Some visitors come to Itasca State Park in Minnesota just to see the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Indeed, this placid pond is perhaps the Park’s largest attraction. But there are plenty of other things to see and do here, both in the summer and winter months.
Itasca State Park is the second-oldest state park in the country. But the history of this area goes back much further than that. About 8,000 years ago, Native American hunters ambushed bison, moose, deer, and other game animals while they were at the watering hole. A few thousand years later, permanent Native American settlers arrived. A few thousand years after that, Jacob Brower campaigned tirelessly to preserve the region’s pine forests from loggers. Largely due to his efforts, the Minnesota legislature created the Park in 1891 by a one-vote margin.
Itasca State Park has a very diverse climate. The winters are almost Siberia cold at times, and summertime temperatures routinely climb into the 80s. This climactic diversity means a great deal of biological diversity. Since 1909, university students and scientists have gathered here to understand and appreciate this diversity a little bit more.
RV Rentals in Itasca State Park
Transportation in Itasca State Park
From Fargo, take U.S. Highway 10 east to Park Rapids. The Good Life Cafe on the corner of Third and Main has good chili, good craft beers, and a nice patio. If you need RV supplies, or just about anything else for that matter, stop at the Walmart on the other side of town. Then, take Park Avenue (U.S. Highway 71) past the Little Mantrap Lake to the Park.
From Minneapolis, take Interstate 94 west to Sauk Centre. There’s a Walmart right off the interstate and an Outsiders-style Dairy Queen on Main Street. You don’t see many of them anymore. Then, continue north on Main Street, which is actually U.S. Highway 71, until you reach the Park.
Use 36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, MN 56470 for a GPS address. Wireless access is spotty at the Park.
This is a big park, so there is also quite a bit of RV parking. There are two parking areas near the South Entrance, and two more along the southern edge of the Park. Further in, there is parking near the Observation Tower, Elk Lake, the Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Mississippi Headwaters area.
Campgrounds and parking in Itasca State Park
Campsites in Itasca State Park
Bear Paw Campground
Seventy-nine site camp which is open from May through October. Thirty-five sites are full-hookup, eleven are pull-through, and two are wheelchair-accessible. Amenities include showers and restrooms.
Sites are generally quite spacious, and there are plenty of tall trees to provide shade. Undergrowth between the sites helps to provide some sense of privacy. No prizes for guessing that the Lakeview loop is where you want to stay if you want a campsite that overlooks the water.
Pine Ridge Campground
155 sites; sixty-five with hookups and two with wheelchair accessibility. It’s on the shores of Lake Itasca. Flush toilets are available in the summer, and chemical toilets are available in the winter. Like Bear Paw, it's a forested site, with if anything even heavier forest cover than the other campground. Tall trees provide both shade a privacy, and while you won't get much of a view from these campsites, you'll enjoy the feeling of being in the forest.
Mississippi Headwaters Hostel
The original Park headquarters building has been wonderfully restored and provides accommodations for up to thirty-one guests. There are six rooms with between four and six beds each. There’s also a large living room with a large stone fireplace and a full kitchen.
This 1905 building has retro 1920s furniture and furnishings. Four person suites and two person guest rooms are available. There is also a clubhouse which accommodates up to twenty-one guests. The clubhouse includes private overnight accommodations.
One, two, and three-bedroom cabins are available. There are also log housekeeping cabins.
There are eleven places where backcountry camping is allowed. Each area has a fire ring and a pit toilet.
Seasonal activities in Itasca State Park
As mentioned, Itasca Park summers get warm. So, a dip in a cold lake usually feels really good. Swimming is allowed on Lake Itasca, where there is also a nice little beach area. There’s also a Civilian Conservation Corps-era log cabin changing house. Other facilities include a play area and a volleyball court.
Back in the day, Mary Gibbs supposedly faced down a group of armed loggers to prevent them from exploiting the forest. So, the Park’s main Mississippi Headwaters museum and visitors’ center bears her name. The museum has lots of hands-on exhibits. There’s a bridge across the Mississippi headwaters, or you can walk across it the old-fashioned way and get your feet wet. Other features include a small grill, swimming area, “fishing” area, and a very nice gift shop.
Bison Kill Site
This is a cool place. As mentioned, Stone Age hunters came to this area to ambush game. The Bison Kill Site, which is between Lake Itasca and Elk Lake, commemorates these activities. Because the Park has been around for over a hundred years, this area is almost completely unspoiled. You can almost picture bands of hunters crouching under cover and quietly waiting for the best moment to hurl their stone-tipped spears.
Big White Pine
If you come to Itasca State Park during the warm weather months, a photo op at one of the state’s largest White Pine trees is pretty much mandatory. It’s about 112 feet high. The Minnesota Record Red Pine is nearby. This three hundred year old tree is 120 feet high.
Almost fifty miles of trails crisscross the Park. Some highlights include the Dr. Roberts Trail. At the aforementioned gift shop, visitors can purchase ranger-guided hikes along this trail. The orchids are quite pretty in spring and summer. There are also sixteen miles of paved bike trails and several wheelchair-accessible trails. One of them spans a charming boardwalk which connects Douglas Lodge and the Old Timers’ Cabin.
There are a number of cross-country skiing trails ranging in difficulty from very easy to nearly impossible. We recommend the relatively easy trail which begins at the Mississippi headwaters and follows Lake Itasca south to the visitors’ center. For something a lot more difficult, try the two-mile Eagle Scout Trail. Let’s just say that the trail lives up to its name.
Boating on the lake is possible, weather permitting. Lake Itasca often freezes during winter. But even in late fall and early spring, it’s normally open. The boat launch is near the Mississippi Headwaters hostel.
This spot is quite picturesque during winter. A huge forest fire in the early 1700s set the stage for this part of the forest. The stand of trees is perched on the shore of the East Fork of Lake Itasca. So, it’s easy to see why church campers once congregated at this spot.
This cabin is at the end of the one-mile Nicolette Trail, which begins at Wilderness Drive. The cabin was built in 1911 and restored in 1995. It was originally a forest fire cabin where rangers were stationed during fire season. Today, it’s a reminder of the Park’s past and also a good place to escape the cold winter wind.
If it’s not Doctor Zhivago cold outside, this place is a nice spot to visit. Excavation began in 1890, but lawmakers soon halted development. Archeologists date the site back to the 1500s and the Woodland Period Indians. Helpful and knowledgeable Native American guides are there to assist visitors and help them learn more about the site.