5 Ways to Explore Detroit Lakes

It’s human nature to overlook the treasures in our own backyards. Our favorite places just kind of become part of the landscape and we tend to assume that everybody knows about them.

I tell people this all the time, but I’m guilty of it too. I travel so much in the summer that I sometimes forget that I haven’t written about some of my favorite places close to home. So today I’m attempting to remedy that by giving you a look inside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, one of my favorite lakeside communities.

I grew up Minnesota, where “going to the lake” is a cherished summer tradition. We didn’t have a lake home ourselves, but we lived within driving distance of the western edge of Minnesota lakes country, so the sandy shores of the public beach in “DL” is my first vivid lake memory.

Detroit Lakes is a sleepy little community of just over 8,000 people that morphs into a perfectly appointed beach town during the summer months. There’s a charming downtown shopping district, easy access to a beach, fishing pier and boat launches and a shoreline that’s perfect for strolling.

It’s a popular vacation destination for travelers from all over the Midwest and the prairie provinces of Canada, including Minneapolis/St. Paul and lots of folks from Manitoba, who make camping at the American Legion Campground near the water a cherished summer tradition. (A helpful hint — reserve way, way, way in advance and cross your fingers.)

It’s also an easy (and popular) day trip from Fargo-Moorhead. Families craving a little sun and fun on the water or college students looking for one last warm weather getaway before classes begin in earnest can hop in the car and be on the beach in less than an hour.

Things really get a little crazy in Detroit Lakes during the first week of August, when country music fans and partygoers pack the Soo Pass Ranch for WeFest, the largest country music festival in the nation. But for the rest of the summer, the city maintains a nice balance between being a busy resort town and a laid back getaway. It’s definitely worth a stop and there’s still plenty of nice days left to enjoy it.

Here are some of my favorite ways to explore Detroit Lakes. There are still plenty of warm days left to get out and enjoy it.

1. Hit the beach:
Even if you don’t swim, the clean sand and clear, shallow waters of Detroit Lake are worth a stop. There’s a thin, mile-long stretch of public beach along West Lake Drive and a protected swimming area perfect for kids — or wading, if you’re an adult. (Look for the white buoys for the swimming area.)

There are public bathrooms across the street as well as picnic tables if you’d like to make a day of it. A paved walking/cycling path circles the lake if you’d like to get a little workout in or just take a scenic stroll.

2. Get on the water
Actually getting on — or in — the water is easy. There are several different boat launches around the lake (find a list here) and the water is usually full of speedboats, Jet-Skis and even the occasional sailboat. (I’ve seen floatplanes come in for a landing too, which is really cool.)

Detroit Lake is large and shallow in spots, a fact that spawned one very specific DL tradition. If you’ve ever been on a boat in Detroit Lake, you’ve probably cranked up the music, cracked open a cold beverage and chatted with friends on sandbar. (The fact that the sandbar has its own Facebook page amuses me greatly.) If you want to get in on the party, just look for the cluster of boats hanging out.

If you don’t have a boat of your own, you can rent one from Detroit Lake Marina or J&K Marine. Lots of the hotels rent them as well.

If fishing is your thing, you don’t even need a boat. Just toss a line in the water from the public fishing pier on West Lake drive, directly across from El Loro restaurant.

3. Eat beachside
Speaking of restaurants, one of my favorite things about Detroit Lake is the busy waterfront dining scene. This is not a secluded, thickly forested Minnesota lake hideaway from a postcard, but a bustling little town with people chatting over beers on patios and taking leisurely after dinner strolls.

The aforementioned El Loro is right across from the beach. Lakeside Tavern and Brewery serves up its own craft beer (yay!) and the newest restaurant on the strip, Hub 41 just opened earlier this summer. My sentimental favorite lakeside spot is Zorbaz, a busy joint with a sprawling patio, lots of craft beer on tap and a menu full off my favorite guilty pleasures — pizza and nachos.

Just a heads up, the letter “z” morphs into the letter “s” here. (Except for the first “z” in “Zorbaz,” just to make things confusing.) This can make reading a menu that features items like “Italian Zauzage” and “Frezh Muzhroomz Zauze” amusingly frustrating.

4. Shop and stroll
As you come in to Detroit Lakes off of Highway 10, you’ll turn on to Washington Avenue, which passes the city’s downtown shopping district. The street is a throwback to simpler times, when small storefronts offered everything from antiques to home decor and department stores still anchored downtowns across America. (Detroit Lakes boasts one of the few remaining JCPenney locations in the region.)

The Nines is my favorite shop in Detroit Lakes. It offers cute, affordable and on-trend dresses, basics and accessories for women of many sizes, plus sizes included. The Nines Kids operates right across the street.

Detroit Lakes Sport Shop offers everything you need to get on the water. (Hello, kayak — I want you…) Becker Pet and Garden and The Candy Store is a self-descriptive, mouthful of a concept, but hey — candy is fabulous, right? And saltwater taffy at the lake is pure nostalgia.

5. People Watch
If you need to recharge while shopping, I recommend La Barista for an espresso drink and a little people watching on the patio or from behind the large picture window. (There’s also a comfy couch with lots of magazines and toys for the kids, which makes it a doubly useful resting spot.)

If you’re closer to the water, it’s even easier. Just head to the public beach to watch the waves rolling in, the boats on the water and the steady stream of cars and pedestrians enjoying the last days of summer.

What about you?
What do you like to do in Detroit Lakes?
What else should I see or do the next time I visit this community?
What’s your favorite local summer getaway?
How are you enjoying these late summer days?

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