With information from Curt Johnson, Explore MN Tourism
For generations, Minnesotans have been making pilgrimages to the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park. The beginning of the Mighty Mississippi is 1,475 feet above sea level as it begins to flow on its winding way 2552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
Itasca State Park is home to some of Minnesota’s tallest red and white pines, which can be seen along the park’s scenic 17-mile Wilderness Drive. The photo opportunities are numerous, so stock up on film before you hit the road.
Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park, established in 1891. You can walk across the Mississippi where it begins as a small stream, or see the river’s source as part of a boat tour on Lake Itasca. The park has two impressive visitor centers-the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, complete with a restaurant and gift shop.
Minnesota’s first birding trail, the Pine-to-Prairie Trail, passes through the Detroit Lakes Wetlands Management District and the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Trumpeter swans congregate here each year followed by flocks of scarlet tanagers and brilliant orange Baltimore orioles.
The Loon Capital of the World” — otherwise known as Park Rapids — is 40 miles east on Highway 34.
“That claim to fame is theirs because they have 500 lakes in a 30-mile radius, and many, many of them have loon nests,” according to the executive director of the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
The Heartland State Trail was the first section of abandoned Minnesota railroad bed to be paved for recreational use, including biking and in-line skating. Level and scenic, the trail runs for 27 miles between Park Rapids and Walker, with another 20 paved miles heading north from Walker to Cass Lake.
Now, if you’re looking for a great “Eater to Eatery” ratio, check out Dorset. “The most restaurants per capita in the world” is tiny Dorset’s big boast. About five miles east of Park Rapids, the town has seven restaurants but only 23 residents.
Choose from Italian, Mexican, and American cuisine, or sample them all at A Taste of Dorset on the first Sunday in August. In addition to food, this lighthearted street fair features games, entertainment, and the annual selection of Dorset’s mayor. For $1 a chance, anyone can enter, and if your name is drawn, you get the title for a year.
Still not enough to keep the kids happy?
The world’s largest Paul Bunyan statue kneels alongside Highway 34 in Akeley, where the mythical lumberjack’s story is said to have originated as advertising for the Red River Lumber Company. The town will celebrate Paul Bunyan Days in June with a variety of family activities.
You’ll find other entertainment along the byway, as well. The Woodtick Musical Theater in Akeley has a well established reputation for country, gospel and bluegrass music plus comedy.
Eight miles south of Park Rapids in the tiny village of Hubbard, the Long Lake Theater will present a season of summer performances. The community theater converted an old church into its performance space.And, with hundreds of lakes in the area and dozens of golfing opportunities it might be difficult to decide whether there are more fishing holes or golf holes in this great section of Minnesota.
Of course, this isn’t a complete list of the byway attractions in Minnesota, but, like wading across the Mississippi headwaters, it’s enough to get your feet wet and asking “where should we go next?”
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