The stakes are high when it comes to mapping out the best lakes in Minnesota, a state officially dubbed the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and passions run high among many locals. Quiet swimming spots hours from civilization along with highly social lakeside hangs in the city create a broad range of experiences across the entire state.

While it’s borderline impossible to choose favorites among Minnesota’s thousands of lakes, it’s in your best interest to at least check off a few from this list while visiting.

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There's fishing in all seasons at Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods spans 950,000 acres and also holds the title of being the northernmost point in the continental United States, known as the Northwest Angle. With more than 14,500 islands, the word mammoth is an understatement when it comes to size, seeing as the lake spreads over two Canadian provinces and also Minnesota. Fishing is one of the go-to activities, and walleye and saugers are among the popular species of catch. Even in winter, ice fishing dominates the scene from December through March, so expect year-round activity here. Far from any cities, it offers a more rustic experience.

Mille Lacs is the best year-round vacation spot near Minneapolis 

When examining a map of Minnesota, you’re likely to zoom in on Mille Lacs, a large, rotund lake in the center of the state. Roughly an hour and a half north of Minneapolis, this lake’s name translates to “thousand lakes” from French, even though it’s just one single (albeit quite large) lake. These 132,500 acres are fit for four seasons of activity, with swimming and boating in the summer and ice fishing and other snowy sports in the winter. You’ll find no shortage of places to dine out and stay right on the lake.

A solo figure on a paddleboard on a lake in a wooded area as the sky turns orange-pink at sunset
Explore more than 2000 islands at Rainy Lake, the gateway to Voyageurs National Park © Per Breiehagen / Getty Images

Catch a glimpse of Canada from Rainy Lake

Way up on the US–Canada border, mirror-like Rainy Lake is the gateway to Voyageurs National Park, a gorgeous landscape dotted with lakes of all sizes and rocky islands. Known for prime sunset scenes, canvas-like starry night skies and even the Northern Lights, the lake packs a powerful punch when it comes to encapsulating Minnesota’s beauty in one body of water. The landscape has more than 2000 islands to explore via waterways, so hopping in a canoe or kayak is one of the best things you can do here.

Lake Minnetonka is the best for boating, socializing, and summer events

As a chain of 16 interconnecting lakes with more than 20 bays, a smattering of islands and at least a dozen lakeside towns, Lake Minnetonka feels a bit like an above-ground lake version of Atlantis. More than 120 miles of lakeshore lie just 40 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, making it a popular destination for city dwellers seeking more of a suburban experience on the water. It’s particularly busy around the 4th of July, when the lake fills with boaters and people from all over the metropolitan area flock to the waters.

Sailboats with white sails on a lake at the edge of a city. There are several tall buildings in the background
If you need a dose of nature near Minneapolis, head to the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes © Geoffrey Kuchera / Shutterstock

Minneapolis Chain of Lakes is a great natural spot near Minneapolis

Five distinctive lakes – Cedar, Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, Harriet and Brownie – make up Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, a series of well-loved bodies of water just southwest of downtown. Each has its own distinctive character, with Bde Maka Ska being the most social (and touristed) whereas Lake Harriet is popular among families and sailing enthusiasts. Lake of the Isles is the quietest of the bunch, shrouded by gorgeous lakeside homes in the Kenwood neighborhood. You’ll find plenty of locals hanging out at Cedar Lake, and Brownie Lake, more of a large pond, is so small that you likely won’t hear too much about it, but you can take a nice walk around its perimeter.

Experience the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin 

Easily confused as just another chunk of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin is a naturally formed lake located within a widespread valley right on the river in between the Minnesota–Wisconsin border. Dotted with sailboats in the summer and ice fishers by winter, this lake sees activity in all four seasons, not to mention dreamy fall views when the shoreline turns shades of ochre, burnt orange, and earthy crimson. On the Minnesota side, Frontenac State Park provides primo bird’s eye views from towering bluffs.

For a getaway in nature, head to Lake Vermilion 

With a shoreline clocking in at more than 340 miles long, Lake Vermilion holds the title for the longest shoreline among lakes in Minnesota. This far north beauty in northeast Minnesota is lined by thick forestlands, which are also found on many of the lake’s 365 islands. Far less developed than many others, Lake Vermilion is a stellar place to truly get off-grid and immerse yourself in natural beauty. A light handful of laid-back resorts and campgrounds offer ideal respite from a busy schedule.

A shot from a canoe with a person dressed in white at the front. The canoe is on a lake dotted with large green waterlillies and surrounded by woodland
Get around the wilderness of Boundary Waters by canoe or kayak © Wildnerdpix / Getty Images

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is perfect for adventure and water sports

Although it can’t be classed as one single lake, seeing as it’s composed of more than 1000 bodies of water, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is easily one of Minnesota’s most prized landscapes. A wonderland of waterways that can only be navigated by boat, you won’t encounter cars or modern-day conveniences here, which is exactly what makes it so incredible. Canoeing and kayaking are the go-to method of transport here, with more than 1200 routes on water to choose from. Portaging – the act of camping via canoe over both land and water – is the best way to adventure around these lands. Stretching 150 miles along the US-Canada border, it’s about as out there as you can get when it comes to wilderness in Minnesota.

Gull Lake is the place to experience Minnesota’s leisure cabin lifestyle

The largest of the Brainerd Lakes area in central Minnesota, Gull Lake brings together friends and families from all over the state for lakeside cabin leisure. No stranger to jet skis, fishing, pontoon boats, and swimmers with oversized inflatable vessels, it’s a popular getaway area during the summer, where many Minnesotans have summer homes. Under a light dusting of snow in the colder months, people still make the most of Gull Lake with ice fishing, the most notable event being the Ice Fishing Extravaganza.

Lake Superior has the best jaw-dropping views and sailing excursions

“Surely, that’s an ocean” is what any reasonable person would think when viewing Lake Superior for the first time. It’s the largest freshwater lake in the country that happens to border Minnesota’s north shore. Towering, craggy rock cliffs met by serene shoreline waters line the entire edge of the northeast, where you can stop off at too-many-to-count scenic points and pebble-filled beaches. Start a Lake Superior experience up in Duluth, a port city known for being the gateway to the glassy vastness of the lake.

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