Itasca State Park: Explore Headwaters Of The Mississippi River

Emerald trees surround Lake Itasca, a blue gem tucked in the heart of northwest Minnesota whose unassuming appearance belies its true identity: the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River.

Itasca State Park
Image by sborsch from Pixabay 

Lake Itasca is a modest source for the Mississippi River, the second-longest river in North America that wends its way for 2,348 miles until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The serpentine waterway—affectionately known as the Big Muddy because the broad river picks up dirt and gradually takes on a chocolate hue as it flows—owes its existence to Itasca, a sparkling lake dotted with stand-up paddleboarders. The river’s origin, however humble, deserves to be explored—not only as the birthplace of the powerful Mississippi, but as a noble reservoir surrounded by ancient forests.

Lake Itasca

Lake Itasca
Lake Itasca. Facebook: LoveYourBigMuddyExpedition

Start your Minnesota adventure at Itasca State Park, a wilderness retreat where you can pitch a tent in the forest or cast a fishing line into the Mississippi’s sparkling headwaters. To get an up-close view of the lake, hop aboard the Chester Charles II, a stately boat with experienced tour guides whose knowledge about Itasca ranges from facts about bald eagles and common loons to the logging history of the area. Tickets cost $20 for guests 11 and older and $10 for kids between four and 10. Children three years and under ride free.

For the ultimate Itasca experience, check out Itasca Sports, an adventurer’s paradise that offers a variety of ways to enjoy your time on the water. Strap on your provided lifejacket before relaxing on a sit-on-top style kayak, maneuvering a stand-up paddleboard or guiding a paddleboat through rippling currents. If a leisurely day motoring around the lake is more your style, rent a spacious pontoon boot with a canopy overhead to shield you from the bright sun.

Aiton Heights Fire Tower

Fire Tower
Fire Tower. Facebook: King Dahl

Climb up the Aiton Heights Fire Tower in late autumn for a beautiful view of the foliage below—a mesmerizing blend of dark orange and bright yellow broken only by an occasional emerald-green tree. To reach the tower, first take an easy 2.2-mile walk through the forest. Just before the end of the trail, prepare to tackle a gradual incline as the path becomes steepest right at its conclusion.

Upon reaching the fire tower, take a long flight of stairs to the top of the 100-foot-tall overlook. The observation deck at the top is small, so keep in mind that only six people are permitted on the tower at one time. Rest assured that the overlook is perfectly safe, but if you have a fear of heights you will want to avoid the tower on windy days because it may feel unsteady at the top.

Douglas Lodge

Douglas Lodge
Douglas Lodge. Facebook: Kyle Johnson

A charming chalet whose dark brown exterior highlights the rich color of the surrounding emerald green trees, Douglas Lodge is the ideal place to relax on your Minnesota trip. In the evening, lounge beside the imposing stone fireplace that warms the wood-paneled lobby or recline on the upper deck with a bird’s-eye view of the majestic forest that surrounds the resort.

Visit the Douglas Lodge Restaurant to end your evening in style. Delicious appetizers include fresh walleye ceviche and a plate of hummus and veggies. For your next course, try a bowl of wild rice soup and a tasty strawberry chicken salad where tan almond slivers accent bright red onions and creamy feta cheese. Finish your dinner with a smoky BBQ beef brisket and fresh-baked strawberry rhubarb pie, a staple of Midwest cuisine whose crunchy blend of sugary berries and sour rhubarb makes it a dessert to remember.

Preacher’s Grove

Preacher's Grove
Preacher’s Grove. Facebook: Mia Swindoll

The soaring red pines of Preacher’s Grove tower over Lake Itasca, casting shadows on the sunlit slopes overlooking the rippling water. Walk among the magnificent giants whose peaceful presence gives the forest an air of tranquil stillness. If you would rather experience the wonder of the forested lake from your car, take the 10-mile scenic Wilderness Drive, a  one-way road that slowly curves through the woods, giving you time to take in the marvelous views on either side of the tree-lined path.

Enjoy the beauty of Lake Itasca and the surrounding forest when you visit these four scenic attractions.

Hannah Larson

Contributing Editor

A southern California native, Hannah is a traveler and thrill seeker whose love of writing is matched only by her passion for adventure. From ziplining alongside Niagara Falls to paddleboarding in Lake Itasca, she is always on the lookout for exciting experiences in beautiful places. Her favorite national parks include the Great Smokies, Sequoia and Glacier because of the spectacular mountain views.

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