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Minnesota's Backyard: Steep bluffs and prairies in the sky among the stunning views at Frontenac State Park

This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.

Great River Bluffs State Park
From the picnic area at Frontenac State Park, visitors can see the full expanse of Lake Peppin, where barges making their way up and down the Mississippi River are a common sight.
Contributed / Deborah Rose / Minnesota DNR
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FRONTENAC, Minn. — There are plenty of great places to get a bite to eat along southeast Minnesota’s Mississippi River corridor, which runs roughly from Inver Grove Heights on the southeastern edge of the Twin Cities to the Iowa border. And many of these eateries have great views of the water.

But for the consummate meal with a view, you would be wise to pack a lunch. The main picnic area at Frontenac State Park , which includes tables, shelters, grills and fire rings for visitors to use, features a jaw-dropping view of the river, Lake Pepin and the Wisconsin bluff lands on the other side.

It serves as a perfect welcome to this place of contrasts. In the Driftless region of the state, flat land is a rarity and the wooded bluff tops often feature vistas hundreds of feet above the pleasure boats and fully-loaded barges making their way up and down America’s best-known river. But this popular state park also features places where visitors can hike among “islands” of rolling prairie grassland atop those bluffs, for a kind of “best of both worlds” experience.

Frontenac State Park
In the language of the native people who lived here centuries ago, "In Yan Teopa" means a rock with an opening, which perfectly describes this landmark atop the bluffs at Frontenac State Park.
Deborah Rose / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

While Frontenac’s bluffs and vistas did not officially become a state park until 1957, there is evidence of indigenous cultures living here as far back as 400 B.C. In more recent history, French explorers came up the river and established a fort on the shore of Lake Pepin in 1727. The region’s first European explorers and settlers made note of this sharp rise in the land along the river’s west bank as far back as the 1840s, when the village of Frontenac was just getting settled.

Today, there are myriad ways to explore the bluffs, the most popular being on foot. The park’s 2,600 acres feature all varieties of trail experiences, from the leisurely prairie strolls to the countless steep stairs up and down the bluffs, which descend more than 400 feet to the shore of the river, for a walk along sandy beaches (depending on the water level).

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Frontenac State Park
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In the spring, Frontenac is a migratory bird-watcher’s paradise, especially for those who love the majestic eagles that float on the gusts that flow through the Mississippi valley. If you are up for an overnight, there are a number of camping options, from a traditional campground to cart-in and backpack sites. And there are paddle sports options on Pleasant Valley Lakelet, which is just down the hill from the park entrance.

In the winter, the terrain makes for a beautiful and challenging place for cross-country skiers to get a real Minnesota cold-weather experience.

Notable nearby

Lake Pepin, just to the south of Frontenac, is not technically a lake at all. This wide spot in the Mississippi is 22 miles long and as much as two miles wide, straddling the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, with numerous public access points. And in this region, there is notable history that came from communities on both sides of the Big Muddy. The small town of Pepin, Wisconsin, is the birthplace of renowned American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who gave us the famed “Little House on the Prairie” series of books, about the lives of European settlers in the northern United States. And in 1922, a 19-year-old from Lake City , Minnesota, named Ralph Samuelson perfected the concept of wearing skis to glide across the lake while being towed by a powerboat, and thus the sport of water skiing was born.

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MORE OF MINNESOTA'S BACKYARD SERIES
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.
Destination No. 19 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to one of the great waterfalls, and one of the state's greatest mysteries, at Judge C.R. Magney State Park. One of the quieter and more remote places on the North Shore, a hike to see the Devil's Kettle has fascinated visitors for generations, even after the mystery was solved.
The 18th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a place where you can explore the land and the water, but the most intriguing visitors arrive by air. Kilen Woods State Park offers hiking in the woods and the prairie, canoeing and kayaking on the Des Moines River, and some of the best birding in Minnesota.
The 17th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to the newest member of the state park system. Officially less than a decade old, Lake Vermilion State Park was born out of land acquired and preserved during the region's mining boom in the 1880s.
The 16th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a quiet, remote part of north-central Minnesota that was given a perfectly descriptive name 100 years ago. Scenic State Park has history, both natural and man-made, and great fishing on two glacial lakes.
The 16th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a quiet, remote part of north-central Minnesota that was given a perfectly descriptive name 100 years ago. Scenic State Park has history, both natural and man-made, and great fishing on two glacial lakes.
The 15th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Park brings us to a quiet stretch of the Rainy River, which forms our northern border with Canada. Minnesota's smallest state park offers much more than one might expect, including a riverside campground and myriad perfect picnic spots.
The 14th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks brings us to the heart of lake country -- no, not the prototypical northern Minnesota kind with pines and deep lakes, but the southern Minnesota version with tall hardwoods, shallow lakes, lots of nearby cornfields and some of the best biking in the state.
The 13th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is a place where Minnesota nature meets Minnesota history, just up the hill from the Minnesota River. Fort Ridgely State Park was a working military base before Minnesota was a state, and site of some of the most violent battles of the 1862 Dakota Uprising.
The 12th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is a peaceful alternative to nearby Lake of the Woods. The man-made body of water at Hayes Lake State Park features panfish, a beach, a campground and myriad recreation opportunities for visitors to one of Minnesota's northernmost counties.
You drive through neighborhoods in one of southern Minnesota's regional centers to reach the 11th stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks, then you turn a corner, go down a hill and find yourself in a wonderland of woods and prairie at Flandrau State Park, which is a perfect home base for hiking and heritage festivals.
We reach the halfway mark on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks with a visit to a geographical anomaly, and a site of centuries-old history, in mostly flat Aitkin County. Savanna Portage State Park is home to remote lakes, an excellent campground, and miles of hilly hiking trails, one of which was in use hundreds of years ago.
Just a short drive east of one of western Minnesota's regional centers, visitors will find stop No. 9 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks. The shallow, rocky and scenic Buffalo River winds through the state park that bears its name, and features some native prairie grass so vital to the plants and animals of the Red River Valley.
Just a short drive east of one of western Minnesota's regional centers, visitors will find stop No. 9 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks. The shallow, rocky and scenic Buffalo River winds through the state park that bears its name, and features some native prairie grass so vital to the plants and animals of the Red River Valley.
You will be excused if you are unfamiliar with destination No. 8 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks. Carley is a true hidden gem, less popular than its neighbors with a pretty campground that is only open in the summer months. But if you are seeking solitude along with fishing, hiking and stunning spring wildflowers, it is worth the effort to find.
Destination No. 7 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks offers history and hiking at the extreme northeast edge of the state. Grand Portage State Park is relatively new, but this site has drawn visitors for literally centuries, at the place where Minnesota and Canada meet, and native cultures met European explorers for the first time.
Destination No. 6 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings back a flood of memories for the author, as the beach at Zippel Bay State Park was a family place to find free air conditioning some 40 years ago. Today the park is both a beach destination and an important public access point to Lake of the Woods.
Too often, people drive right past destination No. 5 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks on their way to see the wonders of the North Shore. But an hour south of Duluth, Banning State Park offers many of the wonders that ring Lake Superior, like waterfalls and rapid river gorges carved out of rock, in addition to a historic quarry hike.
Destination No. 4 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks is an idyllic spot in west-central Minnesota that was once a private outdoors playground for the rich and famous. Now it is open for all to enjoy. At Glendalough State Park, visitors find a scenic spot to enjoy "silent sports" like biking, paddling and old-school fishing.
The third stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the center of Minnesota, where two rivers meet and people gathered, traded, battled and passed through, both long before and some time after European settlers came to the region. Crow Wing State Park is a perfectly preserved slice of nature and history.
The second stop on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the Driftless region in the southeast corner of the state, where on a clear day you can see a wide swath of the Mississippi River valley from hundreds of feet above, and well into Wisconsin from the many viewpoints of Great River Bluffs State Park.
Our 20-park visit to Minnesota's Backyard begins in the southwest corner of the state, where the stereotypical pines and lakes are replaced by rolling tallgrass prairie, a dramatic quartzite cliff and a massive herd of bison. Blue Mounds State Park offers much of the magic of South Dakota's Black Hills, just five hours closer to home.
Over the course of 20 weeks in May, June and July, we will be introducing readers to a Minnesota state park each week. It is our look at the unique adventures available right here, in Minnesota's Backyard.

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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