The 5 Best Vacation Lakes near Minneapolis (All Within 3 hours!)

best vacation lakes near minneapolis

Nothing says “true Minnesota lifestyle” quite like a lake vacation.

In the Summer, it seems like all of the Twin Cities descends upon their favorite lake for good times, sunny skies, and lots of swimming. And in the Winter, nothing beats a quiet getaway to a frozen lake, where toasty fires and peaceful relaxation awaits.

No matter what time of year, in a state with over 10,000 lakes to visit, there’s clearly no shortage of options of places to go for those looking for a lake break.

But among those 10,000 lakes, a few spots stick out as the best vacation lakes around Minnesota…

But first, what makes a great vacation lake?

It’s different for everyone, obviously. But in putting together our list, we tried to focus on those popular getaway spots with a little something special.

For example, there’s thousands of lakes just in the Twin Cities metro area, but admittedly, most are small bodies of water that don’t exactly make for the best getaway. (Let’s be honest, nobody’s vacationing to Earley Lake in Burnsville, a less than 200-foot wide lake within earshot of 35W South…)

Instead, we focused on those spots that feel like another place entirely. From world-renown angling to great winter ice fishing, and from cute small towns to serene natural getaways, each lake on this list should make for a perfect vacation, depending on what you’re looking for.

The most popular weekend retreat for city-dwellers: Gull Lake (Brainerd, MN & Nisswa, MN)

It seems that come summertime, “We’re heading up to Brainerd,” becomes the city-wide chant of Minneapolitans everywhere.

The reasons for this area’s popularity are endless. Some visitors flock to the area to visit the hugely popular and endless selection of large resorts. Madden’s on Gull Lake claims they have more recreational amenities than any other resort in the Midwest, while Grand View Lodge, and it’s 750 acres of pine forest, claims they’re the most awarded resort in the Midwest.

The area’s popularity has led to two “must-visit” neighboring small towns in the area.

  • Brainerd is the slightly larger one of the pair, with a wider variety of things to do plus a few reminders of home, like some big box grocery stores (looking at you, Walmart) in case you forget anything at home.
  • Nisswa is the smaller one of the pair, with an adorable main street that’s oozing with log-cabin, Northwoods character.

Of course, Gull Lake is just the biggest lake in the area. Within the 20 mile radius of these two towns, there’s hundreds of lakes large and small, plus an endless selection of resorts, hotels, cabins, and more.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 2 hours 15 minutes

The most popular vacation lake for fishing: Mille Lacs Lake (Mille Lacs, MN)

Maybe no spot in the state of Minnesota is as famous for its Walleye and Muskie fishing as Mille Lacs, and recently, Bassmaster Magazine and USA Today both named Mille Lacs one of the best bass fishing spots in the country.

So it’s not surprising that anglers make the 1.5 hour drive from the Twin Cities to Mille Lacs all year round. In the Summer, the boat ramps are bustling with anglers looking for the day’s big catch. And in the winter, the frozen lake becomes dotted with more ice-fishing huts than just about anywhere on the planet.

But fishing is just one of the allures here. Mille Lacs is also a popular family destination, and this lake will give you plenty of opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, water skiing, and all around Northern-adventuring. Mille Lacs even has one of Minneapolis’s closest casinos.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 1 hour 45 minutes

The most impressive vacation lake: Lake Superior (Duluth, MN & The North Shore)

As the biggest lake in Minnesota and the largest freshwater lake in the world, it doesn’t get more awe-inspiring than the great Lake Superior. The reasons to vacation to Lake Superior are endless, which is probably why a trip to this lake (and the rest of Minnesota’s North Shore) has almost become a right of passage for Twin City residents.

Lake Superior offers hundreds of miles of beautiful, rocky shorelines, numerous must-visit small towns, plenty of Minnesota’s best state parks, and a way to connect with our state unlike anywhere else.

It’s all certainly too much to cover in this little blurb, so I’ll just refer you to our full guide of the best things to do along Minnesota’s North Shore.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: Between 2 hours 15 minutes to 5 hours, depending on how far north you go.

The best choice for a quick road trip: Lake Pepin (Red Wing, MN)

Located on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border just 60 miles south of Minneapolis, Lake Pepin is a really unique lake that sits right on the Mississippi River. This lake is also situated on the Great River Road Scenic Drive, making Lake Pepin a perfect choice if you’re looking for a quick road trip from the Twin Cities.

Start in Minneapolis and make the one hour drive south to Red Wing, MN. This is the unofficial starting point for the Great River Road, so from Red Wing, continue driving along the scenic shoreline to Wabasha, MN, then cross the river to Nelson, WI. When you’re ready to return, you can head and head back up the Wisconsin side of the river. (Each side of the river is equally as scenic, so definitely check out both!)

Don’t forget to stop for a hike or two, so you can check out some of the many scenic views along the river bluffs.

Pro tip: This trip is especially magical in the Fall, when the river bluffs light up with autumn colors.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 1 hour 15 minutes

The best place for a Wisconsin vacation near Minneapolis: Hayward Lakes Area (Hayward, WI)

Hayward, Wisconsin, located 2.5 hours from the Twin Cities, is home to maybe the most impressive collection of lakes from our neighbor state. Whether you’re looking for one of the largest wilderness lakes in Wisconsin or small, nearly private lakes, Hayward’s wide variety of lake getaways make this area one of the most popular spots for family vacations.

Plus, no matter what time of year you’re visiting, this region hosts some of the state’s most popular events. In the Summer, the Lumberjack World Championships lets you watch some of the fastest choppers and sawyers on earth. And in the Winter, cross-country skiers from all over the world descend upon Hayward to compete in the American Berkebeiner, the largest cross country ski race in North America.

  • Distance from Minneapolis: 2 hours 30 minutes

Map of the best vacation lakes near Minneapolis:


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