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Escape to Detroit Lakes

Where recreation and relaxation come in equal measure

By Shel Zolkewich
Based on an article originally published in CAA Manitoba, Spring 2016.

TELL PEOPLE YOU’RE HEADED to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and you’re likely to be met with a raised eyebrow or two. “I think you mean Michigan,” a friend might chide. But the North Star state is indeed home to Detroit Lakes, a scenic spot more than 1,400 kilometres from the better-known metropolis that partially shares its name.

So what’s the connection? Back in 1871, the Northern Pacific Railway blasted through the Minnesota wilderness and a community was born. At first, the settlement was simply called Detroit, so named by a French Catholic priest who was camping on the shoreline, admiring his view of a sandbar in the distance. “Détroit,” he said, referring, en français, to a strait—a narrow, crossable passage.

Before long, postal mixups with Detroit, Michigan became intolerable and, in 1926, the Minnesota town’s residents formally added “Lakes” to its name. The change made sense— after all, the town is huddled along the north shore of Detroit Lake.

Today, Detroit Lakes is a picturesque resort community about 400 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. Its curving West Lake Drive separates a public beach and marina from shops and restaurants with sprawling patios. It’s an outdoorsy kind of place where you can fish, cruise in a pontoon boat or spread a blanket on the sand and wait for a spectacular sunset.

Active Escapes

If you prefer a more lively getaway, hop on a fat-tire bike and head for Detroit Mountain. Just don’t expect your ride to be a walk in the park. None of the trails are easy; they all require a certain degree of bike control and physical endurance. But there’s a serious rush to be had in tackling the creatively named tracks—Shakedown Street and More Cowbell among them. In winter, serious downhill skiers won’t be disappointed by runs like Thunder Road, while the rest of us can hang out in the Landslide Tubing Park.

Biking in Detroit Lakes

A haven for hikers and nature lovers, Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge is a short drive away. Established in 1938, this 17,000-hectare reserve — composed of woodlands, tall- grass prairie and marshes—is a sanctuary for trumpeter swans, eagles, deer, turtles and many more critters, some easier to spot than others. Hike the Old Indian Trail to build up an appetite, and keep your eyes peeled for a rare gray wolf sighting.

Nature in Detroit Lakes

Shopping and Eating

Should you prefer to scope out a few bargains, Shady Hollow Flea Market tempts shoppers with the opportunity to find a treasure in stalls loaded with antiques, crafts, collectibles and vintage goods. Open on weekends during the summer, the outdoor bazaar also caters to your gastronomic needs with an on-site canteen.

Bargains in Detroit Lakes

For more dining options, there’s the Lakeside Tavern, popular for its sizeable menu and waterfront views. Tuck into the Mary Jane, an appetizer built from a crispy fried tortilla, chicken, cheese, artichoke hearts and tomatoes. Or try one of the dozen burgers piled high. If it’s finer dining you fancy, look to Spanky’s Stone Hearth, about 10 minutes south of town on Rose Lake. Request a table on the patio and order the beef chislic— cubes of tenderloin, flavoured with Cajun spice and covered with melted blue cheese. Though walleye is big in these parts, you’d be remiss not to try Spanky’s barbecued ribs too.

More to Do

Richwood Winery, a short drive north of Detroit Lakes, makes for a lovely excursion. At the tasting bar, sample four of the winery’s seven vintages for a budget-friendly $5 USD. And if you happen to visit in September, you can crush it (literally) at the annual Grape Stomp event.

Wine in Detroit Lakes

Posh fashions for women, irresistible jewelry and on-trend housewares make Norby’s an attractive Detroit Lakes destination. The department store has been a Washington Avenue fixture for 100 years, but manages to cultivate a relatively hip vibe.

The undisputed pizza king in these parts is Zorbaz, with 11 locations in northern Minnesota. You can’t miss the neon signs and party atmosphere tumbling out of the West Lake Drive location in Detroit Lakes. Seemingly endless options of craft beer pair nicely with the delicious specialty pizzas.

Finding the Ideal Hideaway

When it is time to settle in for the night, you’ll find a wide assortment of lodging options ranging from rustic fishing lodges and RV campsites to high-end hotels with all the amenities including couples messages and spas. To find just the right accommodations, check out

Lodging in Detroit Lakes