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Looking for an antidote to cabin fever? A winter sports adventure on Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Trail may be just what the "fun doctor" ordered.
Like a broad, snowy freeway, the 100-mile path links a dozen small towns between Brainerd and Bemidji. In warm weather, the converted railbed is one of Minnesota's best hiking and bicycling trails. But come winter, it's a glimmering-white canvas for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding...you name it.
The trail hugs State Hwy 371, making it easy for older family members to travel by car. Whether riding or gliding, you'll get to stop in small logging towns with shops selling locally-made woolens and handicrafts, and at cozy lodges, where steaming bowls of home made soup and blazing fireplaces warm up the chilliest little snowmen.
Most folks start in Brainerd, at the trail's southern end (follow signs to the trailhead). If you've got your own snowmobiles, plan on a 3-4 day trek north from here, stopping at lodgings and towns along the way. Otherwise, set up "base camp" at a nearby resort, lodge, or B&B. After a day of playing in the snow, hop in the car and head north on Hwy 371 to explore new terrain.
At Cragun's Resort, 8 miles northwest of Brainerd on Gull Lake, sleek snowmobiles in jellybean colors are available to resort guests first, then day-trippers. There are plenty of routes on the lake and resort grounds, including one that goes directly to the Bunyan trail.The resort also offers cross-country ski lessons, afternoon dogsled rides, and an ice rink.
Ski Gull, a downhill ski area near the resort, caters to families, with 14 runs and lessons for children. Crosscountry skiing fans can head to the nearby Northland Arboretum, a 540-acre nature preserve with a lighted, 2-kilometer trail. (There are also snowshoeing trails.)
As you follow "the Bunyan" north out of Brainerd, smaller snowmobile routes branch off the main trail through aspen forests and across frozen lakes. Most lodges provide maps of the offshoot trails maintained by local clubs -- don't venture off the main trail without these guides, or unless it's a well-marked path.
A popular "renegade" route, 13 miles north of Brainerd near Nisswa, goes straight across Gull Lake (about a half-hour trip). The main path meets the western lakeshore at Quarterdeck Resort and Restaurant. This is the place to de-ice: Find a window seat, fill up on hot lunch buffet, and watch the action outside.
Next stop: Pequot Lakes, 18 miles north of Brainerd. Silver Creek Traders is a good place for a shopping break -- it's a log shop showcasing handmade furniture and other north-woods handicrafts.
The town of Walker, another 35 miles north, follows the shores of Leech Lake. Snowmobilers can zoom right up to the door of Peace Cliff Bed and Breakfast, a Tudor-style retreat perched on a bluff above the lake. Shopaholics can head into town, to Liten Hus for china, woolens, and other Scandinavian imports, or locally made furniture and Christmas ornaments at Northern Exposure.
Trail's end brings you to Bemidji, a former logging-center-turned-college-town. Here, by the shores of Lake Bemidji, you'll find towering statues of Paul Bunyan and his ox, Babe, standing knee-deep in snowdrifts.
Now comes the treat for those bored by flat terrain: North of town -- but off the trail -- there's downhill skiing and snowboarding at the Buena Vista Ski Area, one of Minnesota's oldest slopes.
Near the lodge, a small logging museum and village come to life every winter for Logging Day, an annual festival. After a breakfast of flapjacks, guests can watch lumberjacks wielding old-style snaggle-tooth saws; then they can hop on a horse-drawn sleigh and glide off through the woods.
Another great winter event in Bemidji is the Paul Bunyan Sled Dog Race. Watch the huskies bound through the snow. Or pile the kids aboard and holler "Mush!" as they take off on rides run by Peterson Sled Dogs.
The perfect end to your trip? A family dinner at Union Station. This restored railway depot in Bemidji now houses a restaurant in a warm Victorian parlor with hearty fare the giant woodsman himself would love.
Type of trip: Winter sports, outdoor adventure, scenic drive
Best ages: 6 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance (from Brainerd): Minneapolis (130 miles), Duluth (116 miles), Fargo (140 miles)
Best time to go: All year; though it's most unspoiled, uncrowded, and beautiful in winter.
Weather: It is cold. 19/4 degrees in January; February reaches a toasty 25 degrees F, with lows of zero.
Cragun's Resort 11000 Cragun's Dr., Brainerd Phone: 800-CRAGUNS Cragun's offers a Paul Bunyan Winter Weekend package for a family of four including meals, winter sports, and kids activities. Large cabins accommodate up to 10. Snowmobile rentals for non-guests. Dog sled rides.
Ski Gull County Rd. 77 on the west shore of Gull Lake Phone: 218-963-4353
Northland Arboretum Behind Westgate Mall on Conservation Drive, Brainerd Phone: 218-829-8770
Quarterdeck Resort and Restaurant 9820 Birch Bay Dr. SW, Nisswa Phone: 218-963-7537
Silver Creek Traders 31038 Government Dr., Pequot Lakes Phone: 218-568-5144 www.silvercreektraders.comItasca State Park:
Northern Exposure 506 Minnesota Ave., Walker Phone: 218-547-3440
Buena Vista Ski Area 12 miles north of Bemidji on County Rd. 15 Phone: 218-243-2231
Union Station 128 First St., Bemidji Phone: 218-751-9261Contact:
Minnesota Office of Tourism Phone: 800-657-3700
Paul Bunyan Trail
Bemidji Visitors & Convention Bureau Phone: 800-458-2223 Ext. 105
Favorite local spot: Adirondack Coffee House, 538 Main St., Nisswa, 218-829-coffee. Just off the main trail; you'll find homemade bread, piping-hot soup, and a roaring fire.
Best souvenir: Real red-and-black checked lumberjack shirt at Bemidji Woolen Mills, an old, family-run factory and store, 301 Irvine Ave, 888-751-5166.Annual events:
Step back in time to the historic lumberjack era. Watch horse teams at work along with authentic equipment used in the early days of logging. Enjoy a lumberjack camp meal, sleigh rides, peavey througwing contests, storytelling, and music.
Don't forget to pack: Thermoses for hot coffee or cocoa each day.
When a Native American guide led him here in 1832, explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft could hardly believe he was looking at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He cobbled together the Latin words for "true" and "head," and made up the name Itasca. Now, skiers and snowmobilers glide through the virgin pine forests of Minnesota's oldest state park, past Anishinabe Indian burial mounds, or cross the mighty Mississippi on foot (yes, you can do it!). Just rent snowshoes and follow a 1/4-mile trail to the bubbling creek that, 2,552 miles south, empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Itasca State Park 30 miles southwest of Bemidji on Hwy 71 Phone: 218-266-2100 Open year-round
Reviewed May 2004.