Halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth, Hinckley makes a convenient pit stop, a role it has served since the 1850s when stagecoach service began between St. Paul and Superior, Wisconsin. Lumberjacks arrived in 1869 to begin clearing the surrounding stands of white pine, and the next year, when the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad connected St. Paul with Duluth, the town flourished.
In 1894, the boom went bust in a big way. That summer remains one of the driest on record, and high winds on September 1 blew several small forest fires together, creating a raging firestorm that swept across the county, destroying Hinckley and five other towns in a matter of hours—over 400 people lost their lives. Though the city rebuilt, it never fully recovered.
The saving grace for the town has been the Mille Lacs Ojibwe’s rapidly expanding Grand Casino Hinckley (777 Lady Luck Dr., 320/384-7101 or 800/472-6321). Of course there are slots and blackjack tables, but they also host big-name musical acts to draw people up from the Twin Cities.
The Grand Celebration Powwow is held here in mid-June, and the Native American gift shop in the hotel lobby is small but good.
Few visitors make it to the little downtown, and really the only reasons to do so are to access the southern end of the paved Willard Munger State Trail, which runs 63 miles to Duluth, or visit the Hinckley Fire Museum (106 Old Hwy. 61, 320/384-7338, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily May–Oct., $5 adults). Besides telling the story of the deadly inferno, there are Native American, logging-era, and railroad displays.
Woodland Trails (40361 Grace Lake Rd., 320/655-3901, www.woodlandtrails.net, $175–245) is a six-room bed-and-breakfast that feels like your own personal country lodge. A few miles out of town, it is surrounded by miles of hiking and skiing trails and has its own pond for boating.
If you are here to gamble it doesn’t matter where you stay, since the casino runs a shuttle service to all of Hinckley’s hotels, but you might as well sleep at the modern 281-room Grand Casino Hinckley Hotel (777 Lady Luck Dr., 320/384-7101 or 800/468-3517, www.grandcasinomn.com, $83). Facilities include a pool, whirlpool, and fitness center. There are also 222 RV campsites jammed together next to the casino.
The casino has half a dozen restaurants to choose from, including the all-you-can-eat Grand Buffet (lunch Mon.–Fri. $9, brunch Sat.–Sun. $11, dinner daily $13–21), with well over 100 choices.
Tobies (404 Fire Monument Rd., 320/384-6174, www.tobies.com, open 24/7, $4–12), along I-35, has been serving classic family fare to road-trippers and locals since 1920. The menu has burgers, salads, seafood, steak, and pasta, and there’s a take-away counter for their popular bakery.
Jefferson Lines (888/864-2832, www.jeffersonlines.com) buses stop here on the Twin Cities–Duluth run.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition