"Lake Pepin ought to be visited by every poet and painter in the land." -- William Cullen Bryant
It's hard to make time driving around Lake Pepin. It's not the roads -- the highways that straddle the lake on the Minnesota and Wisconsin banks of the Mississippi River, of which the lake is part, are fine ribbons of asphalt. It's not the towns -- no one has to linger in pleasant riverfront communities that entice you to pull over. It's the lake itself, beckoning from the car window as it glistens in the sun, tucked under grand bluffs that march up and down the river. Fortunately, a Lake Pepin jaunt in any season is about taking time, not making it.
Lake Pepin is a 28-mile-long, 3-mile-wide natural broadening of the Mississippi, formed by the mouth of Wisconsin's Chippewa River where it joins the Mississippi just upriver from Wabasha. The lake is named for the Pepin brothers, two of the first French trappers in the region. When steamboats began transporting settlers and supplies, a few river towns sprang up on both shores. Today, pleasure boats and commercial barges ply the lake while the scenic river towns tempt visitors with their easygoing charm.
The journey: It's a 70-mile drive if you want to loop the lake. From Red Wing, take Hwy. 61 south to Wabasha, crossing the river on Hwy. 25 to Nelson, Wis. Then head north on Hwy. 35 to the junction of Hwy. 63. Turn south on Hwy. 63 and cross the bridge back to Red Wing. Depending on your inclination, this can take hours or days. Along the way, you'll pass the Minnesota towns of Red Wing, Lake City and Wabasha.
Wisconsin's Hwy. 35 is billed as one of the country's most scenic drives, linking Nelson, Pepin, Stockholm, Maiden Rock and Bay City. Maybe it's that the Wisconsin towns are smaller or that the road consistently hugs the Wisconsin riverbank, offering ample vistas and turnouts to ponder Lake Pepin's beauty. Whatever your reason for exploring the lake, the loop drive is a great example of the journey being more important than the destination.
The outdoors: For the best hawk's-eye view of the lake, drive up to the picnic overlook in Frontenac State Park on the Minnesota side. The park is also one of the nation's best birding spots during migrations. Snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking and sledding are winter favorites (29223 County 28 Blvd., Frontenac; 1-651-345-3401; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/frontenac). For a good view on the Wisconsin side, pull into the wayside north of Maiden Rock on Hwy. 35. A state historical marker tells the story of the lake.
Winter thrill seekers love ice boating on Lake Pepin. The cross-shaped rigs glide across the ice on three steel runners, powered by sail. They can clip along at 60 miles per hour or more when the ice is right and the wind blows free.
The arts: Widespot Performing Arts Center features music, theater, film and performance arts in the historic Stockholm Opera Hall (1-715-307-8941; N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, Wis.; www.widespotperform ingarts.org).
The shopping: Lake Pepin communities each have distinctive shops to browse. Here's a couple to sample:
Cultural Cloth features women's work from around the world and is open on winter weekends (1-715-607-1238; W3557 Hwy. 35, Maiden Rock, Wis.; www.culturalcloth. com). Stockholm General specializes in local and regional fare, including Wisconsin-made cheese, wines, beer, gifts and gourmet items (1-715-442-9077; N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, Wis.; www.stockholm general.com).
During winter, some eateries in Lake Pepin towns close. Here are a couple cozy places to try even in the cold months:
Beth's Twin Bluffs Café boasts homemade fare where "Grandma's still cooking." (1-715-673-4040; S286 Hwy. 35 in Nelson, Wis.). Chickadee Cottage Café offers a family breakfast from 9-2 Sundays through winter (1-651-345-5155; 317 N. Lakeshore Dr., Lake City, Minn.; www.chickadeecottagecafe.com).
A Cottage in Stockholm offers short-term rentals overlooking Lake Pepin (1-715-448-2048; W12224 Hwy. 35, Stockholm, Wis.; www.cottagein stockholm.com).
Villas on Pepin features luxury rentals on Lake Pepin (1-651-345-5188; 1215 N. Lakeshore Drive, Lake City, Minn.; www. villasonpepin.com).
Mississippi Valley Partners produces a travel guide to the Lake Pepin area as well as to other Mississippi River communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota (612-309-3995; www.mississippi-river.org).
Jim Umhofer is a travel/outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.