Often when people think of Minnesota and lakes, they either think of the North Shore or the Brainerd Lakes area. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those areas — far from it! But why not pack up the car and drive just a couple of hours west of the Twin Cities to the Willmar area, which has plenty of fun to offer every family member all year round.

Lakes are an obvious draw in this area, and there are several with varying levels of recreation available. Fishing is a good bet on any of them; many have family friendly mom-and-pop cabin resorts with boats available for rent and ample beach space. Some of the larger lakes, like Big Kandiyohi Lake and Green Lake, have public swimming beaches. And it’s not too late to enjoy the waterside beauty while taking in the fall foliage.

Kayak Sibley,

(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

Sibley State Park
800 Sibley Park Road NE
New London, MN
Hours: Open daily 8 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Daily permit $5, longer-term permits available

Nearby Sibley State Park has Lake Andrew, also with public swimming and boat access. Sibley State Park is a rear-round destination, offering hiking and biking trails in the summer, and snowmobile trails, cross-country ski trials, and downhill sledding (complete with warming house) in the winter.

Sibley State Park is also home to Mt. Tom, the highest point in a 50-mile radius. Climb the tower there.

Willmar Tower,

(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

And find a spectacular view that, on a clear day, extends for miles.


(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

Kandiyohi Historical Society Museum
610 NE Hwy 71
Willmar, MN
Hours: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Price: Free

There’s plenty of history in the area too, particularly related to the Dakota Conflict of 1862. A visit to the Kandiyohi Historical Society Museum will introduce your family to the area’s points of historical interest, and you can pick up a copy of The Historic Sites of Kandiyohi County Guidebook in the gift shop, which will direct to sites nearby that were significant during the Conflict.

Schwanke Car and Tractor Museum
3310 So. Hwy 71
Willmar, MN
Hours: Monday-Saturday 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. May – September
Price: $5 for adults, $2 children under 12

Another type of history is on display at the Schwanke Car and Tractor Museum. The area’s agricultural history is well represented with decades’ worth of tractors, trucks, engines, pumps, and more.

KRA Speedway
907 7th St NW
Willmar, MN
Open May – September
Price: Grandstand admission, $10 for adults, free for children 12 and under


(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

If that’s enough education for the kids, it might be time for a visit to the KRA Speedway. Races on this dirt track run from early May to late September.

J&L Bison Ranch
5650 NW 41st Ave
Willmar, MN
Open May – November, Tuesday-Thursday (reservation required)
Price: $5 for adults, $4 for children ages 10 and under

For viewing of an entirely different sort, make an appointment for a tour at the J&L Bison Ranch, available May to November. The farmers here have helped restore the once-dwindling bison population, and today the animals have 200 acres to roam and graze.

Big Kahuna Fun Park
190 Progress Way
Spicer, MN
Open daily Memorial Day – Labor Day, call for off-season weekends
Rides start at $4.50

Fun Park

(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

In nearby Spicer is the Big Kahuna Fun Park, with go-karts for older kids (or those riding with adults) and a Power Wheels course for the younger ones, mini-golf, and bumper boats.

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center
12718 10th St NE
Spicer, MN
Open year-round

Also in Spicer is the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, offering environmental education classes for the whole family (with an emphasis on combining learning with fun), along with a challenge course—and a time travel course.

Little Crow Ski Team
Neer Park
New London, MN
Price: General admission, $5 for adults, $3 for students, free for preschool ages and younger; reserved seating, $8

Ski Team

(credit: Willmar Lakes Area CVB)

If you decide to plan a trip to Wilmar in the summer –- a visit wouldn’t be complete without taking in the Little Crow Ski Team in New London. These advanced water skiers can do it all: jumping, bare-footing, pyramid-building, ballet, and maybe even ski with fire.

History, recreation, entertainment, even time travel — Willmar has oodles of opportunity for fun family time.

Amy C. Rea lives with her family in the Twin Cities. She’s the author of Backroads & Byways of Minnesota and Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Lakes: an Explorer’s Guide. She can also be found chatting about Minnesota travel topics at www.flyover-land.com.

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