Northern Minnesota offers a collection of small town delights. Pack up the clan and hit the road.

Detroit Lakes

It’s a sunny Sunday morning in Detroit Lakes and if you’re not at church, you’re at the Shady Hollow Flea Market. The conversation goes something like this.

Potential Buyer: “How much are your lighters?”

Seller: “Not much.”

Potential Buyer: “There are six of them here.”

Seller: “$10 for the six?”

Potential Buyer: “How about I take two for $1 each?”

Seller: “Two for $3.”

Buyer: “Sold.”

Seller with a laugh: “I just spent far too much time on a $3 transaction.”

Stroll through the endless alleyways of the market and you’ll hear exchanges like this all day. They’re haggling over girls’ sundresses made from 1950s curtains, a collector set of Elvis Presley coins issued by a Vegas casino and hand-painted paddles that would look great in your cottage verandah.

The market gets underway every Sunday morning in the summer at 6 a.m. It’s a

40-year tradition in Detroit Lakes, a city that got its start in 1871 when the railway blasted through the northern Minnesota wilderness.

Back in the day, the settlement was called Detroit, so named by a French Catholic priest who was camping on the shoreline, admiring the sunset and noticed a sandbar in the distance. “Detroit,” he said, meaning a strait, as in a narrow, crossable passage. Before too long, the postal mix-ups with Detroit, Michigan became intolerable and the Minnesota group formally changed the name to Detroit Lakes in 1926.

The town site huddles around the north shore of Lake Detroit. West Lake Drive separates the public beach and marina from shops that sell hip t-shirts and restaurants with expansive outdoor decks, providing a beeline to the action. Lakeside Tavern has the top spot on the strip. It’s a busy joint partly because of location but more so because of the food. Tuck into The Mary Jane, an appetizer built from a crispy fried tortilla, chicken, cheese, artichoke hearts and tomatoes. Or pick a big juicy burger with a fun name such as the Deadhead (provolone and artichoke hearts), the Lumberjack (pepper cheese and jalapenos) or the Shroomer (grilled mushrooms and mounds of cheese).

When it comes to lodging, the lakeshore is home to a handful of mom-and-pop style motels such as the Pine to Palm and the Viking Resort. Or you could opt for The Lodge on Lake Detroit, a swish resort that offers a private beach, wireless Internet, indoor pool and hot tub not to mention The Spa Within.

Park Rapids

Beth Belfiori has to do a little bit of math in her head when I ask how much vanilla ice cream The MinneSODA Fountain in Park Rapids goes through in a day.

“I’d say about 15 tubs. And each tub is 19 pounds,” says the owner of the shop that’s been dishing out sweets since 1922. “One girl made 50 malts today alone. And the dishwashing station has been going strong since noon.”

Getting a seat at the old-fashioned lunch counter is a coup on a rainy day when vacationers prefer to be indoors. And today is a rainy day. Three generous scoops of ice cream make a sundae so skip a meal if you plan to visit. There’s the pretty-in-pink Lady Slipper with strawberry ice cream, marshmallow and strawberry topping, real whipped cream and, of course, a cherry on top. Fans of the Almond Joy chocolate bar will be delighted with a sundae bearing the same name. Vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, coconuts and almonds make it taste just like the real thing.

The historic downtown of Park Rapids, just 65 km east of Detroit Lakes, has everything Small Town America should have—a movie theatre, candy stores, a barbershop, bookstores, cafes, beauty shops and places to buy clothing, knickknacks and shoes. Park your car, pretend it’s 1957 and hang out downtown.

Technically, Park Rapids has a population of 3,500 but it draws from an area that supports 25,000 people. Drive along the highways and you’ll see countless signs pointing to resorts. These are small operations that offer rental cabins on more than a dozen lakes that surround Park Rapids. All those people needs something to do while they’re on vacation and the Park Rapids area hasn’t missed the boat when it comes to attractions.

Take a drive 16 km north of town to Evergreen Park Family Fun Center where the kids can stay occupied for hours with miniature golf, bumper boats, batting cages, go carts, a climbing wall and more. It’s also the home of World of Christmas, a gift shop that stocks everything you need for the season plus fresh fudge, clothing, kitchenware and Minnesota souvenirs.

You’ll spot Summerhill Farm by the collection of dusty blue buildings with the white trim. It’s a collection of eight farm buildings, each housing a specialty shop. The Barn offers cards, pottery, furniture and books while The Carriage House has chocolates, local jams and sauces and kitchen gadgets. Wander the brick paths that connect all the shops. With a little luck you’ll end up at The Sun Porch, a restaurant that serves up smoked salmon salad on a croissant, mighty espresso and even a Potting Shed Sundae if you’re in the mood.


Dorset, Minnesota makes the lofty claim to be the restaurant capital of the world. If you take into account the town population and the number of restaurants, they just might be right. You see, Dorset has 22 people and four restaurants.

On a Monday night in July, there were 20 people outside Companeros waiting for a table. Inside La Pasta Italian Eatery, every table was loaded with big salad bowls, bottles of homemade dressing and heaving plates of fettuccini, lasagna and pasta a la vodka. Things were no different at Dorset House Restaurant & Soda Fountain or Dorset Café. Diners walked off their meals by browsing at Sister Wolf Books or picking up cottagey accessories at the Northwoods Trading Post. 



Detroit Lakes


Opt for vintage charm and primo location at the Pine to Palm Motel (, 218-847-5669). For swishy accommodations, you can do no better than The Lodge on Lake Detroit. The rooms, all overlooking the lake, are spacious, outfitted with a microwave and fridge and decorated in an understated northwoods style with some pine furniture, towel bars that look like weathered metal and dark granite countertops. The Spa Within is open long hours so you can get a Sabai stone massage on a moment’s notice. (, 218-847-8439).


Detroit Lakes

Aside from the pizza, nothing on the menu at Lakeside Tavern is over $10. (, 218-847-1891). Take a country drive past cornfields and along lakeshores to Spanky’s Stone Hearth on Rose Lake (about 10 minutes from Detroit Lakes). Order an appetizer called chislik. It’s beef tenderloin trips with melted bleu cheese and a sprinkling of chives. While walleye is big in these parts, don’t miss the barbecued ribs at Spanky’s. Get them with garlic sauerkraut mashed potatoes. (, 218-334-3555).

Park Rapids

This is the first summer for The Good Life Café in downtown Park Rapids. Call Molly and ask in the potato, red rice and ham soup is on today’s menu. For something a little upscale, try the smoked trout plate. The turkey avocado club is the café’s bestseller. (, 218-237-4212). A little drive will get you to Dorset where you can take you pick from four restaurants in this pint-sized town (

To Do

Detroit Lakes

Head to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and take the Old Indian Trail for an appetite-enhancing hike. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles, trumpeter swans, deer and turtles (, 218-847-2641). Shady Hollow Flea Market runs every Sunday in the summer (

Park Rapids

Evergreen Park Family Fun Centre and World of Christmas ( Summerhill Farm ( At Itasca State Park, you can walk across the Mighty Mississippi River on a pathway of slippery stepping stones. Check out the 300-year old pines at Preacher’s Grove or spend the night in the historic Douglas Lodge (

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