By Jim Umhoefer
Goodhue County. 10 miles southeast of Red Wing on Highway 61. Turn east onto County 2 in Frontenac Station and drive 1 mile to park entrance.
Frontenac State Park has a story that's as old as the ice age. The sandstone and limestone formations that are today's bluffs were once sediments that hardened into rock at the bottom of shallow seas. Then, raging glacial rivers carved the broad river valley that we see today. The lake was created by a natural dam formed from material deposited by the Chippewa River as it emptied into the Mississippi.
Frontenac, the scenic river town that the park is named for, was established in the 1850s. Its growth was slowed by the Civil War, but one of its founders, Israel Garrard, returned afterward with southern craftsmen to continue developing the town. By the late 1870s, Frontenac had blossomed into a prosperous community. Because of the town's charm and the natural beauty of the bluffs and river, Frontenac became a fashionable summer resort for wealthy families from New Orleans, St. Louis and St. Paul who arrived by steamboat to vacation on the shores of Lake Pepin. When the railroads came, Frontenac, like other river towns, declined.
Frontenac State Park's 15 miles of hiking trails are a combination of open prairie and forest paths. Most of the overlooks are concentrated on top of the lakefront ridges. Some trails drop down the steep, forested slope with serpentine switchbacks to a bottomland path paralleling the lake. One trail leads behind the campground to In-Yan-Teopa Rock, a giant boulder perched on the edge of a bluff above Lake Pepin.
From the picnic area you can see down Lake Pepin to Lake City and beyond. The picnic area attracts many daytime visitors from the Twin Cities who enjoy eating outdoors with a view. There's an enclosed shelter with electricity. Daytime observers up here will usually see a flotilla of sailboats and pleasure craft on Lake Pepin.
The Park's 58-site (19 electric) semi-modern campground is on a ridgetop with easy access to hiking trails. The primitive group camp is just to the west of the main campground. If you'd like to "rough it," you can hike a short distance to the six walk-in campsites near the park entrance. The park is close to the Twin Cities metro area, so it's a good idea to arrive early on holiday weekends and during the prime weekends for fall colors.
Come back to the river country during winter for some cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or hiking. Six miles of beginner to intermediate ski-touring trails start from the trail center parking lot and branch off through the bottomlands to Sand Point or climb up to the picnic area.
The eight miles of snowmobile trails also start at the trail center parking lot, then wind through the bottomlands and up to the ridgetop above Lake Pepin. The trail center serves as a warming house for skiers and snowmobilers.