A spin around Lake Pepin

On the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin, a favorite driving route leads to some real treats.

The view from Maiden Rock Bluff.
From the Maiden Rock Bluff state natural area, hikers have a spectacular view of Lake Pepin.

Along the shores of Lake Pepin, villages like to play a game called "Tempt the Tourist."

The tourists think they're going to go for a drive and see some scenery. But the villages give them so many places to indulge themselves, they end up mostly eating and shopping — not that anyone's complaining.

The highway around Lake Pepin is a gantlet of temptations — bakeries, bistros, wine bars and gift shops. Some people never make it beyond Stockholm in Wisconsin or Red Wing in Minnesota, just an hour from the Twin Cities.

But this is the kind of place where it's fun to spin your wheels.

Lake Pepin actually is a 26-mile-long wide spot on the Mississippi, created by the delta of the Chippewa River across from Reads Landing, Minn.

Early explorers were quick to extol its beauty, and when steamboats began traveling upriver in the 1820s, settlements sprang up to supply travelers with wood and food.

General stores replaced wharves, then gave way to shops, galleries and cafes that cater to tourists. Today, visitors have an array of choices that's as expansive as the views.

It's a 70-mile drive around Lake Pepin, making it a perfect day trip. We start in Red Wing, and our first stop is Old West Main Street, near Pottery Place, to pick up baked goods or a picnic lunch.

If it's a fine day, we can take our picnic lunch to Bay Point Park to watch the river traffic or up to Barn Bluff for a view of the river valley.

Or we can drive across the bridge to Wisconsin and head along the Great River Road to Maiden Rock, where we hope that Smiling Pelican Bakery won't be out of its Viennese lemon tart.

The Pearl of the Lake cruise boat.
From Lake City, the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheeler gives tours.

Often it is, so we'll split a piece of three-berry pie in the bountiful perennial garden.

The best shopping is down the road in tiny Stockholm, jammed into the shadow of the bluff. In the 1980s, artisans and shopkeepers began renovating the old clapboard and limestone buildings and turning them into galleries; that drew more artists.

Iris and Oak Gallery showcases the work of local potters and other artists. So does Abode, a fine-arts gallery across the road.

Up the street, the Stockholm Pie Company sells pie — savory ones as well as fruits and creams — and also ice cream.

They're all within a few steps of the intersection of Wisconsin 35 and Spring Street. A block down the highway, the Palate sells gourmet treats and cookware and offers cooking classes.

The next town, Pepin, has been a popular day-trip destination for people from the Twin Cities and Rochester since the Harbor View Cafe opened in 1980. It exerts such a pull that its annual reopening in mid-March signals the start of the tourist season on Lake Pepin.

Hopeful diners often have to wait hours for a table, a boon for the shops that have sprung up nearby.

Pepin also is the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There's a Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Museum in town, a repository of Laura-era artifacts. The author was born seven miles up the bluffs, where her family's cabin is re-created at the Little House Wayside.

Down the highway from Pepin, the Nelson Cheese Factory has been making cheese for more than a century, but it's kept up with the times.

First, it offered sandwiches and ice cream to passing tourists, then a large array of imported gourmet goods, and now a patio and a fireplace room where customers can sip wine and listen to jazz.

The Pepin Heights shop in Lake City.
The Pepin Heights store sells produce from its Lake City orchard.

Across the bridge, Wabasha is the only town not bisected by a highway. For a long time, it retained the feel of the 1950s along its riverside Main Street, where the 1856 Anderson House was Minnesota's longest continuously operating hotel.

Tourists come year-round to see the resident eagles at the National Eagle Center and to watch eagles swoop out of nearby cottonwoods.

Just up the river, tiny Reads Landing is an even better place to spot eagles. You can do that right from your table at the Reads Landing Brewing Company, which occupies an 1869 brick storefront on the river.

Just up the road, Lake City is the apple capital, and its Pepin Heights is Minnesota's largest orchard; in fall, stop at its store on the highway to pick up a bushel of HoneyCrisps.

On Lake Pepin, you can take your tastebuds around the world and back in a single day.

Trip Tips: Driving around Lake Pepin in Minnesota and Wisconsin

The beach at Hok-Si-La park.
In Lake City, Hok-Si-La Park includes a sand beach on Lake Pepin.

Getting there: Red Wing is an hour southeast of the Twin Cities. On the south end, Wabasha is an hour and a half northwest of La Crosse.

For more about towns south of Wabasha, see our Mississippi Valley section.

When to go: The spring season starts unofficially when the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin opens on the second or third weekend of March, and most shops are open Friday through Sunday.

Weekends are busy in summer; Thursdays and Fridays are a good time to visit because there's less motorcycle traffic.

A few shops close for a day early in the week, but most stay open daily through October, then weekends through Christmas. Many close for winter and reopen for weekends in late March.

Non-motorcyclists may want to avoid the April and September benefit Flood Runs, when thousands of bikers circle Lake Pepin. They're the third Saturdays in April and September.

Events: Mid-April, Spring Flood Run for motorcyclists. First weekend of May, 100-Mile Garage Sale.

Early June, Spring Fresh Art Tour on the Wisconsin side. First Saturday of June, Tour de Pepin bicycle tour. Late June, Water Ski Days in Lake City. Mid-July, Stockholm Art Fair. Late July, Riverboat Days in Wabasha. Early August, River City Days in Red Wing.

September, Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin. Mid-September, Fall Flood Run for motorcyclists. Early October, Fall Fresh Art Tour on the Wisconsin side.

Snacking and picnics: Across the river from Red Wing, atop a little hill on Wisconsin 35, the friendly Hager Heights Drive-In serves a nice twist cone and broasted chicken.

People stroll by Lake City marina.
A walking trail passes the marina in Lake City.

In Maiden Rock, stock at the Smiling Pelican for baked goods or quiche. In Stockholm, stop for pie and ice cream at the Stockholm Pie & General Store and check for savory samples at The Palate cookware store.

In Nelson, get some ribs at J&J Barbecue or have lunch on the patio of the Nelson Cheese Factory, which allows pets. Up in the bluffs on County Road KK, the Stone Barn serves wood-fired pizzas, wine and beer on weekend evenings.

Dining: Harbor Restaurant & Bar, across the main channel from the Red Wing Depot, is known for its burgers, live music and river views. To get there, cross the High Bridge from town and turn at the "Island Camping & Marina" sign.

In Stockholm, the gastropub Hop Dish & Vine is a lovely place to have a locally sourced salad or sandwich.

Diners wait at the Harbor View.
In Pepin, diners wait for a table at the Harbor View Cafe.

In Pepin, the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin is very popular, but evening diners should get there by 4:45 p.m. on weekends to avoid a long wait; the restaurant does not take reservations, 715-442-3893.

For dining al fresco, the Pickle Factory has a deck with a view of Lake Pepin.

Just north of Wabasha, the Reads Landing Brewing Company is popular for its food — pulled-pork sandwiches, sweet-potato tots, chimichurri steak, mushroom risotto — as well as its large selection of craft beers. There's a deck for dining al fresco.

Nightlife: In Stockholm, the WideSpot Performing Arts Center offers concerts and plays in the former opera house.

In Red Wing, the Sheldon Theatre has a concert or play scheduled nearly every weekend. In the bluffs above Lake City, the Oak Center General Store hosts prominent folk musicians.

For more, see Music on the Mississippi.

Hiking: Frontenac State Park has 13 miles of trails, including a one-mile handicapped-accessible trail. Many have lovely views, and in May, there's an array of wildflowers and warblers.

On the 400-foot bluff above Stockholm, Maiden Rock Bluff state natural area has beautiful views and includes rare wildflowers and possible sightings of peregrine falcons and other raptors.

It's a 10-minute hike from the parking area; go beyond the first two overlooks, which are full of stumps. The third looks straight south down the river (a good spot for a picnic), and the fourth looks straight north and is the spot where you'll see the most raptors.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's birthplace: A re-created log house, representing Laura's 1867 birthplace, stands seven miles up County Road CC from Pepin. The Little House Wayside, which is not furnished, can be visited any time; in Pepin, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Museum is open May 15 through Oct. 15.

For more, see Laura Ingalls Wilder stories.

Accommodations: For more about the towns around Lake Pepin, see Roaming in Red Wing, Destination: Stockholm and All eyes on Wabasha.

Last updated on February 1, 2022

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