State mottos are a great way to capture a snapshot of what makes the people of that state really tick. In the case of Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is legendary. But how many lakes actually are there in Minnesota? And what makes a lake, versus a pond or a big section of river? We set out to explore the Great North…
Does Minnesota Actually Have 10,000 Lakes?
The state of Minnesota does not have 10,000 lakes; it has OVER 10,000 lakes. Some of Minnesota’s lakes are dry. Beyond being superb places to fish, swim, and vacation, Minnesota’s lakes are important to the landscape and economy of Minnesota.
Minnesota actually has 17,246 lakes, according to the most credible source we could find. Limnologist John A. Downing, a scientist who studies Minnesota’s lakes and rivers, made that count during his graduate university years. But even Mr. Downing says his count is not accurate.
Mr. Downing reports that the many, many small lakes in Minnesota make it difficult to count all the lakes in Minnesota. He says:
“Lake scientists – limnologists – can make educated guesses about the number of lakes in a landscape by measuring and counting the bigger lakes and using that number to estimate or project the number of smaller lakes.”John A. Downing
How Many Lakes Are in Minnesota?
When Mr. Downing counted the lakes in Minnesota, he found that the number of lakes and water bodies after glaciation, about 10,000 years ago, must have been around 4.6 million. Almost 50% of the total area of those 4.6 million lakes, or about 15,000 square miles, would have been made up of lakes smaller than one-quarter of an acre each of about 11,000 square feet.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) officially counts 14,380 lakes in its state. The MNDNR has been assembling a huge database since about 1991 listing every water body in Minnesota that could be counted as a lake.
The MNDNR counts over 117,000 water bodies. But what is the difference between a lake and a pond? The smallest MNDNR water body in its database covers only 0.004 acres or 174 square feet. Limnologists define a lake as a water body large enough to have a wave-swept shore.
A wave-swept shore requires a brisk wind of about 30 knots, or 34.5 mph, to blow across enough surface water to raise waves of about 4 inches in height and displace fine sediment.
The MNDNR database suggests Minnesota has 14,380 lakes if you count lakes that cross the U.S./Canada border, and you do not count a few lakes that are mostly in other states. The database does not count water bodies under 10 acres as an official Minnesota lake.
No one knows the exact number of lakes in Minnesota, or anywhere else. Even satellite photographs do not help identify lakes and ponds. Water bodies can be too small or indistinct enough to tell them from their surrounding land. Some lakes do not look like lakes in aerial and satellite pictures.
What Are the 5 Major Lakes in Minnesota?
Twenty-eight percent of Minnesota’s lakes are over 100,000 acres each. Nine percent cover between 10,000 and 100,000 acres. Twenty-three percent have a surface area between 1,000 and 10,000 acres. Thirty-nine percent of Minnesota’s lakes are smaller than 100 acres.
Lake Superior is Minnesota’s largest, most important and major lake. The next four lakes that hold the title as Minnesota’s major and biggest lakes are:
- Lake Superior, 31,700 square miles
- Lake of the Woods, 951,337 acres
- Lower and Upper Red Lake, 288,800 acres
- Mille Lacs, 132,516 acres
- Leech, 111,527 acres
What Is Minnesota’s Largest Lake?
In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, there is only one lake that can be the largest, which is also a lake known around the world.
Lake Superior is Minnesota’s largest lake, which covers a surface area of 31,700 square miles, while Upper and Lower Red Lake are the largest body of water completely inside Minnesota at 288,800 acres.