Minnesota’s northern lakeside resorts embrace bigger luxuries

Around since the 1930s, Clamshell Beach Lodge north of Brainerd has new luxuries–like newer cottages and a pool.


Minnesota cabins get bigger, modernize

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

My daughter jumps into the pool.

On a Minnesota resort trip last June, my 7-year-old daughter barely glanced at the sandy beach on Whitefish Lake north of Brainerd. Instead, she couldn’t wait to cannonball into the pool and slurp a neon blue slushie at Clamshell Beach, a resort near Pequot Lakes, Minn.

With her focus on such pleasures, my daughter was benefiting from the gradual upscaling of Minnesota resorts. Many of them, established in the late 1920s through the 1930s, are evolving to meet expectations of modern vacationers.

They expect luxuries from heated pools to plush bedding. While the big resorts with deeper pocket books have been adding on for the last 15 years, many small, family-run resorts have also added perks and nudged up their level of convenience and service. The bonus: They often maintain a folksy mom-and-pop resort feel.

Meanwhile, Minnesota state parks are steadily adding camper cabins for those in the market for a lower-price, more rustic option.

 From cabins to two-story cottages

Cottage bedroom at Clamshell Beach Resort.

At Clamshell Beach, whose website boasts “lake cottage charm, luxurious amenities,” a handful of original 1930s stucco cottages border the Whitefish Lake beach, but most guests want one of the Minnesota resort’s spacious new cottages with second-story screened porches. Inside, large bathtubs, northwoods quilts and flat-screen TVs add to the comfort.

But still, there are the homey touches. A dry-erase board at Clamshell Beach Resort’s main office welcomes guests personally and lists where they are from. An awning above the refreshment counter is made of dock planks, each autographed by guests and painted with scenes depicting their time at Whitefish Lake. It is dubbed the “Dock of Fame.”

Dave Moe, who grew up at a resort near Park Rapids, and his wife, Lisa, purchased Clamshell Beach in 1997 and have methodically upgraded it, selling fractional ownership in the new cottages to fund the work.

Clamshell Beach Lodge and its Dock of Fame.

“It used to be people just wanted a bedroom and a bath and to look onto the lake,” Moe said. “Things have evolved like any other industry. People have higher expectations for vacations because they have a limited amount of time.”

Resorts expand and evolve

Statistics from Explore Minnesota show that an estimated 2,527 resorts in 1970 numbered only 1,400 by 1985. Today, the figure is down to about 880 resorts. In some cases, one resort may have expanded and absorbed another. The shift has resulted in destinations with more polish and space.

The average size of a mid-century home was 1,000 square feet. Today’s average is more than twice that, Moe said. New vacation homes and cabins reflect that change.

According to Tom Proulx, who runs Big Sandy Lodge and Resort in McGregor, Minn., with his wife, Elisa, said that vacationers “want that Up North Minnesota rustic feel, but to be in the lap of luxury and have the best of both worlds.”

The resort’s nearly century-old Carefree Pines cabins were replaced with luxury lake homes fewer than 10 years ago. The 100-year-old lodge, with its original lobby fireplace, remains, as does one original cabin, albeit with a refurbished interior.

“It had so much character,” Proulx said of their so-called Rustic Retreat. It lacks air conditioning, space is cozy and guests share a single bathroom, but that makes it perfect for some vacationers.

Sibley State Park near Willmar has added three camping cabins.

State parks upgrade camping experience

The most rustic of all cabins — a camper cabin, with no plumbing — has likewise boomed in popularity. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has built more than 40 camper cabins in the past four years, bringing the total to almost 80.

The DNR charges $45-$50 a night for the cabins, roughly a third of what resort cabins can cost.
Although guests must bring their own bedding and linens and cook most meals outdoors, a stay there doesn’t require setting up a tent or trailer or maneuvering an RV. The cabins offer a solid shelter with four bunks that sleep five to six people, plus screened porches, a table and chairs, and heat that makes them popular year-round.

Newer ones include lights and outlets at each bunk for plugging in smartphones.
A survey of the DNR’s new reservation system shows cabins book quickly on weekends. It’s best to make reservations at least six months in advance and a year ahead for holidays.

“They’re beautiful cabins,” said Dana Banks, who stayed at a newer one in Sibley State Park near New London for a family gathering during Mother’s Day weekend. “It’s a nice place for people who don’t have campers but still want to get away.”

For more photos and details of northern Minnesota resorts and destinations, check out Minnesota Lake Vacations, a mobile travel app, or Day Trips from the Twin Cities, a new guidebook available in August 2012. 

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick