Top 10 Things To Do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the Winter

Winter Activities in the Brainerd Lakes Area include sitting by a bonfire by the lake, like this couple

If you live in a cold climate, the thought of a winter vacation in that cold climate instead of say, the Caribbean, may not excite you. You don’t know what you’re missing! We want to encourage you to take another look at a spring break or winter getaway to a lake cabin in northern Minnesota.

Our Favorite Activities to Do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the Winter (even if there’s no snow)

Even though many people only think of going to a lake cabin in the summer, there are so many fun things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter that they should rethink that belief! Whether you love the outdoors or not, there is something for everyone in our part of northern Minnesota.

We have lived in the area for over 40 years and we are world travelers, and we know that this part of the world has just as much to offer as any well known travel destination. To demonstrate our point, we share with you our list of the top ten things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter, starting with the more well known activities, and ending with our personal favorites!

A woman ice fishes on Fish Trap Lake just 100 meters from Campfire Bay Resort in northern Minnesota.

1. Ice Fishing

Most people associate ice fishing with things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area of Minnesota in the winter, and well they should. We have so many lakes in such a small area that there is a fishing spot for everyone. From well known tournaments like the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza that attract thousands of fishermen annually every February, to individuals just getting out there for the love of the sport, ice fishing is one of the top 10 things to do here for sure, when there’s good ice.

Ice fishing on Fish Trap Lake is fantastic, especially just a few hundred yards from Campfire Bay Resort and near our island!


Snowmobiles with their lights on in the snow covered forest, like in the Brainerd Lakes Area

2. Snowmobiling (or ATV-ing)

We have some of the most extensive snowmobile and ATV trails in the world with over 1200 miles of trails, making riding on those trails one of the top 10 things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter AND summer.

Even if we don’t have the perfect snow for snowmobiling, you can still ride ATVs and create a fun vacation hopping from one quaint town to the next! Just be sure to follow the rules :)


Two smiling kids tube down a hill in the snow because tubing is one of the top things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter

3. Downhill Skiing and Tubing

Another winter activity that is popular in any cold climate is downhill skiing and tubing, and so it’s obvious that these two sports would make the list of the top 10 things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter.

Mount Ski Gull is the best place in the area to get your thrills of flying down snow-covered hills (even when there’s not a lot of natural snow)! They have great senior and military discounts and you can even rent an entire tubing hill for just your group.


Fat tire biking on a snow covered trail near the woods is one of the top things to do in the winter

4. Biking

Most people in cold climates pack their bikes away as soon as the snow flies because their bikes and the conditions where they live are not conducive to biking. However, fat tire bikes, especially those with electric assist, and the plentiful trails in the Brainerd Lakes Area, make winter biking, not only possible, but one of the top things to do here, snow or no!

Nearby Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails are open year round, depending on trail conditions, and wind through forest and around lakes for some of the prettiest biking you’ll ever experience. And, potentially, some of the most thrilling! The Paul Bunyan Trail, mentioned again below, is more tame. There are several locations in the area to rent fat tire bikes, including:  Cykel Bike Shop, Muddy Bikes, and Red Raven.


A person in a red and orange coat snow shoes near trees

5. Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing, and Hiking

With so many beautiful trails to explore, traveling on foot, whether aided with skis, snowshoes, or just your boots, is one of our favorite things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter. Even if there is no snow, the captivating beauty of the quiet forests and lakes make for a wonderful hiking experience out in nature. Easy Riders has ski and snowshoe rental if needed. Some of our favorite places to hike, ski, or snowshoe are:

  • Northland Arboretum in the heart of Baxter/Brainerd. They have over 400 acres and interesting trails while still only being a couple of minutes from a few coffee shops where you can warm up afterwards.
  • Paul Bunyan Trail is one of our favorite trails to walk or bike. It is a 123 mile long paved trail that skirts several towns so you can stop and eat or shop along the way!
  • Pillsbury State Forest has trails for hiking, cross country skiing and horseback riding. If you click on the Pillsbury name there, it takes you to the AllTrails website, which is one of our favorite aps to find great places to hike anywhere!
  • The lake, country road, and trails around and at Campfire Bay Resort. Sure, we may be biased, but these quiet wooded trails and roads are quick and easy to get to and, with nary a soul around, very peaceful.

With all these great options, hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing is definitely one of the top things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter!

Northern Pacific Center is a unique shopping and event destination in the Brainerd Lakes Area

Photo Courtesy of Northern Pacific Center

6. Unique Shopping

Since we know not everyone likes to be outside, especially in the winter, we’ve saved the last half of this top 10 list of things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter for indoor activities. Within a 20 minute radius of the 371/210 intersection, there are so many locally owned unique shops — from clothing to home decor, thrift to high end! Here are four areas we have personally shopped and recommend: Northern Pacific Center, downtown Brainerd, the 371 corridor of Baxter, and Nisswa. You will need a full day if you are a fast shopper, or 2 days if not, to visit them all.

The Northern Pacific Center is close to downtown and a good place to start. Currently there aren’t a lot of shops yet, but the few that exist are little gems. Start out your day with a coffee flight at Loco Espress, then walk to Goody’s, a super cute candy and toy shop, just down from another equally cute boutique store, Little Hobo Boutique.

Loco Espress, a coffee shop in Brainerd, MN, serves coffee flights, pictured here.

Photo of a Coffee Flight Courtesy of Loco Espress

Downtown Brainerd is a logical choice for your next stop with a ton of shops all within walking distance of each other. The following shops are just ones we have personally visited and are worth checking out!

Soap from Purple Fern Bath Company is one possible purchase if shopping in the Brainerd Lakes Area of Minnesota

Photo of Handmade Soap Courtesy of Purple Fern

  • Design Consign is a great home decor and furniture consignment store
  • Cat Tales is a new and used book store packed to the gills with books from all genres and rocks
  • The Gallery is a hip boutique with music, clothes, shoes, jewelry, and gifts for the younger, or young at heart, crowd
  • Bargains on 7th is a cluttered consignment store, but always delivers on the goods. I never walk out of there empty handed
  • Purple Fern has wonderful bath products and candles and you can even make your own candles there in their cute candle bar! It’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours with friends!
  • Old Open Window has clothes, jewelry, shoes, antiques and more
  • Crow Wing Co-Op has delicious, local, and organic food and necessities
  • Crossing Arts Alliance sells local artisan’s works

From downtown Brainerd, just head west on 210 until you get to the 371 intersection. There are chain stores like TJ Maxx, Hobby Lobby, and more just to the south next to Costco at that intersection, and Kohls and Target to the north.  However, go right, or north for unique shopping.

Christmas Point Wild Rice Company is a shopping mecca in the Brainerd Lakes Area of Minnesota

Photo Courtesy of Christmas Point Wild Rice Co.

On the left or west side of 371, just a little ways up, is Christmas Point Wild Rice Company. Don’t be misled by it’s long, unassuming name. This is one of the biggest local shops we’ve ever been in, anywhere. Located in a two story building, it has three floors of goods from clothing to furniture and a great cafe. Be forewarned, you can spend hours there.

Also along 371, just a little ways further north, on the left side of the road across from the Holiday Inn Express and Three Bear Waterpark, is Sorted Boutiques, a nice clothing store in that strip of businesses.

The Mercantile has eclectic merchandise like these moose heads made of driftwood.

Photo Courtesy of The Mercantile

Continue north and on the left side of the road near Dondelinger’s Auto dealership is Common Goods, a great thrift store. Just a little further is another fun second hand store, The Mercantile.

Finally, driving further north, you will arrive at the charming town of Nisswa. There are so many one of a kind shops we love in this town that we think spending a day shopping in Nisswa should be on any shopaholic’s bucket list. While there, be sure to grab lunch at our favorite pizza place listed in the next section.


Eating at a local restaurant is one of the top 10 things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the Winter

7. Fantastic Dining

If you are staying in one of our cabins at Campfire Bay Resort or a similar rental, you can save money by cooking yourself, obviously. However, there are so many delicious food options locally, that you should have a least a couple meals out during your stay in the area. Our list below is far from a complete list of great restaurants in the BLA, but rather includes our personal favorites by category, including gluten free options!

Asian Take Out:  Sukura Express. This hole in the wall restaurant often looks like it’s closed from its somewhat shabby exterior, but the authentic, affordable large portions far outshine its lacking ambiance. Their sushi and hibachi is great and they will make dishes gluten free. It has a drive through and you can order from the above link, so take out is easy.

From Asian food, such as this ramen bowl, to regional dishes, the Brainerd Lakes Area has so many wonderful restaurants.

Asian Dine In:  Ippin Ramen is a newer addition to the area and has become our favorite for unique, tasty ramen bowls, sushi, and more, including gluten free options, in a Japenese manga-inspired setting.

Italian: Baia Della Italian Kitchen has delicious food, including their famous “build your own bruchetta”. They have many gluten free options, including pasta or zoodles, as well!

Pizza:  Rafferty’s has always been a favorite pizza place for many in the area, and they have locations in Baxter and in Nisswa. Their veggie pizza on a gluten free crust? Chef’s kiss!

Mexican: El Tequila Mexican Restaurant serves mouth-watering authentic Mexican and Tex Mex food as its owners, and many of the staff, are from Mexico. There are plenty of gluten free options, and portions are big, so most dishes can be saved for leftovers.

A bowl of chicken wild rice soup is a Minnesota favorite and Black Bear Lodge up north Minnesota has the best!

Uniquely local:  Sage on Laurel is a quirky bar and restaurant in downtown Brainerd that also has gluten free options. We agree with their quote, “Our from scratch kitchen, fun and adventurous menu full of fresh and bright flavors, and historic, comfortable, and artsy atmosphere is an experience you won’t soon forget!”

Regional:  Black Bear Lodge has fantastic Minnesota favorites, including chicken wild rice soup, which according to my dad, is the best in the world. They have tasty walleye and gluten free options as well, all served in the cozy ambiance of a log building.

A bar with several craft beers displayed is an example of the many local breweries and distillery in the Brainerd Lakes Area

My husband and I don’t spend much money on alcohol as we value food more, so we admittedly haven’t visited any of the many local breweries and distillery. Unless you count the kombucha brewery, Ya-Sure Kombucha, LOL! Consider taking a great brewery tour in the Brainerd Lakes Area.

A young girl with swim goggles smiles as her sister and cousin hold onto a little boy in a floatie while at an indoor water park like one of the three in the Brainerd Lakes Area

8. Swimming at a Waterpark

One of the top 10 things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in the winter, even for locals, is swim at one of our three waterparks. While our kids are grown now, we took our kids to all three of the following waterparks many times! If you stay in their attached hotels, admission is included in your room cost.


Anyone can play pickleball at Campfire Bay Resort in the Brainerd Lakes Area

9.  Playing Pickleball

One of our personal top favorite things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area in winter (and summer too!), is pickleball. There are several outdoor courts to play on when there is no snow and the weather mild enough. Gregory Park, in Brainerd, has three outdoor courts and Scandia Valley Park, a nice park near Lake Alexander and Fish Trap Lake south of Motley, has four.

Of course, in the winter, playing inside is the best. The Brainerd Lakes YMCA has three courts with limited play time. A day pass can be purchased for $7-$11, depending on age, or $20/family if you are not a Y member. Fitquest has day passes for $15 if you are not a member and has just 1 court.

The Rec at Campfire Bay Resort has just one court and also paddles and balls available to use. It is open 7am to 11pm for free for resort guests and for $5/person for non-guests. Court reservation is available on a very limited basis, so you may have to share with other guests. Calling ahead is advisable.


Two feet in front of a fire show how romantic and relaxing a lake cabin in the winter can be.

10. Relaxing in a Lakeside Resort Cabin

Of course we’re biased. And it probably just looks like we’re trying to market our resort here. But, while that’s definitely part of it, way before we ever owned Campfire Bay Resort, we loved to get away in the winter to a cozy cabin or B & B. Therefore, we still think it’s the number one thing on this list of the top 10 things to do in the Brainerd Lakes Area (or anywhere in the state) in the winter.

A lakeside resort cabin gets you a front row seat to the beauty of a frozen lake while staying warm by a fire inside. You can also sit by a fire at night outside and enjoy gazing at the stars, and if you’re lucky, the northern lights. Either way, a northern Minnesota cabin is your gateway to all the wonderful activities the Brainerd Lakes Area has to offer, any time of year. So, what are you waiting for? Come, join us at the Campfire.