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While state parks abound in Minnesota (there’s a park within 50 miles of every resident), no place offers the most spectacular views of Lake Pepin more than Frontenac State Park.
For hikers looking for a new playground, this lush region located 35 miles east of Rochester is a natural paradise spanning 2,300 acres.
This Minnesota gem has plenty to see and do, from birdwatching to camping, breathtaking views from bluffs, or hiking through scenic trails. Whether you’re outdoorsy, athletic, or nature-inclined, Frontenac has something in store for you.
Spectacular sights and recreational activities draw most family vacationers to Frontenac, but its main draw is its scenic views and unbridled access to Lake Pepin – the Mississippi River’s largest lake.
This natural lake has a surface area of around 40 square miles and runs through the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. While integral to water, highway, and rail transportation, Lake Pepin is more popular for being the birthplace of water skiing – a sport invented by Ralph Samuelson in 1922.
Planning a trip to Frontenac State Park? Here are visitor tips, trail highlights, and everything you need to know for a smooth-sailing adventure.
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- Frontenac State Park History
- Getting to Frontenac State Park
- Cultural origins
- Community Significance
- Things to do in Frontenac State Park
- 1. Explore the hiking trails
- 2. Camp out
- 3. Go birdwatching
- 3. Cast a line
- 4. Engage in winter activities
- 5. Go on a picnic
- 6. Explore Lake Pepin
- What if you only have an hour?
- Things to know about Frontenac State Park
Frontenac State Park History
Getting to Frontenac State Park
Want to know how you can get to Frontenac State Park? Getting there is half the fun, no matter where you come from. Being that the park is located along the Mississippi River, you are bound to have some excellent views during your approach to the park.
The park is centrally located across popular Minnesota and Wisconsin towns, making it a great day trip from the Twin Cities. It’s roughly 1 hour to 1.5 hours from a number of important locations such as:
- Minneapolis & St. Paul (Twin Cities)
- Eau Claire, Wisconsin
- Rochester, Minnesota
- La Crosse, Wisconsin
Frontenac comprises floodplain and hardwood forests, bluffs, and prairie, spanning 2,773 acres. Today, the origins of the park’s diverse geography can be traced millions of years ago. Sediment accumulated underwater and formed into rock, making up the bluffs along the Mississippi River.
During the glacial period, River Warren created a large valley that now holds the Mississippi River. Frontenac was mainly underwater when the river peaked, revealing only the park’s bluff.
In 1977, excavations of the area uncovered artifacts from the Hopewellian culture, dating back to 400 B.C. to 300 A.D. Some parts of Frontenac were discovered as burial grounds, while others indicated communities where people thrived and flourished. Prior research also showed that Fox and Dakota Indians used the shores of Lake Pepin for hunting and fishing.
One of the most popular landmarks in Frontenac State Park is the In-Yan-Teopa – a giant rock on the edge of a bluff. This rock is said to have great religious importance to the American Indians who considered Frontenac their home.
Frontenac was also known for producing high-quality limestone. In 1833, limestone from a stone quarry operated within the park boundaries was used to develop a part of New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
More than anything else, Frontenac’s wildlife is known for its abundance of birdlife. A haven for birdwatchers, the state park is home to over 260 species of birds that consider the park their home, while others are known to stop by on their way to and from the Mississippi River flyway.
During fall, winter, and spring, bald eagles make a common appearance, while turkey vultures, hawks, and tundra swans are seen migrating throughout fall.
Warblers may be seen in the forest canopy during May, while owls, frogs, and toads thrive in the spaces below. Other species to watch out for include deer, sanderlings, hermit thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and more. Getting to Frontenac is easy. Visitors can drive seven miles northwest of Lake City to arrive at the small community of Frontenac.
Being that the park is located along the Mississippi River, you are bound to have some excellent views during your approach to the park.
The park is centrally located across popular Minnesota and Wisconsin towns. The park entrance is easy to find by following local road signs. As of this writing, all roads are paved without low bridges that could block the way, presenting no problems for trailers or RVs.
Once in Frontenac State Park, campers who have already reserved an overnight stay may park their travel trailers or RV at any of the park’s RV-friendly campsites (do note that not all campsites in Frontenac State Park allow RVs as they’re not large enough to accommodate one).
Things to do in Frontenac State Park
1. Explore the hiking trails
Frontenac State Park is a hiker’s haven with trails that range from easy to difficult. Each of these trails meanders through varied terrain with different sights to see.
Here’s everything you need to know about the trails in Frontenac State Park.
The Riverview Trail
The Riverview Trail stretches between the picnic area and the campgrounds and is considered the easiest to hike. This trail features a scenic bluff prairie, a spectacular river overlook, and sightings of migratory birds.
Hiking Club Trail
This 2.6-mile loop features paved portions, rocky areas, moderate hills, and dirt and gravel terrain. Hikers can take the flat, paved trail from the picnic area to reach sloped, unpaved sections the farther they go.
This trail offers a nature-surrounded hike through hardwood forests and prairies. A bluff-top offers stunning views of Lake Pepin along the way.
Sand Point Trail
If you’re a passionate birder, this trail offers the most opportunity to spy on birdlife. The Sand Point Trail takes hikers through a mature floodplain forest that leads to the beach at Lake Pepin. Bring one of these top beach blankets to avoid the annoying sand on your clothes.
Expect mostly flat terrain, packed dirt trails, and a boardwalk.
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Self-guided Interpretive Trail
To learn about the processes of the park and the community behind it, take the self-guided interpretive trail. Travel partway down the bluff from a scenic overlook of Lake Pepin and through the rock quarry remnants from the late 1800s.
This trail affords hikers gorgeous views of the bluff lands and Lake Pepin. Expect hilly terrain with paved portions, packed dirt, gravel, and stairs.
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This 2.7-mile loop with very hilly terrain is the most challenging trail in Frontenac State Park. The Bluffside Trail takes travelers through 425 feet of staircases and switchbacks to Lake Pepin’s rocky shore. They’ll have to loop back up to see the In-Yan-Teopa rock while hiking the trail’s upper bluff section, returning to the starting point.
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2. Camp out
The campgrounds at Frontenac are open year-round, with over 58 single-family campsites located on a bluff above the Mississippi River. These campsites are typically located in wooded areas and huddled close together. Frontenac campsites can accommodate RVs, trailers, and tents.
All campsites are equipped with a table, grate, and fire ring. Apart from single-family campsites, walk-in campsites and group camping are also available in Frontenac.
Walk-in campsites are located nearly half a mile from the main parking lot. Do note, however, that these sites are not an official part of the main campground, so walk-in campers in primitive campsites will not be allowed to use showers located in the main campground.
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Amenities include hot showers, drinking water, and flush and vault toilets – though these are unavailable during the winter months from November through April.
Firewood and snowshoes for rent are also available at the Park office. Around 19 campsites in Frontenac come with electric hookups.
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3. Go birdwatching
For birders in Minnesota, Frontenac is more than just a state park – it’s a haven where winged creatures of all shapes and sizes thrive (among Minnesota’s 71 state parks, Frontenac holds the second-highest species count).
Thanks to its diverse habitat of wetlands, woodlands, oak savanna, and a lake, Frontenac is the perfect home for our feathered friends. During fall, you can spy on migrating hawks while eagles and turkey vultures appear over the bluffs. Come spring, you can see as many as 27 species of warblers in a single day.
During May, birders who visit the area to witness the spring migration have reported daily counts of over 100 species. Head to the Sand Point for sightings of terns, shorebirds, waterfowl, and gulls, or traverse the tree-lined walk to Lake Pepin to spy on woodpeckers and prothonotary warblers.
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3. Cast a line
Around 89 fish species have been identified in Lake Pepin, the largest lake on the Mississippi River. Lake Pepin runs along the outskirts of Frontenac State Park, with plenty of excellent areas for fishing year-round.
Walleyes, small and largemouth bass, pike, and saugers thrive in Frontenac’s waters. Here, anglers can select a spot along the shore or paddle out for deeper fishing (don’t forget to take note of the park’s rules when heading further).
For pike, fish along shoreline weed beds in all seasons. Come summer; you can target the mouths of cold water tributaries that enter the lake. Cooler waters attract trophy pike during warmer months.
Various points in Lake Pepin are excellent spots for fishing white bass. Keep an eye out for feeding gulls to determine the location of surface-feeding white bass.
Smallmouth bass thrives in Lake Pepin’s waters in all seasons. Consider fishing the various rip rap areas and points with crankbaits, plastics, and spinners. Be advised that catch and release are highly advised on these fish.
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4. Engage in winter activities
Once the winter months come in, snow blankets the entirety of Frontenac State Park, offering several opportunities for adrenaline-packed winter activities. Several groomed snow trails are available for sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.
Check out these Minnesota winter activities that are all instant classics. Check out more videos like these on our YouTube channel. Head to Frontenac’s sledding hill for spectacular views of Lake Pepin, then warm up at picnic shelters equipped with electricity, firewood, and a stove.
Visitors can conveniently rent winter gear, such as snowshoes and various equipment at the park’s office and shops.
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5. Go on a picnic
Traveling with your family? Come fall, mosquitoes disappear, and the weather becomes perfect for a leisurely picnic. Whether you choose a spot at the campsite or on the trails, you’ll be surrounded by wonderful natural scenery – trees turn into vibrant fall shades, providing a gorgeous backdrop for a satisfying meal with your family or friends.
Guests can reserve their picnic shelter of choice at several locations around the park by calling the park. These shelters are available year-round and equipped with a wood stove and electricity.
Flush toilets are also available adjacent to the building. A small wheelchair-accessible gazebo is also available for reservation in the picnic area.
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6. Explore Lake Pepin
Thanks to Frontenac State Park’s strategic location, you’ll find a variety of exciting lake-based activities here. All visitors can rent a boat and set sail through Lake Pepin, taking in the breathtaking scenery.
Kayaks and canoes may also be rented from inside the park. The boat rental area may be found nearly a mile from the lake and is open during the fall and summer.
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What if you only have an hour?
If you’re only in Frontenac for a short visit, such as a day trip from Rochester, there are a couple of things to do to get the full experience. Exploring the Interpretive Self-Guided Trail is the best way to hike and explore the area when you’re pressed for time.
Visitors should also consider hiking to the historical In-Yan-Teopa rock along the bluff’s top. For easy access, park at the picnic area and walk the Upper Bluffside Trail, which leads to the In-Yan-Teopa.
For breathtaking views, consider walking along Lake Pepin on the Sand Point Trail—Park near the hiking trail intersection X along Highway 61 and County Road 2 for easy access.
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Things to know about Frontenac State Park
Furry friends are welcome. Visitors are allowed to bring their pets to Frontenac so long as they are kept on a 6-foot leash and attended to at all times. They are, however, not allowed at beaches or in buildings.
Respect quiet hours. Only registered campers are allowed in the campground during quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Firewood is available. Visitors looking to light a bonfire must purchase firewood at the park or from vendors who sell Frontenac-approved firewood. Gathering firewood is not allowed in the park.
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- About the Author
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Joshua Lagandaon is a writer from the Philippines. He has been writing professionally for more than a decade after taking a Creative Writing degree at the Philippines’ prestigious Ateneo de Manila University. He writes for local travel, fashion, and lifestyle magazines while dabbling in theater and the arts.