A Trip to the Headwaters-Exploring Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park-home to the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi.  Established in 1891, Itasca is Minnesota’s first state park and the nation’s second state park behind Niagara Falls State Park.  Growing up in Minnesota, it was a rite of passage to make your way to Itasca State Park and walk across the Mighty Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. 500,000 people visit the headwaters annually.  I knew I wanted to take my children to visit this iconic destination in my home state at some point in their lives but with the distance from our home, I knew it had to be over a long weekend.  So we planned for Memorial Day 2017.


After a very eventful beginning to our Memorial Day 2016 vacation (the day our first travel trailer was hit by a merging car and became a total loss), we decided to leave on Thursday night, drive as far as my parents who live north of Minneapolis, and then continue the trip north the next day in an effort to beat traffic and break up the 7 hours drive.  This was a great idea-we had no traffic the entire drive-a rarity during the summer months, especially if you are heading north.

And we are off!!

Mississippi River Headwaters

There are numerous sites to see in the 32,000 acre state park including over 100 lakes within the park but as mentioned already, the headwaters of the Mississippi is by far the most popular sight.

IMG_1239After setting up camp, we hopped on our bikes and took the bike trail to the headwaters.  There is a great 5.8 mile paved bike trail that leads from the Douglas Lodge to the the Mary Gibbs Mississippi River Headwaters Center.  Right in the middle of these two locations are the two campgrounds-the Bear Paw Campground and the Pine Ridge Campground.

Pine trees for miles!

Because of our arrival early in the day, we were able to explore the headwaters with just a handful of other individuals.  The last thing I wanted to do was fight the crowds as we precariously made our way across the rocks at the river.  DSC_0044The beginning of the river provides a shallow, cool place to splash and play.  My daughter asked continuously over the weekend to go back and swim and play in the river. We did get back one additional time but there is just so much to do in the park, it is hard to spend time repeating things.


The headwaters are a sight to see.  The beautiful, tranquil waters of Lake Itasca spill over into the stream that becomes the Mighty Mississippi.  It is also fun for the girls to see the sprawling river further down stream as we have crossed it many times over the last year.


Old Growth Pine Forests

You know you are in the North Country when you become surrounded by the towering pine trees.  Itasca State park is/was home to the record red and white pines trees in the state.  The Red Pine was 300+ years old and stood 126 feet tall.  Unfortunately, due to age and condition the top of the tree blew off during a windstorm in 2007.

The White Pine is also 300+ years and towers over the are at 112 feet.  This is the largest white pine recorded in the state of Minnesota.

Minnesota State Park Hiking Club Trail

While we here, we knew we wanted to cross off the hiking club trail off the list. I was a little nervous about the length of the trail but I figured if we took it slow and steady and bring lots of snacks.  The trail totalled up to 4.11 miles and took us 133 minutes to complete.  Shockingly, the girls did pretty good! We took a snack break and we maybe had to bribe Elsie a little bit but overall it was a great hike. One thing to note is that the ticks in this area were/are terrible!! We could see ticks just hanging out on the tips of the tall grass on this hiking trail. It was gross! Before we left, I treated our shoes and pants with permethrin spray I purchsed at REI. It was worth every penny. We left the weekend without finding a single tick on us (we are very dilligent when exploring in the northwoods), while I overheard one mom say she picked ten ticks off her son just in one morning!

Aiton Heights Fire Tower

One of the last things we did in the park was attempt to climb the Aiton Heights Fire Tower. We did a short hike up to the tower (which we counted as Hike #15. John and Elsie climber up and I stayed down with Evie.

Our Campsite

I booked our campsite nine months out for the holiday weekend. There were a lot of sites already taken. We styed in the Pine Ridge Campground in the Maple Loop in site #189E. The playground in this park was dated and like most Minnesota State Park bathrooms, those could use a good cleaning too. We enjoyed our site, it was spacious enough and there was buffer between our site and the other surrounding sites. The roads in the campground are gravel.

Itasca State Park has plenty to keep you busy for weekend or a whole week! Like normal, we left feeling like we didn’t have enough time in the park. I recommend this iconic landmark park to everyone!

DATES OF TRAVEL: May 26th-29th 2017

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