Lake Pepin Cruising Guide
For the past twenty years Lake Pepin has been my home port. You might well ask if a twenty two by three mile wide body of water doesn’t get a bit boring. After sailing in Florida and the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, my answer is no! With just a little imagination, Lake Pepin becomes any of these exotic places. From the middle of the lake, on a sunny day the Wisconsin and Minnesota bluffs become Greek or Virgin islands. On a blustery day the Lake becomes the Baltic, and with a few drinks, sand beaches become tropical isle. Lake Pepin can be anywhere your mind takes you, all you need is the right attitude.
Sailing Lake Pepin
Spread between 400 foot wooded bluffs that mark the boarder between Western Wisconsin and Southeastern Minnesota, Lake Pepin is the only natural lake on the entire Mississippi River system. Silt flowing down the Chippewa River created a delta which backed up the Mississippi River to create Lake Pepin. The 22 mile long by 3 mile wide lake extends from mile marker 785 near Bay City, Wisconsin at the upper end to mile post 763 at Reads Landing, Minnesota on the lower end.
With an average 25-foot depth, the lake is largely free of navigational hazards. There are no tides to contend with and the current is minimal. The only real navigational concerns are stump fields at the extreme upper end of the lake, sand and mud points along the shoreline and barge traffic. The gravel, clamshell and mud bottom provides generally good anchoring. What makes Lake Pepin challenging to sailors are the winds that sweep across the plains, blasting down the steep bluffs and coulees that border the lake to create swirling eddies that challenge sail trim.
The most consistent sailing winds are found in spring and fall. Summer is a season of extremes…little wind…or strong winds that blow up a short, steep chop in the relatively shallow water. In summer the prudent yachtsman will keep an eye on the weather, watching for dark anvil topped cloud formations moving in from the west. These herald approaching thunderstorms with wind gusts of 50 – 70 mph. A Lake Pepin thunderstorm, accompanied by bolts of lightening is not to be taken lightly.
Exploring the Lake
Since Lake Pepin lacks islands and deep bays, many yachtsmen make the mistake of day sailing the lake, returning to port in the evening. This is a mistake since there are abundant anchorages and ports of call to make the lake interesting. The following is partial list of anchorages and areas to explore.
Lake City, Minnesota
Largest city on Lake Pepin, the Lake City Marina is home base for Sailboats Inc. charter fleet. With over 600 slips, the Municipality owned marina at mile 772 is the largest marine facility on the upper Mississippi River. The Marina offers transient slips, showers and toilets, fuel and pump-out facilities and is also home to the private 150 member Lake City Yacht Club. Supplies, dining and shopping are all within easy walking distance of the Marina. Good anchorage can be found up to 100 feet from shore in the bay west of the Marina point and just east of the outer harbor breakwater.
Located 2 miles above Lake City at mile 774 opposite Stockholm, Wisconsin, Waterman’s Restaurant offers dockage for patrons. (Dock will accommodate up to 5-feet of draft at the outer end at normal water level.) Enjoy drinks, snacks and dining with an exceptional view of the lake. Sitting on their deck, you can almost place yourself in the Virgin Islands looking down the Sir Francis Drake Channel. If the docks are full, the bay offers good holding for anchoring.
Old Frontenac, Minnesota
Old Frontenac is located at mile 778.5. This village was first established as Waconia, a trading post in 1839. It was re-named Frontenac in honor of the Governor of New France, Count Frontenac, in 1859. During the latter part of the 19th century it became a resort community and was known as the “The Newport of the Northwest”. Bypassed by the railroad, there are no commercial establishments in the village. It still retains a New England atmosphere and is interesting to explore. Anchor within about 100 feet of shore off the beach and dinghy ashore.
Maiden Rock, Wisconsin
Located at mile 779 across from Frontenac is the village of Maiden Rock, Wisconsin. The water is shallow so anchor well offshore and dinghy in for snacks and craft shopping. The water is shallow and stump filled above Maiden Rock limiting navigation. If venturing beyond this point, be sure to stay in the marked channel on the Minnesota side.
Almost directly across from Lake City, Stockholm, Wisconsin offers a taste of Sweden in the Midwest. Anchorages are found on either side of the point. The anchorage on the east side of the point offers the best protection and is deep enough to anchor within about 75 feet from the shore. Stay clear of the public launch ramp. Since there is no municipal dock you will have to go to ashore by dinghy. Public toilets are available in the park beyond the beach. A short walk brings you to the hillside village. Shops offer antiques and crafts including jewelry made from Mississippi River pearls. Be sure to stop at the Jenny Lind Café to sample home made pastries, soup, sandwiches and freshly ground coffee.
Seven miles down river from Stockholm at mile 767 is the town of Pepin, Wisconsin. Transient dockage is available at Dan’s Pepin Marina (they monitor VHF channel 13). You can anchor off the swimming beach west of the breakwater or in front of the Pickle Factory Restaurant just east of the Marina. Across the street from the Marina are arts and crafts shops and the Harbor View Café which offers true gourmet fare. The Bar Burger at Ralph & Mary’s at the top of the hill is a full meal. The Pickle Factory has burgers, beer and loud music.
The spots listed above are just a few of those available on Lake Pepin. Anchorages with good holding can be found almost anywhere on either shore. When anchoring overnights, be sure to display the required anchor light since there are no “designated anchorages” outside of harbors. For those wanting to venture further afield, the Mississippi River gives access to anywhere in the world. For starters try a trip to Wabasha or Red Wing, Minnesota over a weekend. Prescott, Wisconsin and Stillwater, Minnesota can best be enjoyed on a five to seven day trip. These trips will be made chiefly under power, but they offer a chance to see the river and are a totally different experience. Happy Cruising.
Written by Bill Gernes (1939-1997), Sailboats Inc. Charter Master in the early 90’s.