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Itasca State Park

By Jim Umhoefer
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.

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Walk across the Mississippi River as it spills out of Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park

Walk across the Mississippi River as it spills out of Lake Itasca

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park

The headwaters of the Mississippi River

A family photo at the Mississippi headwaters is a must for many visitors at Itasca State Park

A family photo at the Mississippi headwaters is a must for many visitors

A paved 6-mile trail connects Douglas Lodge to the Mississippi headwaters at Itasca State Park

A paved 6-mile trail connects Douglas Lodge to the Mississippi headwaters

Cruise ship on Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park

Cruise ship on Lake Itasca

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Trails
Biking
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.

Family ride through the park at Itasca State Park

Family ride through the park

Hiking
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.

The fire tower just off Afton Heights Trail at Itasca State Park

The fire tower just off Aiton Heights Trail

View from the fire tower at Itasca State Park

View from the fire tower

 

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.

Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park

Douglas Lodge

Inside the Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park

Inside the Douglas Lodge

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.

 

Mississippi Headwaters
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.

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park

The headwaters of the Mississippi River

Looking downstream from the headwaters at Itasca State Park

Looking downstream from the headwaters

Walk across the Mississippi River as it spills out of Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park

Walk across the Mississippi River as it spills out of Lake Itasca

Lake Itasca
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. 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 shore from the boat landing.

Fishing dock on the south end of Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park

Fishing dock on the south end of Lake Itasca

Cruise ship on Lake Itasca at Itasca State Park

Cruise ship on Lake Itasca

Plants and Wildlife
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 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.

Itasca's pines at Itasca State Park

Itasca’s pines

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.

Minnesota's largest white pine off Wilderness Drive at Itasca State Park

Minnesota’s largest white pine off Wilderness Drive

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.

History

Native Americans

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 Ojibwe tribes.

Park History

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 area in 1832, they traveled directly to Lake Itasca only because their Ojibwe 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. Brower struggled for years to preserve Itasca. In 1891, the legislature established Itasca State Park. 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.
Winter

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

Itasca State Park Ski Trails

Along the banks of the young Mississippi

Itasca State Park Ski Trails

Ski right up to the source of the Mississippi River

Itasca State Park-ice fishing

Even a dreary day will bring ice anglers to Lake Itasca

Visit these trail-friendly sponsors:

Paul Bunyan Trail
Park Rapids Chamber

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