original location to the Village and then filled with period pieces from the Rademacher antique collection.
The train depot building was actually used in the making of the 1994 movie Iron Will starring Mackenzie Astin and Kevin Spacey. Following the movie, the structure was moved to Brainerd and re-constructed in the Pioneer Village.
Current owners, Lois Moon and Alan Rademacher, work to preserve the massive collection their father built over the years and to share it with the many park visitors. The collection is vast, with thousands and thousands of items ranging from glassware to antique cars to farm equipment.
Donations of items, such as a huge camera collection and the cannon shown below, have made their way to Pioneer Village, with the understanding that, once donated, the items will stay in the Village permanently.
Where to stay
There are a variety of lodging choices in and around Brainerd, but we recommend Madden’s on Gull Lake. A beautiful, luxury resort, Madden’s has stunning water views, two golf courses, a spa, fabulous dining, a beach and so much more.
Know before you go
Admissions. Here’s one parents should love. Admission includes unlimited rides for the day, and entry to the petting barn and Pioneer Village. Season passes are also available and children under 2 are free.
Park hours. The park is open daily 10 am to 6 pm from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day. Additionally, the park operates Brainerd Lakes’ largest haunted attraction in October and free admission to the Enchanted Holiday Pioneer Village during the holiday season in December. Visit the Paul Bunyan Land website for hours and dates.
Disclosure & Disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore Minnesota, Explore Brainerd Lakes and Paul Bunyan Land for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used. Some posts on this website may contain links to our partners’ websites and Chasing Light Media may be compensated by those partners.