Exploring Itasca State Park

A few weeks ago, my family traveled up, up, and over to Itasca State Park for our annual vacation. It was an educational experience for all of us. We learned not only where the Mississippi River starts its 2,500-mile trip down to the Gulf of Mexico, but also that trees grow very big in this part of the state, people park their cars in the middle of the road in Park Rapids (what?! That’s a lane?!), and bug spray is essential when you’re exploring Minnesota’s oldest state park.  

Headwaters of the Mississippi River

We arrived on Friday afternoon after a four-plus hour drive from St. Paul and checked out the four-season suites at Douglas Lodge, our home away from home for the weekend. Accommodations were really nice—and reasonably priced. I especially liked the screened porch, where we ate all of our meals. We had high hopes of spending time outside, but were corralled indoors due to a thunderstorm. We watched a movie instead.

On Saturday, we headed out on the wilderness drive for a better understanding (and appreciation) of our state’s history. Some highlights included hiking the Headwaters Loop Trail, seeing the Civilian Conservation Corp’s old timer’s cabin (built in the summer of 1934, with walls only four logs high), a buffalo kill site, and the state’s largest white pine.  

A visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi is worth the hype. I learned that the country’s greatest river was discovered in 1820, when American Henry Rowe Schoolcraft joined an expedition guided by an Ojibwe leader and raised the American flag on Lake Itasca. The name Itasca comes from the Latin phrase “veritas caput,” or “true head.” And the park itself wasn’t established until late 1891, when historian Jacob Brower fought hard to acquire land for the park so it wasn’t lost to deforestation.

 I could have spent hours shopping in the gift shop and learning about the river at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, named after the scrappy young woman who risked her life to protect and save Itasca State Park’s magnificent pine forest from loggers. The area was crowded with tourists (some from as far away as Greece), which made me feel a sense of home-state pride. (You have the Colosseum? Well we have the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi!). It was a cool experience to walk across the river—either on rocks, on sand, or across a bridge, and fun to see big, medium, and small dogs wade in the river, and people of all ages and nationalities taking photos. (Guilty.)

One of the highlights for my 5-year-old was climbing the 92-foot-high fire tower in the nearby town of Aiton. I wasn’t sure that he’d have the guts to climb to the top, but he did it (then surprised me by telling me he wanted to do it again the next day). It’s a half-mile walk along a gravel road to get to the tower, and then only six people are allowed at any one time, but it’s worth the effort. The over-the-treetop views are breathtaking. 

One of the highlights for my dad, brothers, and husband was waking at 5 a.m. to fish on the calm, clear waters of Lake Itasca.

One of the highlights for me was learning so much about the Mississippi River. I’m one of those people who needs to actually see a place to remember certain details about it. If I traveled more often, I’m sure I would be better at Trivial Pursuit.

At the risk of offending other state parks (I’m sorry!), I can honestly say that I believe Itasca State Park is the crown jewel of them all. There’s interesting history, a very informative (and free) visitor center, smart, passionate naturalists eager to share information with you, beautiful untouched scenery, and so much to do (hike, bike, fish, kayak, canoe). If visiting this state park isn’t on your bucket list, it should be.