Explore Lake Pepin
About scenic Lake Pepin
Lake Pepin is a 22-mile-long, 2-mile-wide natural broadening of the Mississippi, covering 30,000 acres with majestic bluffs surrounding a natural lake of stunning beauty.
Lake Pepin is the largest lake on the mighty Mississippi River. It is the home to incredibly diverse flora and fauna and serves as an important water filter that reduces sediment and other pollution flowing downstream. The Lake Pepin area is historically and culturally important, providing a home to humans stretching back for over 12,000 years. The lake has provided great inspiration to famous authors and visual artists, as well as to the many thousands of travellers who visit each year. Lake Pepin is one of the Midwest’s most cherished natural playgrounds, with a plethora of recreational and sporting opportunities to accompany its majestic natural beauty. Cities along its shores include Maiden Rock, Reads Landing, Stockholm, as well as its destination hub and largest community, Lake City.
On the Water
The Lake Pepin area is a cultural and historical epicenter of the Midwest. It is estimated that Native American history in Minnesota spans over 12,000 years. From the early residents of the early Paleoindian period, to the Oneota, to the Eastern Dakota peoples who encountered the first European traders and settlers, Lake Pepin has been home to many cultures.
The lake was first named by Europeans in a map of New France made by Guillaume Delisle at the request of Louis XIV of France in 1703. The lake was named for Jean Pepin who settled on its shores in the late 1600s after exploring the Great Lakes from Boucherville.
Nicolas Perrot erected the first of a number of fur trade posts, Fort Saint Antoine, in 1686. In 1727 René Boucher de La Perrière and Michel Guignas built Fort Beauharnois on the lake. In 1730 it had to be rebuilt on higher ground. Boucher was the military leader and Father Guignas was a missionary.
In the nineteenth century the lake was used to transport freshly-cut trees for the lumber industry. Cut logs were floated across the lake, from the 1840s often with the assistance of steamboats to counter adverse winds and the sluggish currents in the lake. Large rafts were assembled at Reads Landing at the southern end, and towed downstream to mills at Winona and St. Louis.
In Little House In the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her first look at the lake in the following excerpt: “After a long time Laura began to see glimpses of blue water between the trees.” … “Then all at once the road came out of the woods and Laura saw the lake. It was as blue as the sky, and it went to the edge of the world. As far as she could see, there was nothing but flat, blue water.” The scenic lake makes another appearance in Wilder’s most famous book, Little House on the Prairie in the chapter “Going West”.
Lake Pepin’s most famous and cherished characteristic remains it’s significant place in watersport history. Popularly known as “The Birthplace of Waterskiing”, Lake City is where Ralph Samuelson, at the young age of 19, successfully took to Lake Pepin with his home-made water skis made of pine boards that measured a whopping eight feet long and nine inches wide. In the summer of 1922 Samuelson performed the sport for the first time in front of an audience on Lake Pepin’s ideal waters, effectively putting Lake City’s name and Samuelson’s in the history books. In 2022 Lake City will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Samuelson’s invention at the 50th Water Ski Days in June.
William Cullen Bryant once said, “Lake Pepin ought to be visited by every poet and painter in the land.” Indeed, the natural beauty of the area is one of the most beautiful spots in the Midwest. Experience the blue, gold, and white hues that accompany winter, or the reds, oranges, and yellows that set the bluffs ablaze in the autumn. Summer and spring bring their own glory as the area becomes lush and green, with wildflowers blooming everywhere.
One can enjoy the beauty of Lake Pepin from many perspectives.
A drive around the lake, winding between the bluffsides and the Mississippi is a popular and accessible way to experience the area, and there is an abundance of pull-off areas with stunning vistas and historical markers.
A hike or snowshoe adventure through natural areas like Frontenac State Park or Hok Si La allows one to be immersed in the flora and fauna that the area has to offer. Bring binoculars to spot the many species of birds that spend time at Lake Pepin throughout the year, making the area a true birder’s paradise.
Of course, to get the full picture, some time spent on the waters of Lake Pepin is a must. Fortunately, there are many ways to get on the Lake that correspond to different budgets and interests. Book a tour on the Pearl of the Lake Paddle Boat, charter a sail with Lake City Sailing, or rent a pontoon or a kayak to navigate the waters yourself. If you’re feeling daring, get a birds-eye perspective by scheduling a session with Eagle Hang Gliding.
From hiking, cycling, and cross country skiing to hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling, the Lake Pepin area is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
A great way to experience the Lake is by participating in the Tour de Pepin, a cycling event held every year in early June. Tour de Pepin is a supported ride around Lake Pepin, featuring food and hydration stations, and a wrap up party featuring live music and food trucks at the finish line. Choose 32 or 50 mile options or make it a grand tour by circumnavigating the entirety of Lake Pepin with the 72 or 100 mile options.
Fishing is one of the most popular pastimes in the area. There are 85 different species of fish that live in Lake Pepin, making this section of the Mississippi one of the most popular places in the country for anglers. Lake City alone boasts 3 public boat launches, making it easy to get your craft out on the water. If you’re new to the area or just visiting, get acclimated by hiring one of the many experienced fishing guide services available. Trout fishing is also popular in the cold water streams in the valleys surrounding Lake Pepin.
Recreational boating reigns supreme on Lake Pepin. On any given day in the spring, summer, or fall, the lake is buzzing with sailboats, pontoons, cabin cruisers, kayaks, and canoes, and yet the sheer size of Lake Pepin allows for a plentitude of elbow room for boaters to feel like they have the lake to themselves. Tours, charters, and rentals make it easy to explore the water, if you didn’t bring your own watercraft.
Hunters can find everything they are looking for in the surrounding Hiawatha & Mississippi River Valleys. Hunting near Lake City offers some of the most comfortable accommodations in a wilderness setting without having to travel or invest into a high end guided hunt. Sportsman will find an open season on big game, small game, waterfowl, or trapping nine of twelve months each year.
In 2022 Lake City will debut its newest summer event, the Y-Knot Tri, a family oriented-triathlon featuring a 2.5-mile kayaking section on Lake Pepin, a 14-mile bike section north of Lake City looping thought old and new Frontenac, and closes with a 5K run south on the river walk. Set for August 13, 2022.
These are just a few of the options in the area for outdoor rec junkies and sportspeople. Regardless of your interests or what season you find yourself visiting the Lake Pepin area in, you will no doubt find the outdoor activity that’s right for you.
Geology and Ecology
Lake Pepin occupies a valley carved by the waters of Glacial River Warren, which drained Lake Agassiz in a catastrophic flood at the end of the last Ice Age, and to a lesser extent from Lake Duluth, a smaller glacial lake which drained through the present valley of the St. Croix River. When the continental glacier’s meltwaters found other outlets to the sea, River Warren was succeeded by the more modest Upper Mississippi, which drains a much smaller basin, and the St. Croix spillway became the present river. Over a long period of time, the deep valley was partially filled with sediments, forming a broad floodplain. In this plain Lake Pepin formed behind a delta comprising sediments deposited into the ancient lake bed by the Chippewa River near the present community of Wabasha at the southern end of the lake. The lake backed up behind this sediment dam as far north as the location of Saint Paul. In the 10,000 years since the lake’s creation, ongoing sedimentation into Lake Pepin has caused its upper end to migrate downstream some 80 km (50 mi) to its present location east (river direction south) of Red Wing, Minnesota.
The process of sedimentation continues at an accelerated rate; particulates carried by the river upstream are deposited when the current slows where the river empties into the lake. Pepin’s natural flora are threatened by these increased rates of sedimentation, leading the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance to call the phenomenon a “wet desert.” Some theorize the lake is filling in at a rate of ten times greater than pre-colonization, due largely to increased run-off from farms along the Minnesota River. Other research maintains sediment accumulation is from a more diverse and complicated series of processes, including natural bank sloughing of large amounts of soil from steep river banks, a result of the geography of the area, composition and physical properties of the soil, man-made restriction of river flooding, access to flood plains and wetlands, and forced straightening an deepening of river channels. Research suggests these processes are being heightened due to increasing precipitation due to climate change.
Learn more about Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance’s important work here.