Itasca State Park
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. It is Minnesota’s first state park, and one of the oldest in the country. Itasca State Park is located 20 miles north of Park Rapids on the Lake Country Scenic Byway in Minnesota’s Clearwater, Hubbard, and Becker counties.
The 16-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 six miles from Douglas Lodge to the Mississippi headwaters. This is a curving, rolling delight of a trail that is a treat for bicyclists and hikers.
In addition to its 49 miles of scenic hiking trails, Itasca State Park hosts a part of the North Country Trail. This 4,600 mile hiking trail passes through Minnesota on its way from New York to North Dakota. 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 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.
Camping and Lodging
Itasca’s campsites are split into two semi-modern campgrounds. Pine Ridge has 142 sites and Bear Paw has 81 sites 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 one to five miles. The Elk Lake Group Center is a 50-person primitive camp with a small shelter and water supply.
For a less rustic experience you can stay at the year-round historic Douglas Lodge, the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, or one of several cabins and guest houses. 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.
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.
Plants and Wildlife
The virgin pine stand here is 100 to 300 years old. 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 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 and on the Mississippi River. Bald eagles nest near Chambers Creek between Lake Itasca and Elk Lake. They usually build their large nests in tall red or white pines.
Itasca’s 13 miles of groomed cross-county ski trails are designed mostly for beginner and intermediate skiers. Snowshoers like to explore the Wilderness Sanctuary and the point of land between the arms of Lake Itasca. The chance to spear Northern Pike attracts ice fishermen to Itasca’s lakes. The Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center stays open during the winter and has bathrooms, interpretive displays and a fireplace.
More about skiing in the Park Rapids area