Discover Minnesota's 12 most magnificent lakes

Peter Watson

In the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" (well, 11,842 to be exact), it's almost impossible to say which ones are truly the finest. But here's my best shot.

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A stunning sunset on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesotatraunfoto/Shutterstock

Dubbed the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," Minnesota is actually the land of 11,842 lakes to be exact.

Everyone will have an opinion on what justifies the label, "the best", but I thought I'd give it a go all the same.

These 12 striking bodies of water represent just a handful of the many great places to start your Minnesota lake adventure.

Explore them all, then find more fun on the water statewide.

Just add water! (Video: Explore Minnesota)

1. Lake Superior

You'll need to catch your breath after your first glimpse of Lake Superior from Minnesota's North Shore.

This magnificent body of water looks like an ocean, living up to its status as the largest freshwater lake in the country, bigger than the other four Great Lakes combined.

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Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior's North ShoreJuly Flower/Shutterstock

Start your visit in the vibrant port city of Duluth, where your kids can skip rocks into the water while you watch the freighters pass under the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.

Continue your journey up the shore, and you'll discover the gorgeous scenery and charming lakeside towns that make this 154-mile stretch one of Minnesota's top vacation destinations. 

2. Lake Mille Lacs

Stretching as far as the eye can see, this huge lake in the heart of the state is a fisherman's paradise, ranked a top 10 bass lake by Bassmaster and, come winter, one of Minnesota's premier ice fishing destinations.

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Sunrise over Mille Lacs in central MinnesotaMyra Horner/Shutterstock

It's also home to a large sandy beach at Father Hennepin State Park, and is one of the few Minnesota lakes that's big enough for launch fishing.

3. Minneapolis Chain of Lakes

Essentially five lakes in one, Bde Maka Ska (pictured), Harriet, Cedar, Brownie and Lake of the Isles offer a taste of the great outdoors in the heart of Minnesota's biggest city.

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Sailboats and Minneapolis skyline on Chain of Lakes in MinneapolisExplore Minnesota

Three of the four are connected and can be paddled as one; in some spots, you can't even tell you're in the city.

Biking and running along the shores, dining at the lakeside eateries, and hitting the beaches are popular summer activities, with ice skating and hockey taking over in winter.

4. Lake of the Woods

After Superior, this 950,000-acre lake in far northwest Minnesota is the state's second-largest border lake, known for four seasons of great fishing for walleye, saugers, northerns and other species.

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A floatplane flies over Oak Island in Lake of the WoodsExplore Minnesota

In fact, winter fishing is even more popular than summer here, with resorts renting ice houses that have all the amenities of a deluxe cabin out on the frozen lake.

Lake of the Woods is also home to the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point in the continental US, which can only be reached by boat or by driving through Canada.

5. Lake Vermilion

This large, beautiful lake in northeast Minnesota is rimmed with thick forest and studded with 365 pine-topped islands spread throughout its 37 miles.

Escape it all on Lake Vermilion (Image: @lakevermilionhouseboats)

Largely undeveloped, Vermilion provides a wilderness escape at the peaceful resorts and campgrounds along its shores. It's also a hot spot for fishing and a don't-miss fall color destination.

6. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

A bucket list destination for any adventurer, this federally protected preserve stretches 150 miles along the Canadian border and is home to more than 1,000 bodies of water, with canoes as the primary mode of transportation.

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Boundary Waters is one of America's most remote wilderness areasPaul Vincent/Explore Minnesota

The Boundary Waters are a true wilderness; there are no cars, hotels, restaurants, electricity or other modern conveniences.

The lakes range from tiny to vast, with portages, hiking trails, abundant wildlife, and campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis.

7. Gull Lake

The Brainerd Lakes area is a popular vacation destination in central Minnesota, and one of the biggest reasons is its biggest lake.

With several resorts along its shores, Gull Lake is a draw for fishermen, families and anyone else looking for some fun on the water.

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Sunset on Gull LakeEric Ward/Explore Minnesota

Hop on a jet ski, pontoon, paddleboard or cruise ship, or come for the massive Ice Fishing Extravaganza that takes over the lake every January.

8. Lake Pepin

A naturally occurring lake that makes it the widest part of the Mississippi River, Lake Pepin's claim to fame is the birthplace of water skiing, with the annual Water Ski Days dedicated to the sport.

Sunrise on Lake Pepin (Image: @midwestlivingmag)

Take a cruise on the Pearl of the Lake paddle wheeler, book a sailing or fishing charter, or experience the lake by canoe, kayak or paddleboard.

In winter, it's a great place to spot nesting bald eagles.

9. Lake Minnetonka

Made famous by Prince's movie "Purple Rain," this large lake west of Minneapolis draws crowds seeking summertime fun, from sunbathing to sailing to wake surfing, a mash-up of wakeboarding and surfing.

Lake Minnetonka is famous for wake surfing (Image: @explorelakeminnetonka)

In winter, it plays host to ice fishing, snowkiting and the Chilly Open, an on-ice golf tournament. It's also one of the first lakes in the state to "ice out," signaling spring is on the horizon.

10. Rainy Lake

The gateway to Voyageurs National Park, this vast lake on the Canadian border can be explored on guided boat and canoe tours, via personal canoe, kayak or motorboat, or on a houseboat, which serves as transportation and lodging in one.

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A houseboat on Rainy Lake at in Voyageurs National ParkJim Umhoffer/Explore Minnesota

Once frozen, the lake is a haven for ice fishing and snowmobiling, and an ice road is ploughed for cars and trucks.

Rainy is one of four large (and dozens of smaller) lakes that make up Minnesota's uniquely water-based national park.

11. Leech Lake

Every winter, thousands of people descend on the small northwest Minnesota town of Walker in search of eelpout on Leech Lake, one of the world's ugliest bottom-dwelling fish. 

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Ice fishing on Leech LakeExplore Minnesota

The fishing here is good year-round, with walleye, muskie, largemouth bass, perch and bluegill among the popular catches.

12. Otter Tail Lake

In a county with more than 1,000 lakes, Otter Tail stands out for its size, depth and popularity.

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A dog leaps off a dock into Ottertail Lake at sunsetAllie Hoeft/Explore Minnesota

Along the shore, you'll find resorts, campgrounds, lakeside dining and golf courses, and expert fishing guides can help you find walleye, bass, panfish and more.

The lake will play host to the 2020 Governor's Fishing Opener, a Minnesota tradition that's celebrated the beginning of the fishing season for over 70 years.

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Peter Watson is a writer, photographer and adventurer. A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent. Four down, three to go... He has also travelled extensively around the US developing a penchant for American backcountry, abandoned buildings and natural wonders en route.

Phoenix, AZ
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