The 7 Best Lakes to Visit in Southern Minnesota (Local’s Guide)

lakes southern minnesota

Here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the northern half of the state tends to get gets all the credit for that total.

I suppose it makes sense. That’s where you’ll find our only water-based National Park and the greatest Great Lake in the entire United States.

But… this is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, remember? Which means there’s bound to be a few thousand lakes in the southern half of the state, too.

So the next time the entire Twin Cities population departs “up north” for their lakeside retreat, don’t be afraid to head in the opposite direction.

Map of the Best Lakes in Southern Minnesota

The 7 Best Lakes in Southern Minnesota

We had to narrow down the list from a few thousand to seven, but here are our picks for the best lakes in Southern Minnesota.

1. Lake Pepin (Red Wing, MN)

Driving from the Twin Cities down to Red Wing, MN is one of the most popular road trips and day trips from the Twin Cities, so it’s no surprise that this lake is one of the most famous in the entire region.

Lake Pepin sits about 60 miles south of Minneapolis. It’s one of the most unique lakes in the state, too – it technically sits inside Mississippi River, so some visitors don’t even realize they’re looking at a lake. But when you see the river widen near Red Wing, back-dropped by the beautiful Mississippi River bluffs, you know you’re at one of the best lakes in Southern Minnesota.

Fun Fact: At over 25,000 acres, Lake Pepin is also the largest lake in Southern Minnesota.

  • Location: Red Wing, MN
  • Directions: 1 hour 15 minutes SE of the Twin Cities

2. Lake Onalaska (Onalaska / La Crosse, WI)

If you continue south from Red Wing another 1.5 hours, you’ll run into the second biggest lake in the region.

You can see Lake Onalaska from La Crosse, Wisconsin. And sure, about 90% of this lake is technically in our neighbor’s state, but it does cross the Minnesota border (just barely) so we’ll count it!

Fun Fact: Like Lake Pepin, this is technically a reservoir located along the Mississippi River. But no matter – being so near to the city of La Crosse means this lake is always a popular place for year-round recreation. Boating, fishing, ice fishing, fall-color viewing… you can always find it all at Lake Onalaska.

  • Location: La Crosse / Onalaska, WI
  • Directions: 2 hours 30 min SE of the Twin Cities

3. Lake Shetek (The Lakes, MN)

Lake Shetek sits in the far southwestern corner of Minnesota, about 1 hour from the Iowa border to the south and 1 hour from the South Dakota border to the west.

Lake Shetek is a big recreational draw for all things lakelife. Of course, there’s the official Lake Shetek State Park here, but visitors can also find numerous other campgrounds, lodges, and BnBs.

Fun Fact: An urban legend says this lake is the headwaters for the Des Moines river that flows down to the Iowa capital, but that’s geographically incorrect by about 30 miles. We can forgive them, since at 3,596 acres, Lake Shetek is definitely the largest and most prominent body of water in the area.

  • Location: The Lakes, MN
  • Directions: 3 hours SW of the Twin Cities

4. Lake Washington (near Manktao, MN)

Lake Washington sits about 10 miles between Mankato and St. Peter and a little over an hour southwest of Minneapolis. With 13 miles of shoreline and roughly 1,500 acres of water, it’s the largest of a series of lakes in the Le Sueur county. 

In many ways, this area feels like the southern half of the state’s answer to the hugely-popular Brainerd Lakes area up north. Here, you can find dozens of lakes within a short drive, each one scattered with various resorts, campgrounds, and restaurants. A perfect example of this is Madison Lake, a neighboring 1,000+ acre lake with endless amenities, located less than 10 minutes away. (And to get there, you’ll drive past four other lakes along the way!)

  • Location: Le Sueur County, MN
  • Directions: 1 hour 20 minutes SW of the Twin Cities

5. Albert Lea Lake (Albert Lea, MN)

The city of Albert Lea lies just 25 minutes from the Iowa border, and maybe no other town is as quintessentially “southern Minnesota.” So, it stands to reason that our list about lakes in the region has to mention this 2,685-acre body of water, located right near the heart of town.

Albert Lea Lake is notable because of its freakishly shallow nature… the average depth here is just 3.5 feet, and the max depth is less than 6 feet!

So while this lake definitely isn’t the best for watersports, these shallow waters make for some of the best walleye fishing in the state. On the northeastern side of the lake, visitors can find Myre-Big Island State Park, which is known as one of the best birding locations around. (During seasonal migration, this park’s the marshes and wetlands draw tons of waterfowl and other birds.)

  • Location: Albert Lea, MN
  • Directions: 1.5 hours S of the Twin Cities

6. Fountain Lake (Albert Lea, MN)

Fountain Lake is another lake in Albert Lea, MN, and it technically connects to the previously mentioned Albert Lea Lake. However, Fountain Lake is located even more in the heart of downtown, and the result is a beautiful urban lake that spans roughly 1.5 miles wide. Its shorelines are lined with public parks, gazebos, pedestrian paths, homes, and even city features like Bridge Avenue and portions of the Mayo Clinic.

Fun fact: In the eastern corner of the lake, you can find the three ornate fountains that give the lake its name. And don’t miss the fun mermaid statue, who’s always watching over the water!

  • Location: Albert Lea, MN
  • Directions: 1.5 hours S of the Twin Cities

7. Prior Lake (Prior Lake, MN)

The town of Prior Lake sits about 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities metro, and it’s home to a chain-of-lakes situation that includes Lower Prior Lake, Upper Prior Lake, and Spring Lake. If you’re looking for a lake getaway with less travel and more creature comforts, this is one of the most underrated staycation spots around.

Here you’ll be able to find all of the usual lake activities, plus plenty of neighborhood entertainment like the awesome Boathouse Brewery, delicious food and restaurants, weekend farmers markets, and even the occasional food truck fest.

  • Location: Prior Lake, MN
  • Directions: 30 minutes S of the Twin Cities
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