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Minnesota: Where the lakes begin

A group of friends board a canoe April 21, 2010, at the Mill Pond in New London, Minn., for a ride to Rodvick Park. New London's Mill Pond is one of the attractions in Kandiyohi County, Minn.

WILLMAR, Minn. -- It's no secret that Minnesota boasts some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in the United States, due in large part to the state's many lakes. When traveling to Minnesota from the south, it's easy to see where these lakes really begin: in Kandiyohi County.

Across the county, more than 360 clear, pristine glacial lakes help make Willmar and the surrounding area a quality place to live, as well as a popular tourist destination.

Beyond the lakes, Kandiyohi County offers endless stretches of nature trails, a vast history, a thriving local arts and music scene, and a generous helping of Minnesota "nice." Add all these components together, and Kandiyohi County truly has something for everyone, said Beth Fischer, executive director of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're so fortunate to live in this area," Fischer said. "We have a variety of attractions, events and outdoor resources. There is always something taking place on any given day."

Explore the Willmar lakes area

The geography of Kandiyohi County is diverse, ranging from rich agricultural farmland in the south to rolling hills and lakes in the north. Without a doubt, one of the biggest draws to the area is the never-ending outdoor recreational opportunities available. Many of these begin on the county's lakes.

From Green Lake in Spicer to the Norway chain of lakes near County Park 7, Kandiyohi County has some of the cleanest, clearest lakes in all of Minnesota. Families can enjoy a day of fishing, swimming and boating at any of the county's six parks, or at Sibley State Park outside of New London.

At Sibley, outdoor enthusiasts can experience nature in its best and most pristine condition. Staff members at the park have worked diligently to ensure that the park's 2,600 acres of land are left as untouched as possible. As a result, stretches of bur oak, maple, ash and basswood trees encircle the five major lakes within the park boundaries. Wildlife runs free, and avid birders come to the park to see bluebirds, loons, mallards and, in the springtime, the often-elusive warbler.

Sibley State Park also offers 132 camp sites, accommodating groups with RVs, tents and even horses. For those looking for a slightly less rugged experience, groups can also book "camper cabins" and stay in a sheltered area.

In today's fast-paced, high-tech world, it can be refreshing to take a week off, relax at the lake and spend time in the peaceful serenity of nature.

"We all need a place where we can go and recharge our batteries," said Gary Bullemer, assistant manager at Sibley State Park. "We all lead busy lives and are constantly bombarded with things that wear us out. We need places where we can reconnect with nature. It's a good thing for all of us to do once in a while."

Revisit historical Kandiyohi County

The history of Kandiyohi County is as varied and diverse as the geographical area itself. In the 19th century, the county was actually broken into two: Kandiyohi encompassed Willmar and the southern half, and Monongalia County included the New London, Spicer and Sunburg areas. The two merged and became Kandiyohi County in 1870.

The county has a strong Native American history and was once the meeting ground for the Dakota and Ojibway tribes. The Dakota later settled near the lakes to hunt and fish. In 1856, the first white settlers arrived in the area and also gravitated toward the lakes for a natural water source.

Locals and visitors to Kandiyohi County alike can learn about the area's history by visiting any of the 44 recognized historical sites in the county. Of those sites, 26 relate to the Dakota Conflict of 1862, when 13 white settlers and an unknown number of Native Americans were killed in Kandiyohi County. A not-to-miss historical site is the restored Endreson Cabin, where two settlers were killed during the conflict.

Learning about the history of Kandiyohi County -- whether it's traveling to all 44 historical sites or visiting a few here and there -- can bring a new appreciation and understanding of the area.

"We learn from the past. If you don't know where you're from, you don't know where you're going to go," said Jill Wohnoutka, executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society. "We also learn a sense of place by knowing our history, and we have a variety of it here, from the Native American and pioneer history to the war history to the geological history. We really have something to interest everyone."

Soak in the local culture

While one could spend weeks exploring all the outdoor recreation and historical sites that Kandiyohi County has to offer, no trip to the area would be complete without a taste of the arts and culture of west central Minnesota.

New London, a tiny town with around 1,200 people, is home to 15 different artists' studios alone. There are several galleries in the area open for the public to enjoy, including the Norby Sculpture Garden, featuring local artist Art Norby's bronze sculptures, and the Kaleidoscope Gallery, an artist cooperative that shows and sells local works. Also in New London, a popular fine arts festival and music festival take place every year in mid-August.

"I've been all over the U.S. and the world, and I think New London has so much to offer in terms of art," Norby said. "All it takes is coming to the area to find that out. There's no place in western Minnesota where you can see so much art in so little time."

Kandiyohi County also has a vibrant music scene. For one week in July, Willmar doubles in size as nearly 20,000 youth and adults attend the annual Sonshine Music Festival. Festival-goers pitch tents outside the Willmar Civic Center and enjoy four days of speakers and some of the best-known bands in Christian music.

For those looking to do some shopping in the area, nearly every town in the county has antique stores and locally owned shops lining the streets of downtown. Willmar, a regional hub, offers a mix of shopping, from the Kandi Mall to quaint downtown boutiques. In New London, around 15 downtown storefronts and several cafes provide a day's worth of shopping and small-town charm.

"New London has a really viable downtown," said Bob Dickerson, who owns Dickerson's Lake Florida Resort near Spicer with his wife, Connie. "We always send our guests there. You can walk around freely in a pleasant atmosphere."

Come for the lakes, stay for the hospitality

No matter how visitors spend their time exploring Kandiyohi County -- whether it's at the lakes, on a historical tour or taking in the arts and shopping -- they'll be greeted with smiles and warmth. This hospitality is one way that the area distinguishes itself and makes it such a special place for both locals and vacationers, Dickerson says.

"One thing we can offer that's unique is friendly faces and warm personalities," said Dickerson, who always makes sure to have warm chocolate chip cookies ready for guests when they arrive at the resort. "That's what keeps people coming back. We can give them a safe haven and a place to have some good old-fashioned fun. We want to do everything possible to make sure visitors have a good time while they're here."