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15 Best Things to Do in Brainerd, Minnesota

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Just two hours from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-Saint Paul) is an unmissable Minnesota gem – Brainerd. Known as Minnesota’s playground, the Brainerd Lakes Area is an outdoor lover’s paradise. 

A trip to this Minnesota vacationland gives you access to nearly 500 lakes, beautiful state parks, and even the mighty Mississippi River. So, it’s easy to reason that some of the best things to do in Brainerd are camping, biking, hiking, boating, and fishing.

There are also over 450 holes of golf within 30 miles. And if drag racing, muscle car shootouts, and superbike racing are more your thing, there’s Brainerd International Raceway.  

Those who live to explore the hidden gems of travel destinations and are up for a Minnesota adventure will love the whole town of Brainerd. So let’s get into some of the town’s top attractions and best things to see and do.

TL;DR

Things to Do in the Brainerd Lakes Area Description
Paul Bunyan State Trail The country’s longest continuously paved rail-trail, suitable for everyone.
Safari North Wildlife Park A zoo and wildlife park with giraffes, lions, monkeys, and cheetahs.
Pirate’s Cove Mini Golf An adventurous round of mini golf in a pirate-themed setting.
Brainerd International Raceway A motor racing complex that hosts everything from drag racing to road racing.
Northland Arboretum A beautiful nature getaway with walking trails and beautiful plants in a serene setting.
Brainerd Zip Line Tour A thrilling 7-line flight through the treetops.

The Best Things to Do in Brainerd, Minnesota

1. Northland Arboretum

Address: 14250 Conservation Dr, Baxter, MN 56425

A visit to Northland Arboretum is one of the loveliest things to do in Brainerd. Established in 1972, it covers over 400 acres in the heart of the Brainerd/Baxter region of central Minnesota. This beautiful patchwork of habitats, officially an Important Bird Area, is a haven for wildlife.

The site is home to prairie, jack pine savanna, wetlands, and a Norway pine forest. There are also landscaped gardens, including a replica of Monet’s pond at Giverny. And if you’re looking for a romantic yet affordable spot for a wedding, pick the Garden Gazebo. 

The 12 miles of trails make excellent hiking in the summer, doubling up as groomed Nordic skiing trails in the winter. Don’t miss the year-round program of events and courses, including a smoochy Valentine’s snowshoe hike.

See Related: Places to Visit in Minnesota

2. Lum Park

Lum Park at Sunset in Downtown Metropolis
Brainerd Parks and Recreation / Facebook

Address: 1619 NE, Washington St, Brainerd, MN 56401

Families visiting Brainerd in the summer should head to Lum Park, one of Brainerd’s many wonderful public parks. Park up your RV in one of the 18 campsites here, and take your pick of the fun outdoor activities on offer.

Not only is there a kids’ playground, but there are also two sand volleyball courts and a 9-hole disc golf course. You’re right on the shores of Lake Rice, where there’s a public swimming beach and a boat landing. There’s also great fishing – expect to reel in Bluegill, Northern Pike, and Walleye. 

Facilities are good. RV stations have electric and water hookups, free Wi-Fi, fire rings, and picnic tables. There are also picnic shelters, a restroom, and a shower block. 

3. Safari North Wildlife Park

Safari North Wildlife Park at Sunset in the Serengeti
Safari North / Facebook

Address: 8493 MN-371, Brainerd, MN 56401

Safari North Wildlife Park is another Brainerd attraction perfect for families. Kids love interacting with the critters here.

You can feed giraffes and parakeets, pet farm animals in the barnyard, and even practice milking a cow.  And – something pretty rare in central Minnesota – you can also ride a camel.

One way to see the residents is on the safari train ride. As you travel through 10 acres of savanna-style habitat, look out for lions, monkeys, zebras, ostriches, and more.

Other activities include funfair rides and a mining sluice. When you’re done, grab a bite at the Snack Shack or find a souvenir in the gift shop.  

See Related: Reasons to See Duluth Fall Colors in Minnesota

4. Kiwanis Park

Kiwanis Park playground and green space in downtown area
Kiwanis Club of Brainerd Brainerd, MN / Facebook

Address: 1101 E River Rd, Brainerd, MN 56401

Another of the Brainerd Lakes Area’s great fishing destinations is Kiwanis Park. This relaxing spot, close to Downtown Brainerd, is tucked between Boom Lake and the Mississippi River. So you can try lake fishing, river angling, or both.

Head here if you’re bringing your pup on vacation. The Buster doggy playground is an off-leash fenced area at the south end of Kiwanis Park. Watch out for a crazy range of dog events here throughout the year – Howl-O-Ween or Smooch A Pooch, anyone?

Incidentally, fishing enthusiasts mustn’t miss the 10,000+ fish-related exhibits at the Minnesota Fishing Museum. This is located in Little Falls, 30 miles south of Brainerd.

See Related: Things to Do in Alexandria, Minnesota

5. Paul Bunyan Land

Address: 17553 MN-18, Brainerd, MN 56401

Paul Bunyan looms large, quite literally, in this neck of the woods. The legendary giant lumberjack is the subject of countless tall tales – are Minnesota’s 11,000+ lakes his massive footprints?  So look out for Paul Bunyan statues (with or without Babe, his blue ox),  Paul Bunyan State Forest, and the Paul Bunyan Trail.

First-time visitors to the Brainerd area mustn’t miss Paul Bunyan Land amusement park. An all-day ticket gives you access to 20+ rides including flying cages, dodgems, and a ghost mine. For that personal touch, a 26-foot-tall Paul greets kids by name!

Also included is the Pioneer Village, where 45 buildings house Minnesota’s largest collection of antiques. Try to visit in October for some seriously creepy fun in the haunted house and corn maze.

See Related: Best Mexican Restaurants in Minnesota

6. Paul Bunyan State Trail

Biker and scenery in Paul Bunyan State Trail
CraftBeers / Tripadvisor

Address: Baxter, MN 56425

There’s a wealth of stunning bike trails in America and the Paul Bunyan Trail is no exception. Paul did things on a massive scale, so naturally, the trail bearing his name is Minnesota’s longest. Not only that, it’s one of the country’s longest continuously paved bike trails. 

The trail is suitable for any level of rider. Along the way, you’ll see forests, lakes, streams, and wildflower meadows. 

Look out for another hefty Paul Bunyan statue at the Baxter trailhead. 120 miles up-country, the trail terminates at Lake Bemidji State Park.

Here you’ll find a campground plus great wildlife watching. Bemidji State Park also offers something special. Colorblind visitors can borrow color-adjusting glasses to enjoy the countryside in a whole new way!

See Related: Best Parks in Minneapolis

7. Brainerd International Raceway

Race in Brainerd International Raceway
Brainerd International Raceway / Facebook

Address: 5523 Birchdale Rd, Brainerd, MN 56401

It’s official. Brainerd International Raceway’s quarter-mile drag strip is the world’s fastest. But watching dragsters try to match that world-beating 337.58 mph is just one of the thrills on offer.

Late July sees the MotoAmerica Superbike festival. You can even try it for yourself in the superbike 2-seater experience. 

Hot rod fans should come in August for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. And no gearhead should miss Karmageddon, an intense motor rodeo weekend held in June and September.

You don’t even need to leave the racetrack. Brainerd International Raceway – central Minnesota’s largest racetrack – has a vast campground containing deluxe condominiums, RV sites, and open camping. Popular accommodations nearby include the 3-star Arrowood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes and the 2-star Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Baxter, MN.

See Related: Things to Do in Alexandria, MN

8. Gull Lake

Sunset view on Gull Lake pier
Ferrer Photography / Adobe Stock

Address: Brainerd, MN 56401

10 miles from Downtown Brainerd is the outdoor adventure paradise of Gull Lake. Here you’ll find lakeside cabins to suit every pocket, or you could pick the unbeatable peninsula location of the 4-star The Point – On Gull Lake hotel.

Popular activities include canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding, with gear available to hire locally. Golfers love that the Gull Lake area is home to two nationally-recognized golf courses. Anglers love the numerous sheltered fishing spots – or why not rent a pontoon boat?

Alternatively, just chill out. Relax on a sandy beach or on board the luxury yacht North Star. Public cruises include lunch, dinner, and (a personal fave) Sweet Tooth Sunset Cruises.

Other great dining opportunities include Ernie’s on Gull Lake or The Classic Grill at Madden’s on Gull Lake.

See Related: Things to do in Wabasha, Minnesota

9. Brainerd Zip Line Tour & Mount Ski Gull

Brainerd Zip Line Tour in Brainerd, Minnesota
Brainerd Zip Line Tour / Facebook

Address: 9898 County 77 Southwest, Nisswa, MN 56468

Another reason to visit Gull Lake in the summer is the Zip Line Tour, located at Mount Ski Gull. Without a doubt, this is one of the most fun things to do in Brainerd. The seven-line tour through the treetops provides mind-blowing views of the Brainerd Lakes Area.

There’s also a hair-raising suspension bridge, but fear not – you’re safely tethered at all times. You’ll want to relive the thrills, so bring a GoPro action camera or rent one on-site.

Come winter, Mount Ski Gull is a hive of snow-based fun. There’s skiing, snowboarding, and tubing, and you can even rent a heated yurt. A special shout-out to skiing seniors: you can ski here for free!

10. Crow Wing County Historical Society

Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum, historical artifacts and exhibits.
Myotus / Wkimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Address: 320 Laurel St, Brainerd, MN 56401

To learn about Brainerd’s more unsavory history, head to the city center. A stone’s throw from Downtown Brainerd’s stores and eateries is the old Crow Wing County Jailhouse. Here you can step inside a cell or check out the Sheriff’s rather comfier lodgings.

The site is now run by Crow Wing County Historical Society. Other exhibits include old logging and mining tools and artifacts from the golden age of railroads. 

The building also houses a fabulous research library. Archive materials include oral histories, mortuary records, and hundreds of local newspapers. If you have Brainerd ancestors, why not explore your own history?

11. Nisswa Family Fun Waterpark

Nisswa Family Fun Waterpark in Minnesota - Splash into Exciting Water Adventures
Nisswa Family Fun Waterpark / Facebook

Address: 4871 Co Rd 77, Nisswa, MN 56468

One of the jewels of the Brainerd Lakes Area, Nisswa is an awesome vacation destination in its own right. One of the highlights of your Brainerd summer vacation will surely be a trip to Nisswa Family Fun Waterpark.

This family-run outdoor waterpark has enough watery fun to keep everyone happy. So thrill-seekers will love the 55-foot drop slide, while there’s a 12-foot slide for the less daring.

There’s also a huge wading pool for wee ones and two 95º hot tubs. You can bring your own picnic or enjoy the onsite BBQ.

Prices are very reasonable, so this is a super-affordable day out for families. And to make the most of the local lakes, this is where to come to hire kayaks and paddleboards.

See Related: Tettegouche State Park

12. Pirate’s Cove

Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf in Brainerd
BVELock / TripAdvisor

Address: 17992 MN-371, Brainerd, MN 56401

Part mini golf, part amusement park – Pirate’s Cove is another summer must in the Brainerd area. What’s special about this miniature golf course is that everything is pirate-themed.

The course leads you through the world of the 18th-century buccaneer, including sunken ships and skull-shaped caves. So expect cannons, treasure chests, and plenty of yo-ho-ho-ing. Look out for the Putting for Progress community event, when you can support education charities as you play.

If you can’t get enough of the pirate theme, head next door to the Billy Bones Raceway. Seems pirates are into go-carting as well as golf!

See Related: Minnesota vs Wisconsin: What’s the Difference?

13. Northland Kart Kountry

Northland Kart Kountry
Management / TripAdvisor

Address: 17568 MN-371, Brainerd, MN 56401

Speaking of go-carting…are you feeling the need to put the pedal to the metal? If your vacation isn’t complete without that adrenaline surge, Northland Kart Kountry has to top your mustn’t-miss list.

There are karts to suit the whole family, including ground-hugging Bullit karts and off-road monsters. There’s also the challenge of the climbing wall and the bungee bounce. And why not practice your basketball skills while trampolining?

You can even taste the thrill of an alternative reality at VR Action World. Or try your hand in the batting cages or at mini golf. When it all gets too heated, cool off with some water balloon warfare.

See Related: Things to Do in Minneapolis

14. Nisswa Area Historical Society

Nisswa Area Historical Society building and archives
Nisswa Area Historical Society / Facebook

Address: 25605 Lower Cullen Rd, Nisswa, MN 56468

The Brainerd Lakes Area has a rich history, which local historical societies take care to preserve. One of the most fascinating sites is the Nisswa History Center and Museum. 

Here, in the historic Pioneer Village, you’ll get a feel of central Minnesota life at the turn of the 20th century. You can also relax in the center’s delightful Heritage Garden.

Ten minutes up the road, Pequot Lakes Area Historical Society has a small museum. For an immersive 19th-century logging experience, head 30 miles upstate to Crosslake Log Village. Here you’ll see vintage log cabins including a school, a general store, and a saloon. 

See Related: Things to Do in Winona

15. Crow Wing State Park

Crow Wing State Park
Jan C / TripAdvisor

Address: 3124 State Park Rd, Brainerd, MN 56401

Crow Wing, one of Minnesota’s 66 state parks, lies on the site of a historic frontier town. In the mid-1800s, Old Crow Wing was one of the busiest small towns in Minnesota. All that’s left now is the 1849 Beaulieu House and a cemetery or two.

Crow Wing State Park has plenty more attractions. Its multiple habitats appeal to hundreds of bird species. You’ll also find hiking trails, bike trails, picnic areas, and 59 campsites.

It’s worth a detour south to Camp Ripley, a massive National Guard Base above Little Falls. The camp has the country’s largest area of undisturbed Mississippi shoreline. Summer visitors can picnic, kayak, and canoe on base, while in winter there’s sledding and cross-country skiing. 

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