The Great River Road

Less than a century ago, the northern forests of Minnesota were chock-full of lumber boom camps, with hundreds of mills and lumber works whining night and day, and dozens of saloons, brothels, and boardinghouses catering to the rough-and-tumble logging trade. The ravenous cutting wiped out the stands—virtually nothing remains of Minnesota’s primeval pine forests—and the camps disappeared as quickly as they sprang up, but the woods have repeatedly grown back, to be harvested on a more sustainable basis while still providing an eye-pleasing backdrop to the region’s literally thousands of lakes.

From its boomtown roots, Bemidji (pop. 15,404) has long since settled down into a picturesque community—i.e., looking just as it did when Hubert Humphrey first ran for Congress. Its compact and charismatic business district lines the south shore of lovely Lake Bemidji. With large mills still busily turning trees into wood products, Bemidji is a typically industrious lumber town, remarkable mainly for having assisted in the birth of that well-loved legendary duo of logging lore, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.

The main course of the GRR wraps around downtown Bemidji, so be sure to follow old US-2 onto Hwy-197, which passes up and over both the Mississippi River and Lake Bemidji while winding to downtown and a park where the town’s big tourist draws, leviathan statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, have stood along the lakefront since their construction in 1937. Next to that big Paul and Babe on the lakeshore, the Bemidji Tourist Information Center (218/759-0164 or 877-250-5959) boasts a fireplace made with 900 stones collected from national parks, the majority of Canadian provinces, every U.S. state (apart from Alaska and Hawaii, which weren’t states when the fireplace was constructed), and all 87 Minnesota counties. The Center has displays with odd historical items—including Paul Bunyan’s ax and his oversize underwear.

Along with Paul and Babe, Bemidji offers endless opportunities for water-skiing, canoeing, fishing, ice-fishing, and autumnal leaf-peeping; it’s also the “Curling Capital of the USA.” Downtown, the inviting Brigid’s Irish Pub (317 NW Beltrami Ave., 218/444-0567) serves good food and great beer, two blocks from the lakefront. A good fast-food option is Dave’s Pizza (218/751-3225) at 15th Street and Irvine Avenue, on the north side of town.

Bemidji’s many motels include the family-oriented Hampton Inn & Suites (1019 NW Paul Bunyan Dr. S., 218/751-3600 or 855/271-3617, $108 and up), situated on the lake, with its own beach and pool.

Leaving downtown Bemidji along the edge of the lake, the GRR makes a series of backcountry loops past tree farms and at least 6 of the state’s 10,000 lakes, crossing US-2 twice before snaking into Grand Rapids 75 mi (121 km) later. The road hugs red pine- and aspen-wooded shores and crosses the ever-widening Mississippi eight times, while numerous signs point to unseen resorts, which, in Minnesota, don’t offer luxury so much as proximity to good fishing. Fishing is serious business hereabouts, as is evident from the frequency of signs advertising “Leeches—Minnows—Nightcrawlers.”

If you’re just passing through, one place to set aside some time for is about halfway along, in the hamlet of Bena. Right along US-2, a 65-ft-long (20-m) muskie, with a 14-ft-wide (4.3-m) mouth, welcomes customers to the popular Big Fish Supper Club (218/665-2299, Tues.-Sun.). As seen in that classic Chevy Chase road-trip movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, the friendly café is open for dinner and drinks year-round.

Maps of the Great River Road in Minnesota

Map of the Great River Road through Northern Minnesota.
Map of the GRR through Northern Minnesota.
Map of the Great River Road through Southern Minnesota.
Map of the GRR through Southern Minnesota.

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