Location: Park Rapids, Minnesota
Webpage: Minnesota State Park
General Description: Itasca State Park was established in 1891 making it the oldest Minnesota State Park. Today the park consists of 32,000 acres including over 100 lakes. The most notable of these is Lake Itasca which forms the headwaters of the Mississippi River as it begins its 2552 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The location of the headwaters was important following the Revolutionary War as the Mississippi was the western boundary of the new nation. However, locating the actual headwaters of the Mississippi proved to be a difficult task and it was not until 1832 that the Anishinabe guide Ozawindib, led explorer Henry Schoolcraft to the source at Lake Itasca. In the late 19th century historian Jacob Brower led the effort to preserve the remaining pine forest surrounding the lake for future generations and in 1891 it became the first state park in Minnesota. Over the years the park has continued to expand to its present size. Thru these efforts visitors can see virgin red pine stands and one of the largest white pine. Today, visitors can wade in the water flowing off of Lake Itasca as it begins its long journey south. There is an 8 mile Wilderness Drive that circles the lake with many stops of historical importance, as well as, trailheads of the many trails in the park.
1) The Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center is close to the park entrance and offers a number of exhibits about the park. There is a short video about the park, as well as, exhibits about the history, geology, and ecology. Be sure to pick up a map of the park which provides information about the stops along the Wilderness Drive.
2) The Wilderness Drive is well worth the time as there are a number of interesting stops along the way. After leaving the Visitor Center the first couple of stops are overlooks of Itasca Lake at Preachers’ Grove and Peace Pipe Vista. Unfortunately, the trees block most of the view at both locations.
3) The next stop at Pioneer’s Cemetery is down near the shore of the lake with some nice views, as well as, the old headstones of the early settlers in the area around the lake.
4) The next stop is the Lake Itasca Amphitheater, which has a nice picnic area and swimming beach that is very popular in the summer. There is also a paved trail to an old sawmill, that we decided not to take but a number of families with bikes seemed to be enjoying.
5) The next stop is the main draw for the park at it is the headwaters of the Mississippi River. There is a nice pavilion with bathrooms at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center with some interesting exhibits about the history and importance of establishing not only the headwaters of the Mississippi, but also the western boundary of Lake of the Woods which formed the boundary between the US and Canada. Originally it was believed that the Mississippi River flowed out of the Lake of the Woods and thus the western boundary of the US was defined. However, since the Mississippi did not extend to the Lake of the Woods there was potentially a problem establishing the boundary. It makes an interesting story. It is a short walk to the point where the small stream flows out of the lake and it is a common practice to wade in this stream as it was quite busy.
6) There are also a couple of trails that begin at the center, the most notable being the Schoolcraft Trail that winds along the shore of the lake for a 2 mile round trip. We explored this trail all the way to the end where you can see Schoolcraft Island. This is the island that Schoolcraft embarked from his canoe to plant a flag declaring it as the beginning of the Mississippi River. However, this is debatable since there is also a short stream that connects Elk Lake to Itasca Lake that should also be considered to be the headwaters.
7) This is also the beginning of the one-way road that continues around the lake as Wilderness Drive. There are a number of short trails that lead from this drive on the west side of the lake. We did not take advantage of these trails, although I attempted to walk a short loop trail through the CCC red pine plantation that was planted in the 1930s. However, the trail became too bug invested, so I turned around after getting a good view of the large red pine stand.
8) The next stop on the drive is the largest white pine remaining in the park, which at 120 inches in circumference is also one of the largest in the state. It is a short walk to the large pine which is today protected by a boardwalk around the roots. Even then the tree is not very healthy and will likely not survive much longer.
9) The last stop of note is the site of an ancient bison kill where they have found a large collection of ancient giant bison bones and stone tools. Except for the interpretive sign at the location there is not much that can be seen. A short trail also leads to a virgin stand of red pine with a lot of very large red pine, although none are state champions. Once again the deer flies made for a very quick trip to and from the stand.