Minnesota's Backyard: Steep bluffs and prairies in the sky among the stunning views at Frontenac State Park
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
FRONTENAC, Minn. — There are plenty of great places to get a bite to eat along southeast Minnesota’s Mississippi River corridor, which runs roughly from Inver Grove Heights on the southeastern edge of the Twin Cities to the Iowa border. And many of these eateries have great views of the water.
But for the consummate meal with a view, you would be wise to pack a lunch. The main picnic area at Frontenac State Park , which includes tables, shelters, grills and fire rings for visitors to use, features a jaw-dropping view of the river, Lake Pepin and the Wisconsin bluff lands on the other side.
It serves as a perfect welcome to this place of contrasts. In the Driftless region of the state, flat land is a rarity and the wooded bluff tops often feature vistas hundreds of feet above the pleasure boats and fully-loaded barges making their way up and down America’s best-known river. But this popular state park also features places where visitors can hike among “islands” of rolling prairie grassland atop those bluffs, for a kind of “best of both worlds” experience.
While Frontenac’s bluffs and vistas did not officially become a state park until 1957, there is evidence of indigenous cultures living here as far back as 400 B.C. In more recent history, French explorers came up the river and established a fort on the shore of Lake Pepin in 1727. The region’s first European explorers and settlers made note of this sharp rise in the land along the river’s west bank as far back as the 1840s, when the village of Frontenac was just getting settled.
Today, there are myriad ways to explore the bluffs, the most popular being on foot. The park’s 2,600 acres feature all varieties of trail experiences, from the leisurely prairie strolls to the countless steep stairs up and down the bluffs, which descend more than 400 feet to the shore of the river, for a walk along sandy beaches (depending on the water level).
In the spring, Frontenac is a migratory bird-watcher’s paradise, especially for those who love the majestic eagles that float on the gusts that flow through the Mississippi valley. If you are up for an overnight, there are a number of camping options, from a traditional campground to cart-in and backpack sites. And there are paddle sports options on Pleasant Valley Lakelet, which is just down the hill from the park entrance.
In the winter, the terrain makes for a beautiful and challenging place for cross-country skiers to get a real Minnesota cold-weather experience.
Lake Pepin, just to the south of Frontenac, is not technically a lake at all. This wide spot in the Mississippi is 22 miles long and as much as two miles wide, straddling the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, with numerous public access points. And in this region, there is notable history that came from communities on both sides of the Big Muddy. The small town of Pepin, Wisconsin, is the birthplace of renowned American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who gave us the famed “Little House on the Prairie” series of books, about the lives of European settlers in the northern United States. And in 1922, a 19-year-old from Lake City , Minnesota, named Ralph Samuelson perfected the concept of wearing skis to glide across the lake while being towed by a powerboat, and thus the sport of water skiing was born.
This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.