Itasca State Park

Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Headwaters of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park, Minnesota  (Mark Evans via Flickr)

This 32,000-acre jewel of the north woods is the starting point for one of the great American journeys—the Mississippi River’s 2,552-mile trip to the Gulf of Mexico. At its headwaters at the north end of sprawling Lake Itasca, the mighty Mississippi is only a trickle, but the park’s landscape is plenty impressive on its own. Itasca State Park is home to more than 100 of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, along with a 2,000-acre wilderness sanctuary where timber wolves and black bears roam. Glaciers have sculpted the landscape into a series of pocks and ridges, defying the Midwest’s characteristic flatness with rolling hills and gravelly moraines. For many in this outdoorsy state, a trip to Itasca is the classic Minnesota summer vacation.

Hiking and Backpacking
The North Country Trail, which spans New York to North Dakota, crosses the south half of Itasca for 12 miles, passing within a stone’s skip of a dozen small lakes and their resident loons. All told, the park has nearly 50 miles of hiking trails, most of them through cool forests of mixed pine and paper birch, occasionally accessing a silent lakeshore. Fall is perhaps the best time to hike in Itasca, when cooler temps and fewer mosquitoes complement a leafy palette of oranges, reds, and golds. Snowshoers hit the trails in the winter, and 28 miles of them are groomed for cross-country skiing.

Scenic Driving
For a good overview of the park, take a cruise on the scenic Wilderness Drive Loop, an 11-mile route that bends past many of the park’s highlights. An interpretive exhibit at the Bison Kill site marks a spot where early park road crews unearthed a mess of bones from the long-extinct giant bison, hunted by indigenous groups nearly 8,000 years ago. The road circles the wilderness sanctuary and stops off at the Mississippi headwaters.

Road biking is popular along the paved Wilderness Drive, and an additional six-mile paved trail winds from the visitor center near the park’s east entrance up to the headwaters. The road is gentle and flat, with some impressive lake vistas and a few preserved historic sites, such as a pioneer cemetery and ruins of old log cabins. Bike rentals and repair are available at Itasca Sports, inside the park near the headwaters. The shop also rents kayaks and canoes for paddling the calm and winding waters of Lake Itasca.

Itasca fills with campers during summer, with 223 sites available in two campgrounds. The sites range from large drive-up spots to smaller sites with a cart to load your gear from a shared parking lot. Pine Ridge Campground is the more crowded of the two, on a wooded hill with good access to short trails. Bear Paw is smaller and mellower, with more walk-in sites and lakeshore. Tent campers pay $20, and sites can be reserved in advance.

Backpackers will find a half-dozen backcountry campgrounds spread throughout the park’s southern reaches, with one to three sites each. These are reservable for a $12 per night fee, with no backcountry permit required.

Published: 1 Feb 2012 | Last Updated: 22 Jun 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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