Itasca State Park: 2015's Vacation of the Year
photos by david bowman
You pack a couple bottles of something that goes with popcorn.
You strap your new yellow Wenonah canoe to the roof of your car.
You slip it into the marshy North Arm of Lake Itasca and paddle.
It’s dusk. Some 3.5 hours north of Minneapolis, the tide of tourists in Itasca State Park has receded. The double-decker excursion boat has been tucked in for the night. There’s nothing else on the lake but three loons silhouetted in the sunset. When they take off, like stones poorly skipped across the water, it’s just you.
You paddle north, past the lodge and the fishing pier and Schoolcraft Island, a narrow shipwreck of pines and scrub. You run into reeds, acres of waving spikes. There’s nowhere else to go.
This is where the mighty Mississippi begins, in the murk on the other side of the reeds, like a secret. The great artery of America—looming larger in our national mythology than the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or the skyline of Manhattan—begins as a capillary in the woods of northern Minnesota. It begins, oddly enough, with a trickle so small you can step across it without getting
your shoes wet.
The Douglas Lodge, built in 1905, retains its vintage charm, from the lobby’s stone fireplace to the dining room’s china.
In the darkness you unload at Douglas Lodge, a long box of logs stacked like pencils on a hill above Lake Itasca. A white-tablecloth dining room overlooks the lake. Bentwood rockers orbit a massive fieldstone fireplace. Trim and tidy sleeping quarters line a hallway upstairs like staterooms on a ship. It’s a lingering echo from an earlier, more elegant incursion in the wilderness, a grand, gabled tent popped among the pines in 1905.
In the dining room where couples once suited up for clam chowder and Denver sandwiches, toasted for an extra five cents, you have fried perch and wild rice on plates stamped with a lady slipper and the Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, like you’re on official business to enjoy yourself. (Later, in the gift shop, the clerk rummages behind the counter through the remaining pieces of the china, originally produced in 1930, and you take home a new morning ritual: a white teapot the size of a small football, emblazoned with the image of a settler, rifle at the ready, watching a Native American ride into the sunset.)
Douglas Lodge is located about 6 miles from the Mississippi headwaters (stairs are just beyond the stone path crossing).
You read by the fire until you’re warm, your eyes close, and you’re rocking with the waves rippling in the moonlight across the black lake. Your book falls on the floor. You cross the forest-green carpet of the lobby, follow the polished wooden railing to door number one at the top of the stairs.
Inside there’s a vintage bed and dresser, an olive-green chair where Don Draper might cross his legs to smoke and think, and a single enormous window like a porthole. You fall into bed. The metal headboard is also stamped with the Great Seal of the State of Minnesota, and when you snore it reverberates like history itself.
Itasca State Park is really Minnesota’s national park, with all the charming amenities of a Yellowstone or Yosemite: the lodge, the excursion boat, the regionally patriotic china. You can live a little in rustic elegance—the outdoors as wallpaper—or you can go deep into the wild.
Itasca was our first park, fenced in at the turn of the last century, and for all anyone knew it would be our only park. The vintage markers posted at turnouts and trailheads illuminate the geography of the whole state—how we’re dead center in the continent, accounting for our extreme seasons; how we’re more liquid than any other state, a square mile of water for every 15 of land. It’s like an open-air encyclopedia. The Book of Minnesota, unfolding on the side of the road.
When the North Woods was logged in just a few decades at the end of the 19th century, to build cities back east that burned almost immediately, a woman stopped the lumberjacks from cutting everything in Itasca. Men threatened to shoot her, but she saved enough virgin pines that they’re now among the most inspiring things growing in Minnesota.
When the old-growth forests went, the big-growth animals like moose and caribou went, too. There once were moose around Itasca, according to old maps hanging in the lodge, and now we’re stuck with deer.
a lakeside cabin makes for a peaceful retreat.
When the Great Depression hit, hundreds of young men with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camped out in the park and built the wonderfully squat Old Timer’s Cabin from just two enormous trees, heaving the fat logs atop each other with sheer American willpower.
These stories of the best and worst of our ambitions are still playing out, and threads of them all weave through Itasca.
The next morning, you move into log cabin number five, one of a handful of reddish-brown rectangles from the CCC era strung out above the lake like nests in the pines. They’re among the most coveted cabins in the state, both classic and novel, as elegant in their rustic simplicity as a high-rise hotel.
The big stone fireplace could melt your beard at 20 paces, warm the whiskey in your glass. But nearly everything else was hand-cut from the surrounding forest: the floor, the ceiling, the walls. No knotty pine, no sheetrock, no doilies. No kitchen either. Just wood, sawed and stained and stacked into a two-bedroom bespoke bungalow, an artisan outpost, a simple shelter from a simpler time.
A series of French doors opens onto a screen porch, so that the whole backside of the living room disappears. And there you are, in just another hollow log in the woods. You look down at the lake and it appears more gas than liquid, a soft blue glow beyond the trees. A black-backed woodpecker hammers on a pine, a loon calls in the mist, and you imagine that you, too, are changing states—that the person you arrived as won’t be returning home.
Good weather calls for biking Wilderness Drive.
In the afternoon sun, you take the Wilderness Drive, Windows down, a one-way glide through the forest. No traffic, no shoulder, no stopping—except for the requisite turnouts. You hike to a fire tower, stand in a little box in the sky to see the blue lakes nestled in the green hills. You walk to the Large Red Pine and the Large White Pine, and you pose.
By sunset, you’re in Preacher’s Grove. Here, not far from your cabin, the underbrush has been cleared from the hillside and the tall pines have the ecclesiastical rectitude of cathedral pillars. It’s a ritual, watching the ball drop from here, and some people settle in for the full denouement with lawn chairs and coolers. If you haven’t communed with nature lately you might wonder what all the fuss is about. This is your chance for redemption.
Rainy days can be spent in nearby Park Rapids, with gourmet burgers at the Good Life Café followed by fountain treats at MinneSoda (the best seats are at the counter, on twirling red bar stools).
The kind of Main Street you hope to find on a rainy vacation day, a real Saturday idyll, is just down the road in Park Rapids. There’s an ice cream parlor and an Art Deco cinema and an antique store stuffed with Hudson Bay blankets, wicker picnic baskets, and Scrabble letters to restore your depleted set. You park in the middle of the extra-wide boulevard—two rows of cars pointing straight ahead—as people have here for a long time. Not a bad place to stay until it’s dry.
Before you realize what you’ve done, your loon sundae arrives at your booth in the MinneSoda Fountain: a mountain of ice cream like a science-fair volcano, dripping with lava-like fudge. “Stand by Me” plays on the stereo. Teenagers straddle the red-and-chrome stools at the counter while their friends on the other side assemble banana splits. In this way, the whole afternoon goes by.
There’s nothing nostalgic about it, despite all the nostalgia. It feels authentic, like the rest of the town, which hasn’t clung to the past so much as the past has clung to it. The boulevard was built extra-wide so the logging crews could turn their horse teams around and head back into the woods, and no one bothered to change it when the lumberjacks left. When the park opened, in 1891, stagecoaches ferried people into the forest and until 1913 there were still hitching posts all along Main Street.
You can linger in a town this lost in time, where almost everyone is on vacation, like Jackson Hole or Banff. You find yourself looking at a vintage blanket for the cabin you don’t have or a wicker fishing basket for the fly fisherman your spouse will never be. If you didn’t have places like this to go on vacation you would only have what you need, not what you want, and never resolve to ride horses or read Unbroken or eat more maple syrup.
This is how you find yourself staying for dinner at the Good Life Café, one of the newer respites in town, where pews serve as seating and tables are separated by pseudo-Marimekko textiles. The place is both airy and packed. You have to wait a few minutes before a seat opens at the bar and a bearded server in a vintage Twins cap pours you a Fulton beer from the tap. Cabinistas down Thai peanut-butter burgers and local ales in a scene straight from Uptown, Minneapolis, except everyone here is on vacation, pretending they don’t have cell service.
You wait until dusk to pay your respects, to make a Minnesotan's one true pilgrimage. Millions of people live along the Mississippi River, the corridor of the continent, but tonight there is no one at its headwaters. There is nothing moving in the pink and purple light of dusk but five deer, gathered on the trail like teenagers, and of course the trickle itself.
Every stretch of the river has been colonized, one way or another, except this mystical, inauspicious beginning. No one knew where it was for a long time, and no one really cared. The Ojibwe didn’t think it was important where the river began, and it wasn’t—unless you wanted to claim it. Several sources were declared before someone bothered to ask the Ojibwe, and now it only seems fitting that a great vacation spot began with men who refused to ask for directions.
But you aren’t thinking about this now: How the guy who gets the credit raised the American flag on an island and renamed the lake—which already had an Ojibwe name—Itasca, for verITAS CAput: true head. How he later regretted his cold amalgamation of Latin and invented an epic poem about Itasca being the name of a lovely Indian maiden.
The deer scatter and you’re alone with the river. The green stalks of sedge feathering the shore seem painted in, a backdrop to your own private reverie. You stand on the sandy shore and peer into the scene as though into a diorama. The moon is full. The water glistens where it runs over rocks. You walk across.
WHERE TO STAY
For the full Newhart-on-the-lake experience, spend a night in the Douglas Lodge. Bathrooms are down the hall but invariably open, the retro rooms are clean and comfortable, and you can breakfast in your moose jammies. • Douglas Lodge cabins 5–12, along the lake, are among the most coveted in the state. • New this year: A former park store, circa 1935, was converted into the spacious Bear Paw Guesthouse, with three bedrooms (one with a bunk bed), a kitchen, a fireplace, and a vintage look (reserve all park accommodations at dnr.state.mn.us).
WHERE TO EAT
The Douglas Lodge Restaurant (dnr.state.mn.us) has upped its classic vacation vibe with white tablecloths and locally sourced supper-club fare: walleye, bison burgers, fried perch, wild rice pancakes. • In Park Rapids, the MinneSoda Fountain (205 Main Ave. S., 218-732-3240) has sandwiches and decadent treats while the Good Life Café smartly tweaks the Up North staples: walleye BLT, perch tacos, wild-rice hotdish (thegoodlifecafepr.com).
WHAT TO DO
Itasca is a big, wild park, but its rustic gentility is the draw. Wilderness Drive gets you to most scenic sites, including the Aiton Heights Fire Tower for a dizzying lay of the land and the half-mile Bohall Trail through old-growth pines. Rent a kayak, paddleboard, or canoe—or bring your own. Lounge in Douglas Lodge. Take the two-hour Lake Itasca cruise on the Chester Charles II. See the sunset from Peace Pipe Vista or Preacher’s Grove. Wait until dusk to walk across the Mississippi River headwaters, when you might have it to yourself (dnr.state.mn.us). • In Park Rapids, browse Tin Ceiling Antiques (thetinceiling.bigcartel.com) or catch a summer blockbuster at the historic Park Theater (prmovietheatre.com).