WHEELERS POINT, Minn. -- My family moved from the Twin Cities to a small town on Lake of the Woods in the mid-1970s, at a time when air conditioning -- in your home and in your car -- was still considered an extravagant and not always necessary luxury, especially in the north country, where hot days are the exception.
As such, many scorching summer days involved my late mother packing us into the avocado green Chevy station wagon for the 30-minute drive to one of the great secluded beaches in all of Minnesota. The big lake’s dark waters and gentle waves were the perfect place for an 8-year-old to cool off on a sunny afternoon. For the record, not one of those trips involved seatbelts or sunscreen. Like A/C, such luxuries were deemed extravagant and unnecessary in 1977.
It was bright, breezy but cool on a late April day this spring when I stepped back onto that same sandy beach, four-plus decades later, and felt the memories flooding back. There have been some great upgrades and improvements at Zippel Bay State Park over the ensuing time, but the essence -- those sandy trails through the tall grass leading from the parking lot, and the horizon-to-horizon expanse of Lake of the Woods opening up before your eyes -- remain breathtaking.
In fact, the beaches are just a small part of the nearly 3,000 acres of woods, wilderness and water access available here. The park was first established in 1959 by the Minnesota DNR to provide a place where the public could access the lake, and that mission is still accomplished every day.
The hunt for hungry walleyes, northerns and muskies is still the primary reason visitors flock like the ever-present seagulls to Lake of the Woods in both winter and summer. To accommodate the watercraft-pulling crowd, Zippel Bay offers a modern marina with docks and boat ramps not far from its campground, making this an ideal destination to spend the day on the water and the night around a roaring campfire.
For those with a safe, well-maintained boat, navigation equipment and a sense of adventure, on a calm day one can set out across 20 miles of open water to Garden Island State Recreation Area, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand and trees that is a popular place to take a break from fishing for a shore lunch. The island has docks (in the summer) and picnic tables.
And with the wind coming off the lake, all these years later, the natural air conditioning comes free with the price of a state park pass.
There is an inherent bias at work when telling folks about your hometown. With that full disclosure noted, Warroad -- 30 minutes east of Zippel Bay State Park -- is home to several great eateries. Favorites include the Nomad, located on the point near Warroad's public boat ramps, which has amazingly authentic New York-style thin crust pizza and an impressive number of beers on tap. For a bit of hockey history in the original Hockeytown USA, Izzy's Lounge & Grill serves wings, burgers and pizzas beneath displays honoring the community's myriad college, professional and Olympic hockey stars.
In 1887, Wilhelm Zippel built a cabin on the south shore of Lake of the Woods and over time, a fishing village (which is long gone today) spring up in the area. Two creeks, named for Zippel, flow into the lake, creating the bay and the park which also bear the name of one of the region's first European settlers.