By Jim Umhoefer
Clearwater, Hubbard, and Becker counties. 20 miles north of Park Rapids on Highway 71.
Itasca State Park hosts the Headwaters of the Mississippi River which attracts thousands of visitors a year. The 32,000-acre park is the state's most developed park yet also one of its most pristine. There are campgrounds, cabins, gift shops, Douglas Lodge, interpretive center, food service and a beach in a concentrated along the eastern arm of Lake Itasca. The rest of the park is a spacious mix of virgin timber, secluded lakes, second-growth forest, and a 2,000-acre wilderness area.
You can reach the headwaters of the Mississippi by driving around the north end of Lake Itasca and following the signs. It's a short walk from the large parking lot, crossing over the young river on the way. At the lake's outlet, a marker notes the great river's first "steps" on its 2,552-mile-long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. It takes 60 days for the waters spilling out of Lake Itasca to reach their destination.
It took almost 300 years from the time the river was discovered in 1541 to find its source. The first white men to visit Lake Itasca were French fur traders who called it Lac La Biche (Elk Lake. They probably didn't know that the lake was the source of the Mississippi River. In the early 19th century, several explorers each claimed to be the discoverer of the river's true source. The confusion persisted because no one realized that the river flowed north from its source, not south. When Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his expedition came to northern Minnesota (not yet a state) in 1832, they traveled directly to Lake Itasca only because their Ojibway Indian guide, Ozawindib, knew where the river started. Schoolcraft coined the name Itasca.
Even after Schoolcraft's discovery, a few other explorers claimed they had found the source in various tributaries of Lake Itasca. The controversy continued until 1889 when Jacob V. Brower studied the topography of the Itasca basin. He concluded that several creeks do contribute to Lake Itasca, but only at the lake's outlet is a river formed. To learn more about his great North American River, stop at the interpretive center next to the parking lot before leaving. A souvenir shop is located in the same complex.
Brower struggled for years to preserve Itasca. In 1891, the legislature established Itasca State Park. It is Minnesota's first state park, and one of the oldest in the country. But Brower, appointed the first park commissioner, received no pay and no funds or support to make the park a reality. Logging companies muscled their way into the park and began to clear-cut the timber. It wasn't until 1919 that the major logging operations were completed. Today, however, there are still stands of virgin red and white pine in the park with some of the oldest and largest pine trees in Minnesota.
Access to Itasca's wild country, including the park's unique Wilderness Sanctuary, is from hiking trails and the 10-mile-long Wilderness Drive. The one-way drive, heading west from the headwaters, is also popular with bicyclists. A rustic cabin on the shore of Squaw Lake is open to visitors on a reservation basis. Farther south on the drive, across from the Wilderness Sanctuary, is a Forestry Demonstration Area where you can see the difference between a managed forest and a natural area.
The Wilderness Sanctuary is a 2,000-acre tract of undisturbed forest bordering the western arm of Lake Itasca. The area contains a major portion of plants and animals once common to Minnesota and has been designated a State Scientific and Natural Area and a Registered Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. Within the Sanctuary, the Bohall Wilderness Trail leads down a corridor of giant red and white pines to isolated Bohall Lake. The virgin pine stand here is 100 to 300 years old. On the way to the lake, you'll pass a small marsh on the left with a trailside bench. Numerous mosses and orchids flourish in the Sanctuary, including bog adder's mouth, a relatively rare orchid in Minnesota.
Midway around the Wilderness Drive is the trailhead for the Two Spot Trail. This path, originally an old forest road, will take you to South and North Twin lakes on the park's western edge. The diversity of vegetation along the trail attracts birdwatchers.
Minnesota's largest white and red pine are visible from short paths just off the Wilderness Drive. The red pine (also called Norway pine) is a species especially adapted to withstand fire. Scars on this record red pine indicate that it has survived six forest fires in its 300 years. The white pine is 112 feet tall; the red pine is 120 feet.
The Bison Kill Site, near the Big Pine Trail, marks the location of campsites used by Indian hunters some 8,000 years ago. These nomadic Indians ambushed bison, deer and moose using flint-tipped spears. The site was discovered when the Nicollet Creek Bridge was being built, and was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Minnesota. You can see other evidence of early people in Itasca at the Indian Mounds near the headwaters. These burial mounds, 500 to 900 years old, were built by Woodland Indians who lived here before the Dakota and Ojibway tribes.
Some long hiking trails head south from the Wilderness Drive through mixed forests of virgin pine and hardwoods. You can reach the backpack sites on Hernando De Soto Lake from these paths. Several connecting trails allow hikers to make shorter loops.
The remote lakes and deep forests of Itasca provide a fertile environment for the park's plant and animal life. Beaver dams are visible on Allen Lake, on Nicollet Creek (about half a mile south of the Wilderness Drive off the Nicollet Trail), and on the Mississippi River (just south of the north-entrance contact station). Bald eagles nest near Chambers Creek between Lake Itasca and Elk Lake. They usually build their large nests (which average 7 feet across and 9 feet deep, and weigh several hundred pounds) in tall red or white pines.
The trail to the Aiton Heights Observation Tower cuts through some impressive maple-basswood stands. In early October, the hardwoods are various shades of orange and yellow, forming a colorful canopy over the hilly trail. Some paths, like the Brower Trail, parallel the east shore of Lake Itasca, linking many of the attractions in the park's core. Preacher's Grove, named for a religions convention that once camped here, is a stand of fire-scarred red pines. Many couples marry each year under the 250-year-old pines. Peace Pipe Vista is a great spot to watch the sunset as loon calls echo across Lake Itasca.
Dr. Robert's Trail is a self-guiding nature loop. (A companion booklet is available at Douglas Lodge.) Park naturalists lead hikes and special outings such as a canoe or car caravans. Interpretive programs cover park history, plants and animals, the Mississippi River and other topics. Slides, films and talks are presented in the Forest Inn, a massive log and stone structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Schedules of events, including ecumenical church services, are posted throughout the park. Itasca has a small natural history museum in addition to the Headwaters Interpretive Center.
The 17-mile bicycle route may be the most enjoyable and peaceful way to experience Itasca. The air is fresh and the forest is more immediate when you pedal through the park under your own power. Most of the bicycle route is on the paved Wilderness Drive, which also has vehicle traffic. The other paved segment runs from the east-entrance contact station up to the Mississippi headwaters. This is a curving, rolling delight of a trail that is a treat for bicyclists and hikers.
Lake Itasca is the focal point of the park. You can launch a boat or canoe onto the lake to explore the shoreline or try the walleye, northern, bass or pan fish action. Squaw, Elk and Mary lakes also have boat landings. Water-skiing is not permitted on park lakes and motors are restricted to 10 mph. Daily narrated commercial boat tours of Lake Itasca run throughout the summer. The tours board at the Douglas Lodge pier in the South Itasca Center. The park swimming beach, on Lake Itasca, is up the lakeshore from the boat landing.
Douglas Lodge is a historic log hotel and restaurant built in 1905. Rooms are available in the main lodge and in Nicollet Court, a motel-type unit. The Club House is a two-story log structure ideal for family gatherings and special groups. Cabins of various sizes can be rented near the lodge, in the Bear Paw campground and (one) on Squaw Lake.
Itasca's family campsites are split into two semi-modern campgrounds. Pine Ridge has 130 sites (65 electric) and Bear Paw has 80 sites (34 electric), including 11 cart-in sites less than 300 yards from the parking area. Backpackers can choose from 11 primitive campsites in the southern half of the park (a hike of 1 to 5 miles). The park also has two group facilities. The Elk Lake Group Center is a 50-person primitive camp with a small shelter and water supply. The Squaw Lake Group Center is a semi-modern camp (75 capacity) with staff cabin, dining hall and kitchen, sanitation building and tent area. You can reserve the group centers through the park headquarters up to one year in advance.
The snowmobile trails in Itasca State Park connect with local Grant-in-Aid routes and trails in the nearby Mississippi Headwaters, Paul Bunyan, and White Earth state forests. The 115-mile-long Park Rapids Trail is another popular snowmobile trail. This path connects with the Heartland State Trail and Paul Bunyan State Forest snowmobile trail.
Itasca's 31 miles of groomed cross-county ski trails are designed mostly for beginner and intermediate skiers. The park's Aiton Heights Trail is for advanced skiers. The Itascatour Ski Trail, south of the park, provides a longer advanced cross-country route plus a short beginner trail.
Snowshoers like to explore the Wilderness Sanctuary and the point of land between the arms of Lake Itasca. The chance to spear northerns attracts ice fishermen to Itasca's lakes. Winter campers can set up in the Pine Ridge campground, where water and electricity are available. The Forest Inn stays open as a winter warming house and as the center of the park's winter interpretive programs.