By Kelly Westhoff
We were in need of a weekend away. Our jobs had us frazzled. Our inboxes kept filling up. We needed to unplug, ditch the laptops and unwind. We decided to go to Walker.
Walker is located in northern Minnesota and is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The town sits on the shores of Leech Lake, a fresh-
water behemoth, and is surrounded by a national forest and an Indian reservation ensuring lots of trees, lots of wildlife, and lots of natural beauty.
My husband and I had very few expectations for Walker as neither one of us had ever been there before, nor had any of our family members. While I generally don’t like to arrive someplace unschooled, this time our lack of knowledge proved refreshing.
Everything was new and everything was a surprise. Instead of reading tourist brochures, we asked nearly every local we met for their advice on what to see and do. We were never steered wrong.
We pulled into town on a Friday afternoon and checked into a room in the main lodge at the Hiawatha Beach Resort. Even though it was just the two of us, our room was big enough for a family of four with a double and two single beds, a bathroom, kitchen, a living room, and a deck. The deck gave way to an expansive view of Steamboat Bay, just one of Leech Lake’s many arms.
After exploring the hot tub, pool, grounds, beach, and docks, we sought a restaurant recommendation. The front desk said Boulders was the best meal in town and called ahead for us.
We were glad for the reservation as Boulders only had space for about twenty tables and before we’d finished perusing the menu, every one of them was full. The atmosphere was laid-back yet upscale with a long martini list, white table linens and dinners ranging from $16-25.
We both ordered from the evening’s specials. My husband chose a shrimp and crab stuffed walleye. I went with the barbequed pork shank. Both tasted absolutely divine. And the portions were hearty. We just kept eating and eating. There was no way we had any room for dessert.
We rolled out the door, into our car and back to our room where we didn’t even have the energy to turn on the TV. We sat in the living room and stared out over the water. We watched the moon rise and then we went to bed.
We were up early the next morning and heading to nearby Itasca State Park. The park is a source of Minnesota pride; the Mississippi River begins right here. While my husband and I proudly proclaim ourselves Minnesotans, we’d never been to the headwaters. This was about to change.
We spent a leisurely afternoon browsing downtown Walker. Shops line a two-block main drag and sell everything from women’s clothes to fishing poles to wine racks to lawn ornaments.
Two books stores in town, one used and one new, held our interest for a while. We stalked up on taffy and chocolates at the candy store. An “artists’ mall” displayed handmade pottery, bird feeders, beaded jewelry and more.
Our favorite downtown find was The Whittle Shop where everything for sale had been expertly crafted from wood.
We ordered lattes at The Village and settled into some comfy chairs for a bit. The café was filled with people reading the newspaper or working on laptops. Kids mobbed the counter for ice cream cones.
After coffee, we took a spin through Reeds, a family-owned, sporting-goods store that anchors the town. Even if you’re not interested in hunting or fishing supplies, you’ll be surprised how many items inside Reeds will grab your attention. We were there for at least an hour. My husband lost himself in the men’s coat collection, and I tried on every single pair of clearance women’s shoes.
During the high tourist season, which is late spring through fall, downtown celebrates Crazy Days the second weekend of every month. Shopkeepers, we were told, pull sale items out onto the sidewalk, church groups sell cookies and artists hawk their wares. Sadly, we missed this event.
We didn’t miss out on the happy hour, though. Before leaving downtown Walker behind, we strolled into The 502, a bar/restaurant housed inside a posh downtown hotel called Chase on the Lake.
The richly-toned wooden décor wrapped its arms around us and made us feel welcome and warm. Long views of the lake shimmered beyond the windows and deck. The atmosphere lent itself perfectly to a glass of Shiraz.
While there, I picked up a brochure for the Copper Door Spa, which is also housed in the hotel. If we hadn’t already made plans for the next morning, I’d have been dialing up the spa and booking a massage.
But there was to be no massage for me. I hadn’t come to Walker with my girlfriends. I’d come with my husband. That being the case, I had to compromise. After all that shopping, he was chomping at the bit to do something manly.
My husband swore the three area golf courses were calling his name, but we hadn’t packed our clubs. If the sun had been shining, we might have chartered a sailboat tour of Leech Lake with Captain Gary.
Hiking trails surround the entire area. There is also a flat, paved bike trail running through town that keeps going to points both north and south. Our hotel, Hiawatha Beach, rented bikes and we could have gone peddling.
Another active option, also offered at Hiawatha Beach, was a canoe trip. A van would drop us along the banks of the Steamboat River and we’d then drift with the current until it ended in Leech Lake.
The river empties into the lake’s Steamboat Bay, which is filled with naturally-growing wild rice paddies protected by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
The canoe trip was tempting, but in the end, fishing won out. Leech Lake is a prime fishing lake. Massive muskies haunt its deep waters. Crappies the size of a human face can also be had. Perch are a favorite Leech Lake haul.
Above and beyond all these, however, the walleye reigns supreme in Minnesota, and my husband was ultra eager to get out there on the water, cast a line and catch a trophy fish.
The front desk crew at Hiawatha Beach helped us arrange a fishing trip, and wouldn’t you know it? I snagged a 23-inch walleye! A total case of beginner’s luck!
It was the only thing I caught all day, but that didn’t matter. I caught it before my husband reeled in anything. Plus, my fish was bigger than the ones he eventually caught!
I gloated all the way home and throughout the entire next week!
Itasca State Park is a 45-minute drive from Walker. A one-day pass for a carload of people is $5. Bring your bikes for the paved trail and bring your flip flops so you can walk across the Mississippi where it begins.
Sample local fruit wines. Art fair held one weekend every August.
Paul Bunyan Statue
Marvel at the massive Paul Bunyan statue in Akeley, about 17 miles from Walker.
The Leech Lake Tourism Bureau provides listings of golf courses, hiking trails and more.
Bike and Boat Rentals
Hiawatha Beach Resort rents bikes and boats, including a houseboat that sleeps ten. It also offers a canoe trip down the Steamboat River.
Contact Captain Gary at 1-970-216-8844.
Chuck Emery, Guide
Jeff Woodruff, Guide
If you’re staying on the lake and have access to a boat, several of the lakeside resorts have restaurants that overlook the water. Otherwise, check out these in-town dining options.
Romantic, classy, upscale and delicious. Sizable martini list. Senior specials 5 – 5:30 pm. Call ahead, space is limited. A few miles north of Walker.
Happy hour cocktails and fine dining overlooking the lake. Inside Chase on the Lake Hotel. Downtown Walker.
Café with wi-fi, lattes and ice cream. Also a pizza-sandwich joint. Outdoor patio. Downtown Walker
Beer, burgers, pizza, pool, darts, big screen TV and weekend bands. Downtown Walker.
Hearty breakfasts, burgers and fries. Open at 6 am in downtown Walker.
Lucky Moose Bar and Grill
All you can eat fried walleye every Tuesday. Wine list, kids’ menu, outdoor tables. South of downtown.
Weekend brunch buffet, daily lunch buffet, nightly dinner buffet. If you’re feeling lucky, drop some coins in a slot machine. Located inside Northern Lights Casino.
Choose from a hotel room, a resort lodge or a rustic cabin. If you go with a cabin or lodge, you’ll need to bring all your own toiletries.
For a full listing of area lodging, visit the Leech Lake Tourism Bureau.
Adventure North Retreat
A variety of cabins for rent, some large enough to accommodate a group of 24. Regularly hosts family reunions and girlfriend scrapbooking weekends.
Chase on the Lake
Posh hotel in downtown Walker. Classic happy hour cocktails, fine dining and a spa.
Rent a cabin and bring your boat. Large playground on a sandy beach.
Hiawatha Beach Resort
Book a cabin or book a room in the main lodge. Sandy beach, level lakeshore, indoor pool and hot tub.
Kelly Westhoff was a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and a member of our blogger’s team. Before the importance of the bedtime routine and children invaded her life, Kelly was a traveler — the kind who would throw all her stuff in a backpack, hit the road, and write about her adventures. She lives in Minnesota.