The Best Things to do at Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park in Northern Minnesota is one of those destinations that every Minnesota needs to visit once in their lifetime. And in some, multiple times.
The park is one of the oldest in the Minnesota State Park System. Most people go to see the Headwaters of the Mississippi, but there are so many more things to do at Itasca State Park.
I have been trying to get to Itasca ever since I started my mission to visit all the state parks. If you ask my parents, I’d been there before when I was younger.
I go by the philosophy, if I can’t remember it, I haven’t been there. A few years ago, I made reservations to go over the weekend.
I didn’t realize that leaving the office on a Friday at 5 and trying to get to the park was nearly impossible. A park like this deserves a long weekend and a slow meandering trip. This summer, we decided to make it happen.
What is Itasca State Park?
Itasca State Park is a Minnesota state park that is home to Lake Itasca and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was established in 1891 and is the state’s first state park.
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The Beginnings of Itasca State Park
The Itasca State Park in Minnesota is one of the oldest parks in the United States. The land was bought by the state in 1891 for $5,000.
Henry Schoolcraft first visited the upper river in 1820 as a member of an exploring party headed by Gov. Lewis Cass of Michigan.
As logging amped up, the park had been threatened many times. The park was established in 1892 and has been expanded over time to what it is today.
The Best Things to do at Itasca State Park
Visitors can take part in a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities within Itasca State Park including hiking, biking, horseback riding, boating, and fishing.
The state park also hosts several seasonal events such as free concert series or the maple sugar festival in spring where people can get maple syrup fresh off the tree.
The Headwaters of the Mississippi River
Ever wanted to walk across the mighty Mississippi River? You can!
The Itasca Headwaters is rich with beautiful scenery that is awe-inspiring. The best time to visit is during the spring or summer months because they offer the most views.
The question I get asked all the time is how do you see the Headwaters, without people swimming in the water? We ended up visiting the site twice. Once after dinner during the evening light.
The place was filled with visitors swimming on both sides of the stepping stones. If you want an undisturbed view, arrive before 7:30am.
There is also the Mary Gibbs Center where you can learn about the history of this natural treasure. Mary Gibbs helped to preserve some of the parks from the early logging.
You can learn more about her story here. The visitors center is specific to the Mississippi River Headwaters. What I loved was seeing the topographical map showing the extent of the river. Inside you’ll find a restaurant and other amenities. This part of the park has changed a lot over the years.
One of the things they did was add flatter wide paths of crushed gravel, making the headwaters accessible to all visitors.
Camping at Itasca State Park
The Douglas Lodge is a remote cabin that provides the perfect getaway for families or groups of friends. Located 1.5 miles from the park entrance, this cabin offers lodging options for your outdoor adventure.
The Douglas Lodge has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen with all necessary pots, pans, dishes, and utensils, and a gas grill outside.
Car Camping at Itasca State Park is available in two different campgrounds. The Bear Paw Campground and Pine Ridge Campground.
Both are towards the north side of the park with entrances on opposite sides of the park’s main drive. Bear Paw Campground is my favorite because it has a view of the lake. There are multiple opportunities to get closer to the water.
Campground check-in is not at the main gates to the park. With the state park being so big, they have all guests check-in near the entrance to the campground. Depending on which entrance you are using, it can be a couple of miles away.
For those that really like to escape, there are 7 primitive campsites near the southern end of the park. Most of the sites sit near lakes.
Itasca State Park Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 3.5 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 147.3 miles
Most Minnesota State Parks hiking club trails take visitors through some of the best parts of the park. I expected this trip to be epic, considering we are talking about Itasca.
In this case, it seemed like the park is trying to divert traffic to some of the less hiked areas, but still making sure it was accessible any time of the year.
The hiking club trail loops behind Douglass Lodge and by many smaller lakes. The trails were nice, with plenty of woods. There were hills and small overlooks. The highlight of the trip was the spur trail to the Aiton Heights Fire Tower, more on that later.
Have you joined the MN State Parks Hiking Club Yet? At each park there is a designated hike, usually taking you to the best parts of the park. It’s a great excuse to visit the parks plus you earn patches and free nights of camping along the way. It’s so much fun to do. Check out all the details: 75 reasons to join the MN State Parks Passport and MN Hiking Club
Lake Itasca Boat Tour
The Lake Itasca Boat Tours provide an educational and exciting experience for anyone who is interested in learning about the history of Lake Itasca.
The boat tours are guided by knowledgeable tour guides that will provide an entertaining narrative to teach you all about its history.
You’ll learn about Henry Schoolcraft first trip to find the Mississippi River Headwaters The tour starts in the morning and lasts about two hours.
You will get to see many of the important landmarks of the region including a 15-minute stop at a small island in the middle of Lake Itasca.
The boat leaves a few times a day and needs a minimum of 18 adult passengers. You can either park at Douglass Lodge and walk down to the boat or drive down behind the lodge and park lakeside.
Itasca State Park Wilderness Drive
The Itasca State Park Wilderness Drive a 10-mile one-way road through a number of scenic overlooks and backcountry campsites.
From the drive, you’ll see things like a Bison Kill Site, Hiking Trails, remote camping and more. The road is also shared with bikes. If you get the chance to do it, I highly recommend it.
During different events, like severe drought, the wilderness drive closes. This is a precautionary measure due to the lack of accessibility for emergency crews and the ability for visitors to evacuate.
This was a total bummer on my visit to not have access to it. Some of the really cool remote areas are only accessible this way.
Aiton Heights Fire Tower
There is no better way to see a park than by Fire Tower. The Aiton Heights Fire Tower was erected in the 1920s by the Minnesota Division of Forestry. The tower once stood near the headquarters but moved.
The Tower is 100 feet high. You can access the tower a few different ways. The easiest is off the Wilderness Drive, stopping at the parking log near the end of the trail.
You can also get to the fire tower by trail from near the Douglass Lodge. There is a spur trail off the Hiking Club Trail.
Brower Visitor Center
Itasca State Park has not one but two different visitors center. The Brower Visitors Center is the primary one filled with all kinds of displays and exhibits.
There you can see a bald eagle in flight, a stuffed black bear and so much more. The visitors center has a gift shop, fireplaces, and more. During the winter months, it becomes a warming center for visitors.
Find an Overlook
There are multiple overlooks off of Main Park Drive including. Preacher’s Grove and Peace Pipe Vista. Both are nice with parking out front. Each has a short trail leading to the vista.
Fishing at Itasca State Park?
There is no question that Lake Isaca is one of the cleanest lakes you’ll come across. I recommend putting it to the test and doing some fishing while you are there. The Bike rental sells fishing licenses if you still need one. Otherwise yo can fish from shore too.
Fish For Free in Minnesota State Parks
Did you know if you have a Minnesota driver’s License you can fish for free in Minnesota State Parks? The only expectation is if the body of water requires a trout stamp, or if you are in a Recreation Area. To fish for free you must be:
1. Fishing from shore or wading in water within the state park; or
2. Fishing through the ice, from a boat or a float on a designated lake that is completely encompassed within a Minnesota state park.
Click here for the official statue.
Common Questions about Itasca State Park?
Where is Itasca State Park located?
Itasca State Park is located in northern Minnesota, near the towns of Park Rapids and Bemidji.
What is the best way to explore Itasca State Park?
The best way to explore Itasca State Park is by hiking the scenic trails, biking the wilderness roads, or driving the scenic route through the park.
Are there bears at Itaska State Park? Are there Wolves?
Yes, Bears and Wolves both reside in the park. Your best chances of seeing them are the more remote areas of the park. But it’s not unheard of to see them in the campgrounds too on quieter days.
Is there a Swimming Beach At Itasca State Park?
Yes, there is an official swimming beach at Lake Itasca. If you ask the people swimming at the headwaters, they will look at you like you are crazy. If you plan on visits, be respectful and swim at the beach. There is plenty of sand and great views. There is also a great playground nearby with modern equipment and an amphitheater.
How much does it cost?
All Minnesota State Parks are free with an annual permit. You can buy them in person or online for $35. If you are planning to visit for the day, expect to pay around $7. Throughout the year, there are a few free days and other discounts you can check out too.
Camping costs anywhere from $25-35 a night.
Pro Tip: Visit any State Park during one of their free days. Check out Minnesota State Park Pass Hacks, Tips, and Free Days to find all the days
How far is Itasca State Park from Minneapolis?
The official numbers are 3hrs and 43 minutes away from Minneapolis. While you can day trip here, I wouldn’t recommend it. With weekend traffic, expect to spend more time on the road. The park is in the further reaches of the state.
When is the Best Time To Visit Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park is a great place to visit year-round. Summer is the peak time to visit, but unlike most of the state parks, Itasca gets visitors year-round staying on property. With most of the trails open during winter, it’s a great place for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
What if I forgot my Bike, Canoe, Kayak or other equipment?
Don’t worry, they got you covered. Itasca Sports, located inside the park rents out all the gear you’ll need for a great trip!
What lodging options are available near Itasca State Park?
There are many lodging options available near Itasca State Park including cabins, campgrounds, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals.
What is Itasca State Park’s historic Douglas Lodge?
Itasca State Park’s historic Douglas Lodge is a beautifully restored log building that serves as a visitor center, restaurant, and place to stay. It was built in 1905 and is a National Register of Historic Places site.
What is the connection between Itasca State Park and the Gulf of Mexico?
Itasca State Park is the birthplace of the Mississippi River, which flows 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
What makes Itasca State Park a popular destination to explore Minnesota?
Itasca State Park attracts visitors from all over the country with its natural beauty, outdoor activities, rich history, and unique status as the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Looking for more information about Itasca State Park?
There are some great books to read about the parks, but my favorites are those that relate to canoeing down the Mississippi River.
Mississippi Solo is a great fish-out-of-water book about one man’s journey to canoe the Mississippi. He starts out in Itasca State Park with snow falling and on his first night wakes up to a bear outside his tent. Check it out.
Reading more about Itasca State Park:
The Best of Itasca: A Guide to Minnesota’s Oldest State Park by Deane Johnson
Mississippi Solo: A River Quest by Eddy Harris
Would I visit Itasca State Park again?
I would definitely go back to Itasca State Park. During the long weekend, we only scratched the surface of the things to do.
Because of the drought, we were unable to see a large portion of the park. I would love to head back with the bikes and see a new side of the park.
If you’d like some more information about Itasca State Park, make sure to pick up a copy of The Best of Itasca: A Guide to Minnesota’s Oldest State Park.