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Dramatic cliffs draw hikers and campers back to Frontenac State Park

Brent Anderson says it's not uncommon for some Frontenac State Park visitors to arrive at the gate looking a bit perplexed.

Heading south through Red Wing and Wacouta, they wonder just where the Mississippi River snuck off to. The park's entrance also provides no hint of the river, further confusing visitors lured by stories of its breathtaking views of Lake Pepin.

Anderson, the park's assistant manager, understands. He simply instructs them to drive about another mile into the park.

That does the trick.

Once visitors reach Frontenac State Park's picnic area -- situated atop a dramatic cliff some 400 feet above the Mississippi -- they're believers, Anderson said.

The surrounding area provides ample space for campers and casual visitors to relax and recharge their human batteries.

"They'll pull up a book ... you'll see them painting, enjoying the serenity," Anderson said of the picnic area.

Yet, summertime recreation isn't the only attraction to this park, which is home to more species of birds than any other Minnesota state park.

For many park entrants, autumn camping usurps the warmer months, Anderson said. The reasons, he said, are tangible.

Insects aren't an issue by then. The park's fall colors -- peaking around mid-October -- are vibrant and inviting.

And the cool nights, Anderson said, make for an ideal outdoors experience.

"Sitting by the campfire at night with a sweat shirt on -- that's just great camping," he said.

Anderson said no matter the season, activities abound at the park.

Frontenac takes part in Minnesota state parks' geocaching challenge.

Explorers find coordinates online for a hidden cache at any of the 72 state parks, then plug the waypoints into a hand-held Global Positioning System.

Using the coordinates, park visitors can take to the trail and try to navigate their way to the cache.

Winter sports enthusiasts can borrow a pair of snowshoes, or bring in their snowmobiles or cross-country skis. Miles of trails beckon.

Bird-watchers can borrow Frontenac's unique birding kit, outfitted with maps and binoculars.

During peak months, campers will want to get an early jump on reservations; Anderson said Fridays and Saturdays can be full up to a month in advance.

Still, Anderson said, the park's natural amenities mean it's worth waiting to get a spot.

"It's people getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life," he said.