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Minnesota’s nickname is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” but the reality eclipses even the nickname: Minnesota is home to more than 11,800 lakes and has as many as 6,500 natural rivers flowing through it. 

With so many waterways to choose from, how’s a boater to know which lake to start on?

In this article, we’ll simplify your selection process, describing some of the best lakes in Minnesota for boating. 

From beautiful scenery to access sites and nearby accommodations, these lakes are perfect for a quick evening cruise afterwork or a lakeside vacation.

What to know before boating in Minnesota

If you aren’t from Minnesota or you’re new to boating in this state, there are a few things you need to be aware of to avoid an expensive ticket and to enjoy your boating trip safely.

All Watercraft in Minnesota must be licensed by DNR prior to entering Minnesota waters. 

All motorized crafts regardless of size must carry this license but many non-motorized craft must also carry the seal, too, if they are more than 10 feet in length. 

Stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and even inflatable crafts must be licensed. 

If your boat is registered in another state and you won’t be keeping it in Minnesota for more than 90 consecutive days, registration in another state will cover you for your trip to Minnesota.

In Minnesota, anyone between the ages of 12-17 must obtain a Minnesota Watercraft Operator’s Permit to operate a motorized boat with more than 25 horsepower. 

The good news is a license or permit issued by another state will be honored in Minnesota and there’s no need to acquire another one. 

Another helpful caveat to this law states that children aged 12-17 can operate a boat over 25 horsepower without a permit if there is an adult over the age of 21 on board who can take direct control of the boat if necessary.

If your older children take turns driving the boat so you can finally enjoy those skis, too, you’ll want to make sure everyone is properly licensed.

Part of obtaining a new operator’s permit is completing Minnesota’s boating safety course.  This is only required from 12-17 year olds applying for their first permit – these children don’t need to take the course again if they are already licensed in another state. 

Adults aren’t required to take this course but Minnesota encourages adults to take the online course and the 2020 guidebook to the state’s regulations, found here, points out that many boat insurance companies will offer discounts to boat owners who take an approved boating safety course like the one offered by Minnesota’s DNR.

Required Equipment for Minnesota boating trips

Boats in Minnesota are required to carry onboard certain pieces of equipment at all times.  Before you head to the lake, make sure you have this gear to ensure your safety, the safety of anyone on board, and to prevent an expensive ticket:

  • Carbon Monoxide Detector (only if your boat has an enclosed compartment)
  • Life jackets for everyone on board (Children under 10 years of age must wear a lifejacket whenever the boat is underway!)
  • At least 1 type IV throwable life preserver
  • Hand-, mouth-, or power-operated whistle or horn (for motorboats measuring between 26 and 40 feet in length)
  • If your boat measures more than 40 feet in length, you must have a power-operated horn or whistles capable of producing a continuous sound for at least two seconds and audible for at least one mile
  • A fire extinguisher

How to find the perfect Minnesota lake for your next boating vacation

There are, literally, thousands of lakes and waterways in Minnesota to explore and Minneosata’s Department of Natural Resources has created a tool to help you find the lake that boasts every amenity your family is looking for in a vacation destination. 

DNR’s Lake Finder is a great search tool for boaters looking to narrow down the many options.

As you consider the many beautiful lakes that Minnesota has to offer, you’ll want to keep in mind the activity and sights that will make the trip most meaningful for you and your family. 

Research ahead of your trip the access options available for getting your boat into the water, as well as any regulations related to motor size, speed, and towed water sports to ensure your budding wakeboarders aboard have a good time.

Best Lakes in Minnesota for Boating 

Lake Superior

We’d be remiss if we didn’t pay homage to Lake Superior on our list of Minnesota’s best boating lakes; this is, afterall, one of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world judging by surface area. 

With shoreline bordering the Canadian province of Ontario along the north, Minnesota to the west, and Wisconsin and Michigan to the south, Lake Superior is a vacation destination for people from all over the country for its beautiful scenery, excellent fishing, and migratory bird populations.  

Burntside Lake

Burntside Lake is located just three miles northwest of Ely, Minnesota and occupies 7,139 acres and boasts more than 150 islands. 

Bird watchers love Burntside because these islands are a favorite nesting place for several species of shoreline bird, and fishermen love Burntside because of the many native species that make fishing on Burntside exciting.  

The western edge of the lake is particularly famous for its fishing. 

There are no motor restrictions surrounding this lake so it is very popular for water sports enthusiasts such as wakeboarders or water skiers. 

If you’re visiting and need accommodations, there is a summer camp along the shoreline of Burntside Lake and two luxurious resorts for boaters in search of fancy comfort after a day on the water.

Rainy Lake

Nestled within Voyageurs National Park and bordering Ontario, Rainy Lake sits on both Minnesota’s and Canadian soil. 

This lake is a favorite among recreational anglers, famous for its northern pike, muskellunge, and walleye populations. 

If you’re interested in boat-in camping, Rainy has accommodation available.  Boaters who like to spend their evenings in a bit more luxury will appreciate the many fishing cabins and resorts that line the lake, too.

Leech Lake

Don’t let the name dissuade you: there are no more leeches at Leech Lake than anywhere else. There are some big leeches, though, but these aren’t the vampire-like bloodsuckers you may be dreading. 

Leech Lake is home to a type of leech commonly referred to as a bull leech that can grow up to 14-inches in length. 

If you see them at all, you’ll see them at night and they are completely harmless.

Just 3 hours from the bustling metropolis of Minnesota’s Twin cities, between Bemidji and Brainerd, Leech Lake is a fishing paradise nestled within the spectacular scenery of Chippewa National Forest. 

This lake serves as Cass County’s reservoir and enjoys the upkeep and conservation this status affords.  Travelers and locals alike flock to Leech Lake for boating and fishing. 

Covering 102,948 acres and boasting 195 miles of shoreline, Leech Lake provides boaters with 11 island for and numerous bays for exploring and mooring.  

Lake of the Woods

If you’re looking for the Walleye Capital of the World, you’ve found it at Lake of the Woods.  With more than 317,000 acres, Lake of the World is thought to be home to millions of walleyes. 

This article can offer some tips for catching one of Minnesota’s most delicious fish.

With a name like Lake of the Woods, you’d expect breathtaking scenery and complete escape from city life – and you’d definitely get it here. 

Lake of the Woods is tucked in Baudette, the furthest northern part of Minnesota. This lake features more than 65,000 miles of shoreline and its waters house more than 14,000 islands.   

If beaches are your favorite playground, you’ll find several along Lake of the Woods worth playing and picnicking on.  Boaters also love this lake’s expanse for water skiing and jet skiing.

Final thoughts

When you have more than 11,000 lakes to choose from, how do you select the best lake in Minnesota? 

For boaters, we evaluate Minnesota lakes by their access availability, fishing, islands, and the open expanse available within the lake for enjoying towed sports like wakeboarding and skiing.  

Some of Minnesota’s most beautiful lakes are located in some pretty remote locations, so it’s also important to consider accommodations you may need. 

Are you bringing the whole family and require campground or hotel accommodations that cater to small children? 

If so, special amenities such as pools and playgrounds are a great and free way to enhance your children’s vacation enjoyment when you’re not on the water. 

For the rugged travelers among us, the opportunity to boat up to a campsite is a romantic notion, so checking out lakeside camping rules is a great idea to experience a 24/7 water experience on the water.

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