“ … to lie sometimes on the grass under trees … listening to the murmur of the water, or watching clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” – John Lubbock
This observation sums up the justification for lingering on a picnic table along the banks of Lake Pepin in Pepin, Wis. Lake Pepin is a 28-mile long, 3-mile-wide natural broadening of the Mississippi River, formed by the mouth of Wisconsin’s Chippewa River where it empties into the Mississippi just upriver from Wabasha, Minn.
From the picnic table perch, you can get lost in the sweep of open water and distant bluffs that ring the lake on the Minnesota side. Fishing boats, pleasure boats and commercial barges ply the lake under the chameleon sky. Sailboats add a splash of color on the water and seem to reinforce the pace of life here. Train whistles on both sides of the lake echo off the bluffs and across the water. Before you know it, an hour has slipped away, though it wasn’t wasted, in this scenic river town of 900.
The lake and village are named for the Pepin brothers, two of the first French trappers in the region. When steamboats began bringing settlers, socialites and supplies, Pepin became a boomtown familiar to Mark Twain and the wealthy Chicago families who summered on the lake.
Pepin also is the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in a small log cabin 7 miles north of town in 1867. Early adventures there inspired her book “Little House in the Big Woods.” Today, a reconstruction of the Ingalls family cabin that Pa Ingalls built in 1863 is the highlight of a rest area surrounded by rolling fields, punctuated by the church steeple in nearby Lund. The rest area, on County Road CC, is a popular pilgrimage for Laura fans, some from overseas and others who jump from family vehicles in period dresses.
WHAT TO DO
Exploring: Great River Road Loop: Regardless of the season, Lake Pepin is a scenic gem. It’s about a 70-mile drive if you want to loop the lake. From the village of Pepin, head north on Hwy. 35 to the junction of Hwy. 63. Turn south on 63 and cross the Mississippi River bridge to Red Wing. From Red Wing, head south on Hwy. 61 to Wabasha, crossing the river on Hwy. 25 to Nelson, Wis. Then head north on Hwy. 35 to return to Pepin.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge: More than three million visitors come each year to fish, boat, hike, birdwatch, hunt, sightsee or just relax in one of the country’s largest and most visited refuges (200,000 acres, 260 miles long). Visitor center: N5727 County Road Z; Onalaska, Wis.; 1-608-779-2399; tinyurl.com/kqgbu2r.
Shopping: BNOX Gold and Iron (404 1st St., Pepin; 1-715-442-2201; www.bnoxgold.com) features fine art and handcrafted jewelry (Friday-Saturday through November — call for hours). Dockside Mercantile (304 1st St., Pepin; 1-715-442-4009; www.docksidemercantile.com) offers an eclectic mix of clothing, books, gifts and local products (Friday-Sunday through November). Smith Bros. Landing (200 E. Marina Drive, Pepin; 1-715-442-2248; www.pepinsmith.com) is known for fine metal and glass work (open daily through November).
Widespot Performing Arts Center features music, theater, film and performance arts in the historic Stockholm Opera Hall (N2030 Spring Street, Stockholm; 1-715-307-8941; www.widespotperformingarts.org).
WHERE TO EAT
Harbor View Cafe (1st and Main, Pepin; 1-715-442-3893; www.harborviewpepin.com) is a popular spot for casual dining, homemade soups and a view of the marina (Friday-Sunday through Nov. 24). The Pickle Factory Grill and Bar (205 1st St., Pepin; 1-715-442-4400; www.pepinpicklefactory.com) offers a full menu and a great location on Lake Pepin (winter schedule begins in early November — check online or call for hours).
WHERE TO SLEEP
A Summer Place Bed & Breakfast (106 Main St., Pepin; 1-877-442-2132; www.summerplace.net) bills itself as “a bit of New England charm overlooking beautiful Lake Pepin”; open year-round. The Great River Amish Inn (311 3rd St., Pepin; 1-715-442-5400; www.greatriveramishinn.com) features Amish décor; open year-round.
IF YOU GO
For details about Pepin, contact the Pepin Visitor Information Center (Box 274, Pepin; 1-715-442-3011; www.pepinwisconsin.com). The Mississippi Valley Partners produces a Travel Planning Guide to the Lake Pepin region as well as to other Mississippi River communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota (612-309-3995; www.mississippi-river.org).
Jim Umhoefer is a writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.