Lake City, more so than any other community in the region, feels like a resort town, with busy streets, boutique shops, a large marina crowded with sailboats, and unattractive waterfront condominiums. The lake abounds with natural beauty and recreational options, which explains why the city’s summer population swells to 12,000.
You can stock up on brochures at the Lake City Tourism Bureau (101 West Center St.; 877.525.3248).
Jacob Brody arrived in 1853 and gets the credit as Lake City’s first settler; he was joined by his brother Philip and other settlers the next year, most of whom came from New England. Before Lake City amounted to much, the towns of Florence and Central Point were attracting settlers, but those communities faded away as it became clear that Lake City had the superior steamboat landing. In 1858, alone, Lake City counted 1,500 steamboat dockings.
As the population exploded from 300 in 1856 to over 2,500 in 1870, business boomed. For a brief time, Lake City was busy with clamming, button manufacturing, and grain shipping. The railroad arrived in 1872 and the grain elevators were moved from the lakefront to the railroad tracks. With the decline in steamboat traffic, Lake City grew into a commercial center for local farmers. During the Depression, all three banks in town closed; only one eventually reopened.
Lake City residents have been witness to two major disasters on Lake Pepin. The Sea Wing was an excursion boat that sank near Lake City on July 13, 1890, killing 98 of 215 passengers. A half century later, a B-24 Liberator crashed in Lake Pepin during a snow storm on December 15, 1944. The four-engine prop plane was a long-range bomber being moved from St. Paul to Kansas City. The plane exploded on impact and sank; the bodies of the three crew members could not be recovered until six months later because of ice on the lake.
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Lake City has a number of parks along the waterfront that would be a fine place for picnicking or quiet contemplation, including Gold Star Mother’s Park and Ohuta Park along Park Street, McCahill Park near the marina, and Roschen Park on South Lakeshore Drive. There is also a small park at the end of the point in the middle of town that juts out into Lake Pepin. Follow Chestnut Street past the beach and mobile homes for a great panoramic view.
Hey, what’s that? Scotland may have the Loch Ness Monster, but Lake Pepin has Pepie, a mysterious, very large fish, or monster, or a massive tree stump. Stories about a monster in the lake go back to Native American oral traditions. Pepie even got a mention in the 1871 edition of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Book of Days Almanac. Maybe you’ll be one of the folks who claims to have seen this mysterious creature, but you are more likely to see a Pepie t-shirt than the actual monster. If you are the lucky one to get the first video of Pepie, you could be the next YouTube star.
The Lake City Historical Society set up a few displays about Lake City’s past in the second floor ballroom of the 1899-era City Hall (205 W. Center St.; 651.345.5383); the ballroom is at least as interesting as the display cabinets.
It’s a bit of a detour from the river, but Ralph Wiebusch’s Windmill Haven (36225 County Road 72) is worth the 15-minute drive. Ralph is one of those folks who walks a fine line between serious collector and obsessive. His interest in windmills dates back to the 1970s when he moved them from farms in the Midwest to ranches in the West. Over the years, he has purchased and restored about three dozen of them; two dozen currently adorn his yard. The windmills were used primarily between the 1880s and 1930s to pump water from wells. To get there from Lake City, travel south on US 63 toward Zumbro Falls; just before reaching town, turn left on County Road 72. The windmills are 0.7 miles on the right.
Getting on the River
You can’t rent a boat around here, but you can pay someone else for a ride. The Pearl of the Lake (100 Central Point Rd.; 651.345.5188) is a paddlewheel replica that offers 90-minute cruises on Lake Pepin from April through October.
If you’d rather get out on a smaller boat, perhaps one with a sail, book a cruise with GEM Sailing; they offer custom tours of 2 hours or longer.
Entertainment and Events
The local Farmers Market is on Thursday evenings at Ohuta Beach Park.
Enjoy the scenery of Lake Pepin with an extended bike ride around the lake as part of Tour de Pepin (early June). Options include a 12-mile ride to Wabasha with return by bus; a 32-mile ride to Stockholm (Wisconsin) with return on the Pearl of the Lake paddlewheeler; or biking the entire 72-mile route. You must register for the event.
Ralph Samuelson invented water skiing in 1922 on Lake Pepin, which naturally the town must celebrate with a festival; it has been doing just that since 1972 with Waterski Days (last weekend in June). The 18-year old Samuelson strapped two pine boards to his feet, each board eight feet long by nine inches wide, and got behind a motorboat operated by his brother; when his brother hit the throttle young Ralph was lifted out of the water. No doubt inspired by Samuelson, in 1973 Lake City resident Dennis Francis, then 27-years old, waterskied the Mississippi from Coon Rapids (Minnesota) to the Gulf of Mexico. Waterski Days includes a parade on Sunday afternoon and a waterskiing demonstration.
Celebrate the apple harvest with Johnny Appleseed Days (1st weekend of October); expect plenty of art and craft vendors, an apple pie competition, and a children’s peddle tractor pull.
Contact the tourism office for details on these festivals (877.525.3248).
Sports and Recreation
Take a pleasant stroll along the waterfront on the 2½ mile paved path called the River Walk.
Lake City has two swimming beaches, one at the foot of Chestnut Street and another in Hok-Si-La Park (2500 N. Highway 61; 651.345.3855).
If you’d like a bird’s eye view of Lake Pepin and the bluffs, then Eagle Hang Gliding just might offer the experience you’re looking for; they run hang gliding tours from mid-May through September.
Eating and Drinking
Marien’s Deli (716 W. Lyon Ave.; 651.345.2526) prepares fresh salads and sandwiches at very reasonable prices.
Rustic (212 S. Washington St.; 651.345.2284) is a good place for a light lunch, but they are especially known for their sweets.
Chickadee Cottage Café (317 N. Lakeshore Dr.; 651.345.5155) is popular with the ladies-who-lunch set, plus just about everyone else. The café is retrofitted into an early 20th century cottage-style home; you are eating where someone previously read a book or played with the kids. The creative menu of freshly prepared food includes dishes like the uff da omelet, which is filled with smoked salmon. Lunch options include salads, wraps, sandwiches, and mains like three cheese lasagna and quiche. For dinner, they offer a number of pasta dishes, walleye, steaks, and seafood, plus sandwiches and salads.
The Railhouse Grill and Coffee Depot (800 W. Lyon Ave.; 651.345.5762) is a full-service food venue, where you can get a good cup of coffee in the morning (and a full breakfast on weekends), a light (or big) lunch, and a nice dinner; some evenings they even host live music.
Nosh Restaurant and Bar (310 ½ S. Washington St.; 651.345.2425) offers the best fine dining option in town with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients from local sources. The changing menu has Mediterranean influences; the summer night I visited, entrées included seafood paella and grilled lamb chops. If you just want a snack with a drink to enjoy on the patio, they have several smaller plates and salads.
Hok-Si-La Park (2500 N. Highway 61; 651.345.3855) is the site of a former Boy Scout camp. The tent-only sites are rather close together but some have lake views; weekdays are a better value.
Lake Pepin Campgrounds and Trailer Court (1010 Locust St.; 651.345.2990) has a decent amount of shade in a compact site south of the highway.
TIP: If you’ve been roughing it for a few days, the Marina has public showers where you can make yourself presentable again.
Sunset Motel (1515 N. Lakeshore Dr.; 800.945.0192/651.345.5331; WiFi) offers simple, clean, well-maintained rooms, many of which have a microwave and fridge, small cabins that are a bit roomier, and one-and two-bedroom kitchenettes; the motel has a heated swimming pool.
Bed and Breakfast
B&Bs often try to carve out an identity but few do it as well as The Frog & Bear Bed and Breakfast (411 West Center St.; 800.753.9431/651.345.2122; WiFi), as Dale and Betty have decorated their inn with the objects they collect obsessively. (I think you can guess what they are.) No two guest rooms have identical features, but each of the the four rooms is cozy and has a private bath.
Dragonfly Dreams Retreat Center (120 W. Lyon Ave.; 651.345.2764; WiFi) targets crafters (quilters and those of a similar ilk) who want to spread out and work, but it would also work for a family or group traveling together. The house has a full kitchen, four bedrooms, satellite TV, and three bathrooms (one with a Jacuzzi tub); one of the bathrooms is reputed to be the oldest functional indoor bathroom in town.
Moderate and up
John Hall’s Alaskan Lodge (1127 N. Lakeshore Dr.; 800.325.2270/651.345.1212; WiFi) has nine spacious suites with lake views equipped with a fireplace, microwave, and coffee (most also have a fridge), and decorated generously with natural materials.
If you like the timeshare lifestyle, there are two options in Lake City. Villas on Pepin (1215 N. Lakeshore Dr.; 651.345.5188; WiFi) has several one-and two-bedroom units overlooking Lake Pepin that come with full kitchens, balconies, and a homey feel; check out the roof-top patio. Another option is Willows on the River Condominium Resort (100 Central Point Rd.; 651.345.9900; WiFi), with one-and two-bedroom units with similar amenities but a minimalist décor, good views of the lake, and an indoor swimming pool.
The local newspaper: is the Lake City Graphic (651.345.3316).
Post Office: 111 S. High St.; 651.345.3760.
Lake City Public Library: 201 S. High St.; 651.345.4013; WiFi.
Limited bus service is available through Hiawathaland Transit (866.623.7505); call to schedule a ride.
Heading upriver? Check out Old Frontenac.
Heading downriver? Check out Camp Lacupolis.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011,2017