Itasca State Park: Crossing the Mississippi Headwaters

Cover: Mississippi Headwaters, Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Caitlin Rick
Article by Kim Hull


Home to the beginning of the Mississippi River, Itasca State Park is a wonderful 32,000 acre park with towering pines, more than 100 lakes, hiking and biking trails, the largest pine tree in Minnesota, the historic Douglas Lodge and much more.

Established in 1891, Itasca is the oldest state park in Minnesota and the second oldest in the United States. It is also the most popular in Minnesota, with over a half million visitors each year. Most come to cross the rocks at the headwaters of the Mississippi, but discover an outdoor paradise and return to park to explore and enjoy it further, with 70% of Itasca visitors being return visitors.

A good place to begin a visit to Itasca State Park is at the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center.

Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center

Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

We always start a park visit with a stop at the visitors center, so we’ve been to quite a few across the country and the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center is one of the nicest we’ve visited. Bright and spacious, it is well laid-out, with interpretive and hands-on exhibits, photographs, videos, maps of the area and a gift shop.

Bear exhibit, Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Bear exhibit, Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The 13,000 square foot center is named after Jacob V. Brower, a writer, historian and land surveyor, who came to the Lake Itasca area in the 1800’s to settle a dispute over the location of the start of the Mississippi. Brower remained in the area and his conservation work to save the pine forests, which were being threatened from logging, ultimately resulted in the establishment of the state park in April of 1891.

Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center exhibits, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center exhibits, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Park naturalists and staff are on hand at the center to answer questions and provide recommendations on exploring the park. Maps and information are also available at the center, including an Itasca State Park overview pamphlet.

Lodging

When planning a visit to Itasca State Park, the park has several lodging and camping options available for your stay, including a hostel, the historic Douglas Lodge, or, of course, camping under the stars.

Douglas Lodge

Douglas Lodge comon area, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Douglas Lodge common area, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The historic Douglas Lodge opened in 1905 and has since hosted guests for over 110 years. While having been updated through the years with modern conveniences, the quiet, peaceful lodge retains its historic feel with period furnishings and rustic decor.

Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, built in 1905
Douglas Lodge at Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, built in 1905
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Douglas Lodge has three suites that include a bathroom with a shower and four single rooms that share hallway baths. The common area is a warm, cozy living room with a large stone fireplace. The Lodge also has a full-service restaurant available for both hotel guests and park visitors that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Douglas Lodge guest room, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Douglas Lodge guest room, Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Hiking & biking trails

Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

With 50 miles of hiking and biking trails, Itasca has a wide variety of treks ranging from short, easy hikes to longer, more adventurous trails.

The Headwaters Loop Trail & Doctor Roberts Trail near Douglas Lodge are both wheelchair accessible, boardwalk trails that wind through nature. The Headwaters Loop Trail runs from the Mary Gibbs Headwater Center along the Mississippi River to the Headwaters and the boardwalk section of the Roberts Trail runs to Old Timer’s Cabin.

Headwaters Loop Trail, Itasca State Park
Headwaters Loop Trail, Itasca State Park
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

The Itasca State Park Summer Map has a full listing of the park’s hiking trails. Bicycling on hiking trails is prohibited, but 16 miles of bicycle routes run through from the visitor center to the Mary Gibbs Headwaters Center, while also connecting to Douglas Lodge.

Hiking at Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Hiking at Itasca State Park, Park Rapids, Minnesota
Photo: Kim Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Mississippi Headwaters

Kim Hull crossing the Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park
Kim Hull crossing the Mississippi Headwaters at Itasca State Park
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

One thing we weren’t going to miss when visiting Minnesota was crossing the beginning of the mighty Mississippi River.

Sure we’ve crossed the Mississippi countless times through the years by car in the 10 states it passes through on its journey from Minnesota to the Gulf Of Mexico, but Itasca State Park is the only place on earth where you can walk across it as it begins that path downstream.

If you want to say hi to someone while you are there, give them a call and tell them to go to Mississippi headwaters webcam  and they can watch as you make your crossing. Definitely a cool adventure!

Greg & Kim Hull crossing the headwaters of the Mississippi
Greg & Kim Hull crossing the headwaters of the Mississippi
Photo: Caitlin Rick
Caitlin Rick & Kim Hull cross the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park
Caitlin Rick & Kim Hull cross the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media

Get the book: The Best of Itasca

The Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce provided us with a copy of Deanne Johnson’s book, The Best of Itasca prior to our visit. It is a beautiful, comprehensive book, filled with everything you need to know whether visiting for a few hours or a week.

Itasca State Park location

Itasca State Park is in north central Minnesota a little over 200 miles from Minneapolis-St Paul and 26 miles from Park Rapids.


Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Explore MinnesotaItasca State Park and the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.