Lake Itasca: Where the Mississippi Starts
Clearing Your Head at the Headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota
By Gail Clifford
One of the best, healthiest things you can do for yourself when you need to clear your head is to get into nature.
When there’s time to get out, going into state parks is an excellent, often less populous, alternative to National Parks.
Minnesotans are particularly fortunate with the availability of Lake Itasca and the Lake Itasca State Park in the northern portion of the state.
Home to the Mississippi Headwaters, it’s an idyllic place to clear your head, press reset, and return refreshed and renewed. Learn, hike, bike, boat, swim, camp, explore, drive, eat, shop … this park has it all.
“Those who step across the Mississippi at its source will live a long and happy life” Native American legend
History of Lake Itasca
The Mississippi River, the “Father of Rivers,” journeys 2,552 miles across the United Sates from north central Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
Explorers began the search for the head of the Mississippi headwaters in the 1700s. But it wasn’t until Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, led by prominent Ojibwe, Ozaawindib, returned in 1832 that other theories were discounted. His work was confirmed by Joseph Nicollet, then challenged by Willard Glazier.
Jacob V. Brower, a surveyor historian, confirmed the lake as the actual true source once he determined that Lake Itasca was the “bottommost reservoir” contributing water to the Mississippi. Brower worked tirelessly throughout the remainder of his life to protect the pine forest, which ultimately led to state park status in 1891.
Minnesota’s oldest (1891) and largest (32,000 acres), Lake Itasca State Park reminds you of many National Parks (think North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Cuyahoga Valley) thanks to the expansive Douglas Lodge and surrounding activities. It’s also home to the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories.
Many roads to the Itasca State Park are two lanes, with speed limits ranging from 20 to 60 mph.
With a watchful eye, you may spot the rare Showy Lady’s Slippers, Minnesota’s state flower. Pink, yellow, or white, a native Minnesotan, Jana Lung, spotted a pink flower from the road traveling at 30 mph. Now, that’s a good eye.
According to Jana, “Lady’s slippers require very specific breeding conditions and are one of just 43 orchids that grow in the state.”
Keep in mind the Lady’s Slippers are protected. It is illegal to pick or uproot them.
Enter the park and pay the daily fee with cash or check in the envelope or your credit card info (or purchase the state park pass online in advance, the entry cabin is mostly unattended), leave your car details on the envelope and the receipt on your car dash to prevent fines.
Driving to Lake Itasca
The road within the park radiate from a loop, like spokes on a wheel. Easily marked turn offs for camping sites and hiking trails and parking lots pepper your journey to either the Douglas Lodge (meals) or the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center (ice cream!) or the Brower Visitor Center. Each has educational and interactive experiences for both adults and children.
Recommended as your first stop from a scheduling perspective, drive down around the Douglas Lodge to the boat landing and check for launch times. They accept cash only for the narrated tour, and it’s first come, first serve.
No reservations for the public tour. Except in high season, though, it’s unlikely you’d be left behind. And there’s no extra charge for the view of the bridal company as they dock. The Chester Charles II is a popular wedding venue.
Once you’ve confirmed boat tour times, head out along the planked path through the bog (insect repellent HIGHLY recommended) towards the Old Timers Cabin or Dr. Roberts Trail.
One motivator to keep the kids moving, race to the four benches at the boat launch when you’re ready to return. Alternatively, run up the path back to the Lodge or up the stairs for those without knee issues.
Hike Lake Itasca and the Park
Forty-nine miles of hiking trail pattern the park. You can even hike into your campsite. With a Camelbak or canteens, you can take wonderful walks or more rugged hikes up the hills overlooking more than 100 lakes.
The most popular trail, the Dr. Roberts Nature Trail, starts just past the boat launch down the road or stairs from the Douglas Lodge. A 1.9-mile loop trail, you can see an old cabin and even pick raspberries or blueberries in season. Dogs are allowed on the trail on leash.
With elevation changes to 150 feet, it’s rated as moderate. Mosquitos are prevalent. Even with repellent, you’ll be a target. Long sleeve shirts and pants tucked in your socks and hats with netting help.
The Mississippi Headwaters Trail is only 0.4 miles, little elevation and rated as easy. Plenty of signage leads you to the actual headwaters where many take photos.
Yoga poses are optional (broken toes make good form difficult). This is the not to be missed trail. If you make it to Lake Itasca State Park you really need to make the effort for this gentle stroll.
The Nicollet Trail starts near Elk Lake off Wilderness Drive. Gazing over the giant pines gives you more appreciation for Jacob Brower’s life work. It’s a 1.8 mile out and back trail rated as moderate.
The Mary Lake Trail, named in honor of Mary Turnbull (see BOAT below), is an easy out and back hike of 1.2 miles to the lake. If the trail isn’t groomed, it’s available for snowshoeing in winter.
The Itasca Fire Tower Trail, a 2.2 mile out and back trail near Lake Alice, has elevation changes to 269 feet and is also rated as moderate. The Fire Tower, when open, holds up to six, and provides a view especially pleasing in the fall with the leave color change. Butterflies and Dragonflies are prevalent during the open months, May through October.
The Aiton Heights observation tower allows for your overarching, above the canopy view of the Park. The hike up the stairs is a worthy opponent (for those with knees that allow) and the spectacle of Fall colors especially worthwhile.
Preacher’s Grove, where some early inhabitants planted and protected the current canopy of tall pines, remains a popular place to hike or picnic. Students can often be spotted studying in this peaceful area.
Note: Bicycling on the hiking trails is prohibited.
What’s for Lunch
If it’s close to lunch time, make a point of stopping at the Douglas Lodge café at least once during your visit. The beautiful hand carved rocking chairs display animals in their natural habitat.
Make your way through the grand doors to a surprisingly cozy entry with grand staircase that shelters several historic exhibits. Branch off to the right and place your name on the waiting list for the café.
Peruse a menu as you wait in the large family style room – grand fireplace, puzzles, books, historic photos and plenty of seating.
What to Eat on Lake Itasca
Choices of hot and cold food, with special desserts of the day, are sure to please the palate of the group. The cooked to order burgers and sandwiches are delicious.
They have more cheeses than most people could eat at one meal – except Jana, she’s a cheese connoisseur and had one of each added to her sandwich. And loved it.
For a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, visit the Mary Gibbs Visitor Center’s Ice Cream Shoppe.
There are grocery stores within a few miles of each entrance. Plan to bring food from home or stop for water and sustenance at any of these places. Many of the campgrounds offer fire pits.
The Mary Gibbs Visitor Center features an ice cream shoppe, gift shop and exhibits highlighting the river’s history.
One panel shows Minnesota enjoys more miles of the Mississippi River than any other state. From the north-flowing section 30 miles towards Bemidji and east-flowing section through lakes and National Forests, the Mississippi then channels south to be enjoyed by America.
Narrated Boat Tours, Coborn’s Cruises, welcomes you aboard the Chester Charles II, hosted by the only three-female Captain crew in the Coast Guard, and their patriarch, run twice daily during high season. They sell tickets just at 15 minutes before the hour of departure. (e.g. boat leaves at 2pm, tickets on sale at 145p) And the boat is available for weddings. 141 people capacity. Note they allow no outside food or beverages. There is a snack bar onboard.
The Captains share both history and legend as they point out bald eagles perched in high pines, other wildlife along the shore, or Turnbull point.
Peter and Mary Turnbull, homesteaders from Canada, were the first white settlers who gave birth to the first white child (Charles, 1884) on Lake Itasca before moving into Park Rapids. Peter became one of the first Hubbard county commissioners. The community and family thrived until Mary died during childbirth with their fifth child. Peter lost interest in the area and returned to Canada.
Mary Turnbull’s tombstone reads “Itasca’s first Pioneer Woman.”
In addition to the boat tour, canoes and kayaks allow for outdoor activities in couples or groups or on your own to offer time for quiet reflection.
Mosquitos come at no additional charge, no matter how large.
You’ll find the largest crowds at the Headwaters themselves. With a posted log sign and a long “log” directly across the headwaters, wait for your turn to pose. Take up the Native American legend for good luck as your mantra of the day.
Take your swimsuit. In addition to splashing about the actual headwaters, opportunities to swim or lounge near the water abound.
A total of 16 miles of paved bike trails allow cyclists another way to view the park.
The ten-mile Wilderness Drive Loop has cyclists share the roads with automobiles and RVs.
But the six-mile paved trail connecting the Douglas Lodge with the headwaters allows you an even more protected experience (and 12 miles of biking, if you go round trip).
There are hills, so expect them, but it’s a nice work out.
When you just need to get away and clear your head, biking or hiking are probably the best and fastest ways at the park to build endorphins and get you feeling better fast.
Since people really want to know about where they’re going to lay their heads, we did a deep dive into the many options for overnight accommodations at Lake Itasca State Park.
223 Drive-In sites are divided between two campgrounds. Eleven backpack sites can be found anywhere from one to five miles from the parking areas. There are also eleven cart-in sites, located in Bear Paw Campground, where you can camp 100 to 500 feet from the parking area.
Elk Lake Group Camp is perfect for a family reunion or team building exercise. This one site accommodates up to 50 people.
Hand pumps for water and vault toilets are available throughout the park year-round.
Showers, located in Pine Ridge and Bear Paw campgrounds, are available from the fishing opener (usually second weekend in May) through the first Sunday in October.
For those that like a more traditional roof over your heads, accommodations range from the Douglas Lodge’s rooms and suites to the cabins, guesthouse and clubhouse across the park. There’s even a hostel available.
Please note: pets are not allowed in any of Lake Itasca’s lodging facilities.
The rustic, historic Douglas Lodge built in 1905, is usually open from the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to the first Sunday in October. The full-service restaurant, bright living area on the first floor with fireplace, and patio off the main level with several rocking chairs with hand crafted nature scenes make it an enjoyable experience. And it’s air conditioned. With WIFI.
The rooms, on the second floor, are only accessible via the front staircase. It was not possible to structurally accommodate an elevator so the actual hotel rooms are not handicapped accessible.
Their three double rooms sleep four with one full size bed and two twins include a bathroom with shower. Their four single rooms sleep two with one full size bed all share two hallway bathrooms with showers.
The Fourplex, built in 1938, is more like a motel. The rooms each sleep two, with either two twin beds or one full bed, with a bathtub and fireplace, but no air conditioning. Do not expect WIFI. But they are handicapped accessible.
The Douglas Lodge Four Season Suites are your best off-season lodging option. These two room suites have both WIFI and TV, heating and air conditioning. Their bedrooms have either one queen bed or two. They each have a bathroom with bathtub and shower and a kitchenette (dorm size refrigerator, no oven). Some units connect, so if you want four rooms / two bedrooms, be sure to ask when making your reservations.
While there are yurts available at some Minnesota state parks, Lake Itasca isn’t one of them.
Bear Paw Guesthouse
Built in 1935, this facility formerly acted as the manager’s home and campground store. This three-bedroom, two bath log home, was renovated in 2013 to serve the needs of groups of ten or less.
Each bedroom sleeps two while two futons stationed in the living room can sleep up to four more.
At full capacity, the price per person is, at the time of this writing, under $50 a night. It’s usually available for reservations from the second Friday of May to the first Sunday in October.
With full kitchen, dining room, living room, and screened porch, your family or group can be self-sustaining during your time at the Park.
Immersing yourself in nature is a great way to reconnect with family, friends, and even yourself. It helps ground you in a way not possible with all the busy-ness of many current day dramas.
Learn, hike, bike, boat, swim, camp, explore, drive, eat, shop … this park has it all.
Get back into nature. Go to your local State Park. If you’re very lucky, go to Minnesota’s Lake Itasca State Park.
Gail Clifford, MD, a physician for more than 25 years, has traveled to five continents and all 50 United States. An avid traveler, she happily goes on new adventures, especially on birthdays. She divides her time between Ireland and the U.S.