Lake Pepin is a stunningly beautiful hidden treasure, located about 90 minutes southeast of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Lake Pepin is the largest lake on the Mississippi River, formed 9,500 years ago by the backup of water behind sediments where the Chippewa River empties into the mighty Mississippi. Covering about 29,000 acres, Lake Pepin stretches out more than 25 miles along the Mississippi, forming the border that separates Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The lake was originally named Lac de Pleurs – Lake of Tears – by Father Louis Hennepin in 1680, after observing his Sioux captors grieving over the death of a chief’s son.
Lake Pepin and the Village of Pepin are named after the Pepin brothers, two of the first French trappers to the area. Lake Pepin is known as the “birthplace of waterskiing” as native Ralph Samuelson invented the sport here in 1922.
Can you drive around Lake Pepin?
Yes! In fact, the 70-mile drive around Lake Pepin is a perfect day trip. The road plays hide-and-seek with the lake’s shoreline. Along the way you will discover spectacular sandstone and limestone cliffs and densely wooded bluffs that tower 400 feet above the lake.
Quaint river towns, hillsides blanketed in spring wildflowers or brilliant autumn colors, a state park, a vast wildlife preserve, pioneer exhibits, antique shops, bakeries and wine bars will tempt you to linger instead of continuing your loop around the lake.
A good place to start a driving tour is Red Wing, Minnesota, on the lake’s northern tip. Route 61 winds south past Frontenac State Park, through Lake City to the town of Wabasha, where you will cross the Mississippi River to Nelson, Wisconsin, and the Nelson-Trevino Bottoms State Natural Area.
Route 35 in Wisconsin meanders north through the villages of Pepin, Stockholm, Maiden Rock, Bay City, and Hager City, where you will cross over the bridge to return to Red Wing.
Start your Lake Pepin journey in Red Wing, Minnesota
Route 61 south from Red Wing, Minnesota, leads to the town of Frontenac and Frontenac State Park. Frontenac was a fashionable summer Riviera in the late 1800s with many pre- and post-Civil War homes still standing along the lakeshore.
Frontenac State Park provides 2,270 acres of great bird watching opportunities. The centerpiece of the park is the 430-foot high, 3-mile long limestone bluff overlooking the lake.
Lake City’s Hok-Si-La Park offers boat launches, hiking trails, and rocky beaches for agate hunting. Its marina offers sailboat cruises and cruises aboard the replica paddlewheel boat, ‘Pearl of the Lake.’
Reads Landing, between Lake City and Wabasha, is a prime location for eagle observation with viewing stops along the road. The historic steamboat town of Wabasha is the home of the National Eagle Center.
Cross the Mississippi River to complete the Lake Pepin drive
Crossing the Mississippi River from Wabasha leads to Nelson, Wisconsin, home of a large cheese outlet.
The Nelson-Trevino Bottoms State Natural Area, located at the confluence of the Chippewa and Mississippi Rivers, is an undisturbed wilderness rich in flora and fauna – great for hiking and wildlife viewing.
Route 35 in Wisconsin continues north into Pepin, a town that provides beautiful views of the lake and beaches for strolling and agate hunting. Pepin is the location of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘House in the Big Woods’ with a replica of the Ingalls’ log cabin.
Maiden Rock, a 400-foot limestone bluff above the town of Stockholm, provides panoramic views of the lake. Legend tells of a Chippewa maiden who leaped to her death rather than marry a brave chosen by her chieftain father. Rare wildflowers grow at Maiden Rock, and peregrine falcons nest in the trees.
The lake loop is complete by continuing north on Route 35 through Bay City, crossing the bridge back to Red Wing, Minnesota. Red Wing’s historic St. James Hotel is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Explore Lake Pepin by water
Take time to enjoy Lake Pepin from the water, too – by motorboat, sailboat, or houseboat. There are three marinas on the lake, two in Lake City (MN) and one in Pepin (WI) for boat launching.
Lake Pepin is a great fishing lake, offering up catches of largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, sauger, white bass, black crappie, northern pike, bluegill, and yellow perch.
And, Lake Pepin has its own lake monster, named Pepie, a serpentine creature that lives in the shadowy depths beneath Maiden Rock. Most reports of Pepie sightings are from the 1980s with occasional sightings over the past several years. So don’t forget your camera while cruising around Lake Pepin, and be on the look-out for Pepie.
There’s a $50,000 reward by the Lake City Tourism Bureau for the person who proves that Pepie exists!
Legends of lake monsters have existed around the world for hundreds of years. Lake monsters are a cornerstone of cryptozoology, the study of legendary hidden and unknown creatures. Read on to learn…