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A Guide to Minnesota’s 15 Best Lakes

We’re the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but not every one of those lakes is packed with things to do every Summer, hosts rowdy floating parties, or has the perfect place to go ice fishing. Heck, some of ’em probably aren’t even real lakes. So to help you find the best place to fish, swim, or get a little wild, we’ve ranked the 15 best bodies of water in the state (and graded their party potential!).

15. Rainy Lake

There’s a reason city dwellers love to go “Up North” — all the way to International Falls — every Summer weekend. This is the spot if you’re a bass fisherman, luring anglers from far and wide who want to wake up early, hit the water, and catch their limit. Sadly for people looking for a good time, it’s also the place for people who want to hit the hay a little early too.
Party Potential: low
Activities: boat access, fishing

14. Lake of the Isles

It’s worth taking a run around Lake of the Isles just to take a gander at the stately houses that surround it. It’s a little more low-key than the other lakes in the chain with fewer people and no beaches. But you can still rent some boats and there’s ice skating in the Winter.
Party Potential: low
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, fishing

13. Deer Lake

In Itasca County, just outside of Deer River, this lake’s color shifts through all shades of blue. The mineral content creates a scintillating shade of turquoise that must be seen to be believed. It’s also one of the clearest lakes in the entire state, which means you can see those fish lurking down below, just waiting for a little snack courtesy of your hook. It’s a small, quiet area with a few rocking back-country bars that are worth seeking out.
Party Potential: low
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, boat access, fishing


12. Lake Winnibigoshish

This might just be the most Minnesota-sounding name on the list, although those in the know just call her Lake Winnie. Up in the North-central part of the state, Winnie has a great balance of wilderness — it’s right by Chippewa National Forest — and plenty of stuff to do with campgrounds, resorts, and fishing lodges. Plus it’s close enough to Bemidji that if you need a little civilization you can (sort of) find it.
Party Potential: moderate
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, boat access, fishing

11. Lake of the Woods

The self-declared walleye capital of the world delivers on that promise, as well as some majestic scenery. You can lose yourself in the country, just don’t get too lost or you’ll end up in… ugh, Canada. There just isn’t a ton of stuff to do if you aren’t on the lake or at least on a sled, an ATV, or a tricked-out 4×4 with big muddin’ tires. If you are though, you probably won’t get too bored.
Party Potential: moderate
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, swimming, boat access, fishing

10. Pokegama Lake

Just when you think you’ve found the end of the lake it stretches on just a little bit further, winding and twisting around another turn. There are giant homes, small cabins, and plenty of little spots for fish to hide. Whether you’re looking for a sleepy corner to float, a raucous place to dock your party pontoon, or an ideal swimming spot — check out the island with the sand bar right in the middle of the lake — Pokegama has a spot for you. (Just don’t call it poke-gama or the locals will mock you mercilessly. It’s po-KAY-ga-ma.) Party Potential: high
Activities: swimming, boat access, fishing

9. Lake Pepin

Yawning between Minnesota and Wisconsin, this scenic waterway represents the best of both of our states. There is wildlife, action on the waterway, fishing, and fantastic little restaurants waiting to be discovered (stop in Fountainhead for the views and burgers at the Monarch). Plus, in Wisconsin you can buy beer on Sundays. See? Told you it had the best of both states.
Party Potential: moderate A
canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, boat access, fishing

8. Boundary Waters Canoe Area

We can’t talk about any Minnesota waterways without mentioning the BWCA. Every season hearty souls pack up their gear and head for the wilderness. Prepare to portage and live without any modern amenities because out here it’s all about unplugging and sleeping under a blanket of stars. Be sure to pack it all in and haul it all out again so you leave this space as untouched as it has been since the beginning of time.
Party Potential: low
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, fishing

7. Lake Nokomis

This South Minneapolis beauty is easy to get to from inside the city on Minnehaha Pkwy or nearby on Highway 62. Not only do they have all your beach needs covered (including paddleboard/kayak/canoe rentals), but they also have what’s far and away the best lake concession stand: it’s a destination for cheese curds, kimchi-topped hot dogs, and dreamy horchata. If that’s not enough, how about you come for the beer? That’s right, they’ve got a full patio serving up plenty of local brews (and some wine, if that’s how you roll).
Party Potential:
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, beautiful people watching, swimming, boat access, fishing

6. Gull Lake

Gull Lake boasts gorgeous resorts with plenty of spots to play, whether you’re looking for fine dining at Cru or a country bar with ridiculously cheap beer and awesomely loud local bands. But back to the lakes: bring a pole, a towel, a cooler, and a bucket of sunscreen because you won’t want to leave the water.
Party Potential: high
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, fishing

5. Lake Vermilion

How great is the fishing on Vermilion? It’s good enough for the Governor and his family to head up here. This lake is North enough that you’re spitting distance to Canada, which means the fall colors come early and in full force. With miles and miles of shoreline and islands, it’s easy to lose yourself in the romance of this wonderland where the loons will wake you in the morning and great bald eagles guard the shoreline.
Party Potential: high
Activities: swimming, boat access, fishing

4. Lake Harriet

The centerpiece of Harriet would have to be the bandshell, where you can take in a movie or a show, but there are also plenty of beaches and it’s a little quieter than its chained brethren. There are boat rentals and access for smaller vessels too. If you’re hungry, Bread & Pickle has all the popcorn and hot dogs you could ask for. There are loads of tranquil ways to spend your time around Harriet including a bird sanctuary, trolley rides, and the rose garden.
Party Potential: moderate
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, beautiful people watching, swimming, boat access, fishing

3. Lake Superior

We can’t rank the lakes without counting our one and only Great Lake. Sure, there are some other states that might try to claim this sapphire beauty, but watching those giant ships go under the Aerial Lift Bridge makes it easy to forget anything else exists. Catch one of the boat tours and whizz around Duluth and Superior while learning all about the rich shipping history, or head up the North Shore and catch the view from Split Rock Lighthouse. You can also hike up Pike Point for an illicit campfire (technically not allowed, but it never stops people). The view from the silky sand is one of the most breathtaking ways to spend a perfect Summer night. Just resist the urge for a quick night swim — the water is cold. Like, Barry Gibb falsetto cold, even on the hottest nights.
Party Potential: high
Activities: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, beautiful people watching, boat access, fishing

2. Lake Calhoun

It’s small, but it’s fierce. The star of the Chain of Lakes, Calhoun is where people who look better in a swimsuit than you go. Tin Fish serves up some solid concession eats, plus there are canoes and kayaks available for renting. There are several beaches, but it’s best to keep swimming here to the early part of the season as the waters can get a bit funky come August. There’s also boat access for smaller vessels if you’d like to fish, row, or sail your way around this sucker.
Party Potential: high
Actitivies: canoe/kayak/paddleboard rentals, concessions, beautiful people watching, swimming, boat access, fishing

1. Lake Mille Lacs

Everything is bigger and better at this scenic lake. The shoreline yawns across the middle of the state with some of the best fishing you’ll find anywhere. There are plenty of places to put a boat into the water, or you can find one to rent nearby. The action doesn’t stop around here from Summer to Winter to crushing ice tsunamis. Just hang onto your hat when the wind gets whipping. If there’s ever a rainy day — there’s always the nearby casino to keep you occupied.
Party Potential: high
Activities: swimming, boat access, fishing

[via Thrillist]
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