The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Lake Itasca State Park

The GRR begins here among the cattails and tall pines, in the park that protects the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. The small, clear brook tumbling out of the north end of Lake Itasca will eventually carry runoff from nearly two-thirds of the United States and enough silt to make the muddy plume at the river’s mouth visible from space. But at its headwaters, 2,550-odd meandering miles from the Gulf of Mexico, you can wade across the Mississippi, and the water is still so clean and clear you can see the bottom.

The Mississippi’s humble beginnings were the object of chest-thumping adventurers and the subject of not-so-scholarly debate for decades before explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, led by Ojibwa native Ozaawindib, determined this lake to be the true source of the nation’s most legendary river in 1832. Schoolcraft’s story, the tale of the battle to protect the park against logging, and lots of other Mississippi facts are found at the interpretive center (218/699-7251, open year-round, $5 per car) just inside the park’s north entrance. Skeptics will also find out why professional geographers don’t consider the two smaller lakes and the five creeks that feed Itasca competition for the headwaters title.

The fact that the lakeshore has been “improved” from its naturally marshy state, the surrounding old-growth pine forest—the most extensive stand of virgin timber left in the state—and outdoorsy amenities such as paved bike trails, boat launches, and café near the “official headwaters” all contribute to Itasca’s popularity. Bike and boat rentals (218/266-2150) are available spring through fall.

Accommodations include the grand turn-of-the-20th-century Douglas Lodge (866/857-2757, rooms $99-150), with rooms and assorted lakeside cabins. Just steps from the bike path and beach you’ll find the immaculate, friendly, and bargain-priced HI-Mississippi Headwaters Hostel (218/266-3415, $27 per person), which has rooms for families and couples as well as single travelers. When not fishing or foraging for your meals, consider the Douglas Lodge dining room, where the menu includes regional blueberries, wild rice, and walleye pike.

No matter when or how long you visit Lake Itasca, or anywhere in Minnesota really, be sure to pack plenty of potent repellent for ticks and mosquitoes.


Mississippi River

Lake Itasca

Interpretive Center (36750 Main Park Dr.)

Bike and boat rentals (15441 Main Park Dr.)

HI-Mississippi Headwaters Hostel (27910 Forest Ln.)

Douglas Lodge (Itasca State Park)