Seagull flying over Lake Minnetonka

Learn some surprising history and fun facts about Lake Minnetonka, the largest lake in the Twin Cities metro area and the ninth largest in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. From sacred grounds to sunken boats to lakeside resorts and amusement parks, Lake Minnetonka is one of the best lakes in Minnesota. See my related post: Best hiking trails within 50 miles of Lake Minnetonka.


All you need to know about Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota

More than 25 years living in the land of 10,000 lakes (actually 11,842) and I still haven’t considered purifying myself in Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota.* In fact, I’ve only been on Lake Minnetonka twice in the entire time I’ve lived here – and didn’t really know much about it. Good thing I’ve got friends who want to keep me informed about the largest and one of the best lakes in the Twin Cities. Bonus when they have a boat and offer to take me on a tour and share top things to do on Lake Minnetonka.

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And where is Lake Minnetonka?

The largest lake in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area, Lake Minnetonka covers two counties. If you’re coming from the Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport (MSP), Lake Minnetonka is about 24 miles west.

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Lake Minnetonka history tour

After reading about my walking tours in the Twin Cities, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, my friend and former colleague, Dan, thought it would be interesting to share some historical facts about Lake Minnetonka.



He and his wife hosted my son and me on a picture-perfect day by cruising around Lake Minnetonka. Here are just a few things I learned from him as well as from a book he loaned me, “Historic Lake Minnetonka: Navigate Lake Minnetonka and Discover its Rich History – Essential Boaters’ Guide,” by Stephanie Larsen and Nancy P. Steinke (highly recommend it – although it is out of print). And also gathered a few facts about Lake Minnetonka from the websites of Steamboat Minnehaha and DNR Minnesota.

Mom and son on a boat cruising on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota - land of 10,000 lakes.
Just another day at the office – taking a history tour of the largest lake in the Twin Cities and one of the best lakes in the Land of 10,000, Lakes – Lake Minnetonka.


1. Lake Minnetonka by the numbers

Here are some fun stats about Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota – the largest lake in the Twin Cities metro area.

  • 30 bays
  • 31 connecting channels
  • 125 miles of Lake Minnetonka shoreline
  • 14,000 acres of water
  • 16 interconnecting lakes
  • 13 municipalities border Lake Minnetonka in two different counties
  • 9th largest lake in Minnesota; largest lake in the Twin Cities metro

Lake Minnetonka history boat tour
Lake Minnetonka is the ninth largest lake in Minnesota.


2. Minnetonka means big lake in the Dakota language.

Makes sense that Minnetonka means big lake. I love learning the origin of place names such as Lake Minnetonka.


Take a history boat cruise on Lake Minnetonka.


3. Lake Minnetonka is also a deep lake.

How deep is Lake Minnetonka? Lake Minnetonka averages 30 feet deep while the maximum depth is 101 to 113 feet in Crystal Bay.



4. Lake Minnetonka is considered Native American sacred ground.


Spirit Knob/Breezy Point shoreline on Lake Minnetonka near Wayzata, Minnesota
A part of Lake Minnetonka is on display at the Smithsonian Museum – salvaged from the shoreline where Dakota natives once worshipped and performed ceremonial dances.

A 60-foot mound once protruded from the Spirit Knob/Breezy Point shoreline on Lake Minnetonka near Wayzata where Dakota natives worshipped and performed ceremonial dances. They believed all the power of Lake Minnetonka came from this point. Spirit Knob was later excavated and water eroded the area. One artifact of the knob was salvaged from Lake Minnetonka and is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum.

Unfortunately, many unfair treaties led to the Dakota War of 1862, which killed many native Americans, and the remaining Dakota nation members were exiled from Minnesota.


Dollar Tree

5. Lake Minnetonka origins date back to the Ice Age.

How old is Lake Minnetonka? Like many Minnesota lakes, its origins date back 10,000 years ago when glaciers receded with large blocks of ice buried deep under thick sediment. When the ice blocks melted, the sediment collapsed creating depressions filled with water known as kettle lakes. And that’s how Lake Minnetonka came to be.

You can read more details about the origins of Lake Minnetonka on the Historical Marker Database website as well as on the historical marker itself, located at the Port of Excelsior, intersection of Lake and Water streets in Excelsior, Minn.


Port of Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka
Port of Excelsior, Minnesota on Lake Minnetonka


6. When Lake Minnetonka was a bustling summer retreat during the Gilded Age

In the 1880s and 1890s especially, you could find 60 hotels on Lake Minnetonka – attracting as many as 20,000 tourists a year. The Lake Park Hotel, built in 1879 in Gideon Bay, was more than 400 feet long and could accommodate 1,000 guests. The largest structure built on Lake Minnetonka was the Hotel Lafayette, which stood five stories with 400 guest rooms. The last hotel to remain open on Lake Minnetonka was the Maple Heights Inn at Island Park; it closed in the 1960s.



I’m not aware of any hotels on Lake Minnetonka today; but a quick search found a boutique hotel, Hotel Landing, located across the street in Wayzata.

Note that I am an affiliate with HotelsCombined and may receive compensation if you search for hotel deals on their site (at no additional cost to you).

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7. As many as 90 steamboats on Lake Minnetonka in the late 19th century

According to the authors of “Historic Lake Minnetonka,” the largest steamboat on Lake Minnetonka back in the day, Belle of Minnetonka, was the length of a football field (300 feet), could hold 2,500 passengers and featured 40 sleeping cabins. This former steamboat now sits at the bottom of St. Albans Bay in Lake Minnetonka.



8. What’s up with intentionally sinking boats on Lake Minnetonka?

Sinking a ship or boat on purpose is called scuttling. I can understand why you might do this during a war for strategic reasons, but on Lake Minnetonka? I’m assuming it was easier and less cost prohibitive. But I’m speculating so will need to research more about Lake Minnetonka.

Not only did they scuttle the Belle of Minnetonka, but also several other streetcar steamboats ended up on the bottom of Lake Minnetonka.





9. Streetcar steamboats transported passengers to 27 different stops on Lake Minnetonka.


Steamboat Minnehaha on Lake Minnetonka

Before water taxis were a thing, the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company owned six yellow 70-foot Lake Minnetonka steamboats that looked like streetcars named Como, Harriet, Hopkins, Minnehaha, Stillwater and White Bear Lake. That was back in 1906 before automobiles disrupted the transportation industry.

All streetcar steamboats stopped running in 1936; and three of them ended up at the bottom of Lake Minnetonka – intentionally scuttled. And then forgotten until 1979 when a diver discovered the Minnehaha. It was raised, restored and, until recently, sailed regularly on Lake Minnetonka. Update: Unfortunately, Steamboat Minnehaha is not cruising on Lake Minnetonka as it is looking for a new launch site; you can check their website for any new developments and/or donate.


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10. Home delivery on Lake Minnetonka by boat

Remember Dayton’s Department Store (which later became Target Corporation)? They and another department store, Donaldson’s, were iconic establishments in Minnesota; they used to deliver merchandise to lakeshore homes on Lake Minnetonka by boat.



11. Big and beautiful Lake Minnetonka historical homes

It’s an understatement to say many of the homes on Lake Minnetonka are big, beautiful and historical. One of the more notable homes located on Bracketts Point known as Southways was owned by the Pillsburys (yes, those Pillsburys)..

And when I say large, I mean a 32,000-square-foot home featuring 9 bedrooms and 16 baths on 13 acres with 1,700 feet of Lake Minnetonka shoreline. Now that’s prime real estate.

Or was.

The elaborate home that looked over Lake Minnetonka was demolished and the land sold off in parcels.

While John S. Pillsbury passed away in 1968, his wife lived alone in their Lake Minnetonka home until 1991 when she passed away at the age of 104.


Beautiful home on Lake Minnetonka
One of the beautiful homes on Lake Minnetonka


12. Lake Minnetonka: former home of Big Island Park and Excelsior Amusement Park


Big Island on Lake Minnetonka
The popular Big Island Regional Park on Lake Minnetonka as it looks today

The 65 acres of the popular Big Island on Lake Minnetonka was home to an amusement park from 1906-1911. Among this Minnesota lake attractions: a rollercoaster, an aquarium, an aviary with more than 2,000 birds and more. Interesting to learn that John Philip Sousa Orchestra once played in Lake Minnetonka’s Big Island 2,000-seat music pavilion.

The Excelsior Amusement Park on Lake Minnetonka attracted hundreds of visitors annually from 1925 to 1974. Its 1925 carousel ride is now located at the Valleyfair Amusement Park in Shakopee, Minn.



Boats and boat dock on a lake
Lake Minnetonka is a perfect place for boating and other water activities

13. Lake Minnetonka inspired the Rolling Stones classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

Or so the legend goes. Back in 1964, only 283 people showed up to hear the Rolling Stones play at Big Reggie’s Danceland in Excelsior, which borders Lake Minnetonka.

14. Lake Minnetonka home to ~14 species of fish


Boys fishing under a bridge on Lake Minnetonka
Anglers fishing under a bridge on Lake Minnetonka

Minnesota is well-known for its walleye (which you’ll find in Lake Minnetonka); however, the most abundant is bluegill. And you’ll also find northern pike, muskies, largemouth and smallmouth bass, yellow perch, crappie, among others in Lake Minnetonka.



15. Minnehaha Creek, a tributary to the Mississippi River, begins at Gray’s Bay Dam on Lake Minnetonka

I recently visited Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River (where you can wade across), so was cool to see another source of the 2,552-mile-long river. And it begins at Gray’s Bay Dam on Lake Minnetonka.

16. Lake Minnetonka once home to Minnesota wild rice

Minnesota is known for its wild rice, and Lake Minnetonka was once filled with it. Now Lake Minnetonka is filled with a lot of recreational boats. On a side note, I learned that wild rice plants can grow as tall as 10 feet.



17. One of the oldest yacht clubs in the U.S.: The Minnetonka Yacht Club founded in 1882


Boats docked at Minnetonka Yacht Club
Boats docked at Minnetonka Yacht Club in Minnesota – one of the oldest yacht clubs in the United States.

And Lake Minnetonka’s Yacht Club is still going strong with more than 500 members. Located on Light House Island, it’s home to many events as well as the Lake Minnetonka Sailing School. Nearby Bug Island is a landing spot with a slip/lift rental option (source: Minnetonka Yacht Club).



18. Lake Minnetonka’s Ice Out typically in mid-April

Lake Minnetonka is a year-round recreational destination. In the winter, ice fishing and snowmobiling are popular at Lake Minnetonka. Last winter I embraced winter (for a bit) and learned how to ice fish with my friends. Here are 90 other ways to embrace winter in Minnesota.

Ice Out is when the ice melts and a boat is able to travel from one shore to another. The typical Ice Out date in Minnesota is mid-April; however, ice fishing houses are removed in March. And although Minnesota is known for its harsh and frigid winters, ice is never 100% safe. The DNR recommends testing ice depth every 150 feet, and to use the following as a guide (which I think is drilled into every Minnesotan from the day they are born).

  • Anything under 4 inches, stay off
  • 4 inches: ice fishing or activities on foot
  • 5 to 7 inches: snowmobile or ATV
  • 8 to 12 inches: car or small pickup
  • 12 to 15 inches: medium truck

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19. St. Albans Bay on Lake Minnetonka named by Enos Day, a native of St. Albans, Vermont

This coincidence is probably only interesting to me as St. Albans, Vermont is where my husband and I called home for five years. St. Albans Bay on Lake Minnetonka is beautiful and where we started our boat cruise.

*20. That’s not Lake Minnetonka.

*This references an iconic quote and scene from the movie Purple Rain where Prince tells Apollonia to purify herself in Lake Minnetonka. She strips down and jumps into the body of water next to them only to learn from Prince, “That’s not Lake Minnetonka.” From my understanding, that scene was filmed about 100 miles away and it was the Minnesota River, not Lake Minnetonka.



Other top things to do on Lake Minnetonka


Of course, there is so much more to learn about and do on Lake Minnetonka. We spent an entire afternoon boating around only part of the lake. Looking forward to checking out the other side of Lake Minnetonka – the largest lake in the Twin Cities and one of the best lakes in Minnesota – next time when we take a Lake Minnetonka boat cruise.

Lake Minnetonka boat cruises

Top of the list of things to do on one of the largest lakes in Minnesota is to take a Lake Minnetonka boat cruise. Here are some options (especially if you don’t have a friend who owns a boat). Be sure to check with the individual Lake Minnetonka boat cruise companies about their social-distancing operations and accommodations during this pandemic. These are just a few.

  • Al & Alma’s Minnetonka Cruises
  • Lady of the Lakes Cruises
  • Lake Minnetonka Yacht Club
  • Minnetonka Charter Cruises
  • Wayzata Bay Charter Cruises

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Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

57 comments

    1. I’m looking forward to taking a cruise around Lake Minnetonka on the streetcar steamboat…although I think these days it only makes a couple of stops, but am hoping they point out all the other stops it used to make. That Belle was one big boat.

  1. This lake is pretty cool, I just learned so much and I am very interested way boats would intentionally sink here. I enjoyed reading all the facts about this lake, there is a lot of history involved!

    1. Thank you! I need to track down why they think sinking a boat intentionally (scuttling) is a good thing. All I can find so far is that if boats need to be abandoned or are a navigation hazard then they’re scuttled. Makes sense on the ocean, perhaps, but not sure why they would do it on a lake.

  2. Your pictures are gorgeous. And I love that this is part of a series of posts about exploring your backyard. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I didn’t know some of this. Very fun! It always bums me out to see a once sacred place now a place of leisure but admittedly it looks like a place to have a just about perfect day! 🙂

  4. I love going to the lake. There’s something so relaxing about being on the water with the wind in your hair. I’d love to try the water taxi. And I’ve never been ice fishing or really seen a frozen lake in the winter. I need to add that to my dream list!

    1. The water is always calling my name. I’ve never been ice fishing either, but always see their ice houses…you know spring is coming when they’re removed.

  5. So much info here! I learned a lot. Funny the name means big lake it almost seems like it means small with the minn in the beginning. Lol

  6. I’ve never been to Minnesota, but it seems like I would love a trip in the summer especially with so many lakes! Beautiful photos.

  7. Ah now I get the quote. You can drive a truck on 12 inches of ice? Wow. Didn’t know that. Not that I’ll be trying it anytime soon.

  8. These are such cool facts about Lake Minnetonka! I never knew “scuttling” was a word, but now I’m wondering if that where the bird got his name in “The Little Mermaid”

  9. I was surprised by those facts about Lake Minnetonka. I enjoy fishing. Therefore I liked learning that there are 14 species of fish there.

  10. Lake Minnetonka looks like an amazing destination! I have an affinity for lakes and these 20 facts definitely surprised me!

  11. I’ve heard so much about Lake Minnetonka! Such an interesting history and so beautiful. I’d love to visit.

    1. I hope you get the opportunity to visit Lake Minnetonka. It’s one of the best places to visit in the Twin Cities and lots of fun and surprising facts

  12. So many cool facts about Lake Minnetonka! I love that Rolling Stones song and can’t believe that they had that small of a crowd when they played there!!

  13. Lake Minnetonka is so gorgeous! Your pictures are amazing. Thank you for sharing those facts!

  14. Lake Minnetonka is such a beautiful lake. I’d love to cruise around on it, especially since it’s so hot here! I just looked up the temps there–72 degrees! It has been over 100 degrees or more here for so long!

    1. You chose a good day to check the temps…it’s been in the 90s with heat indices in the 100s for the past couple of weeks. I almost felt cold today in the 70s. 😂 Lake Minnetonka is a beautiful lake in the Twin Cities for sure!

  15. Nice piece, but much has been left out. For instance what went on at Big Island. At the turn of the century there was a big hotel along with the amusement park and a complex that attracted the rich and famous. Then there was a Veteran’s Camp (BIVC) established in 1926 for affordable living for post WWII Vets & families could rest. And the amusement park in Excelsior also had entertainment. I saw the Everly Brothers perform there, for example. And a not about the Streetcar boats. When the boilers broke (they ran on steam), they were scuttled as that was the most affordable way to dispose of them of which some were on fire.

    1. Thank you so much! I’ll need to change it up to 20+ most surprising things about Lake Minnetonka! Greatly appreciate your insider knowledge! That would have been so cool to see the Everly Brothers here.

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