Some visitors come to Itasca State Park in northern 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. The drastic climate change also means that visitors to the park stay busy all year long, with hiking, boating, swimming, and mountain biking in the summer, and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding during the winter. Those maneuvering big rigs or hauling large trailers will find top-notch facilities here, with large parking spaces, full hookups, and flush toilets.
Itasca State Park, located in Park Rapids, Minnesota, is approximately 214 miles northwest of Minneapolis and about 164 miles southwest of Duluth. RVers heading from either city will find the primary roads, US-2, MN-200, and US-71 easy to navigate and wide enough for large RVs to feel comfortable in most driving conditions. Even RVers driving to or from Fargo, North Dakota along US-10 will find the 100 miles northeast uncomplicated. The brutal winters of Minnesota can often hinder travel plans, as ice and snow are prevalent during the colder months. Those driving large vehicles should be extra vigilant and always check the local forecast and road conditions before heading out.
The park has multiple entrances, and visitors may encounter driving restrictions, such as closed access points, during the winter. Depending on the time of year you visit, follow either the Itasca State Park Summer Map or the Itasca State Park Winter Map for driving, parking, and camping details.
Because of the park’s size, there is ample parking onsite for larger motorhomes and trailers. 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.
Pine Ridge Campground is equipped with 155 sites, 65 with hookups, and two with wheelchair accessibility. Rigs up to 60 feet can be accommodated here. Its scenic location on the shores of Lake Itasca makes if a favorite amongst RV campers. During peak season, guests can use the dump station at Bear Paw campground, and during the off-season, there is one available off of the winter access road in Pine Ridge Campground. Flush toilets are available in the summer, and chemical toilets are available in the winter. Like Bear Paw, it's a forested campground, with even heavier forest cover than the other. Tall trees provide both shade and privacy, and while you won't get much of a view from these campsites, you'll enjoy the feeling of being in the forest. The campground is open from May to October, and reservations can be made up to a year in advance.
Bear Paw Campground offers 79 campsites, and it is open from May through October. Reservations can be made up to a year in advance. Thirty-five sites are full-hookup, eleven are pull-through, and two are wheelchair-accessible. Rigs up to sixty feet can be accommodated. Amenities include showers, restrooms, and a dump station. 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. There are no prizes for guessing that the Lakeview Loop is where you want to stay if you want a campsite that overlooks the water.
There are eleven places where backcountry camping is allowed. Each area has a fire ring and a pit toilet.
One, two, and three-bedroom cabins are available. There are also log housekeeping cabins.
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.
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.
If all the spaces at Itasca State Park are taken, you won't have to travel far to find a place to park the campervan for the night. Two Inlets State Forest is just over a half an hour drive to the south of the park, and Paul Bunyan State Forest is just under a half an hour to the east. Both forests offer RV friendly campgrounds, but visitors should note that there are no hookups, dump stations, or showers, so the name of the game will be primitive style camping at these alternative campgrounds.
If it’s not Doctor Zhivago cold outside, this place is a nice spot to visit during the off-season. 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 onsite to assist visitors and help them learn more about the site.
This cabin is at the end of the one-mile Nicolette Trail, which begins at Wilderness Drive, making it an easy pitstop if you're navigating the Class A along the scenic route. The cabin was built in 1911 and restored in 1995. It was initially a forest fire cabin where rangers were stationed during the fire season. Today, it’s a reminder of the park’s past and also an excellent place to escape the cold, winter wind.
This spot is quite picturesque during winter. A massive 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. Preachers Grove can be accessed via trail, or from the road. If you have time, you should consider a pit stop here during your RV vacation.
Boating on the various lakes in the park is possible throughout the fall, weather permitting. Lake Itasca often freezes during winter, but even in late fall and early spring, it’s usually open. There are several boat launches located throughout the park at all four lakes—Lake Itasca, Ozawindib Lake, Elk Lake, and Mary Lake. If you didn't tow your own watercraft behind the rig, the park offers rentals of motorboats, pontoons, paddleboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes.
During the colder months, snow transforms the park into a winter wonderland. Several cross-country skiing trails, ranging in difficulty from very easy to nearly impossible, are available for skiing. We recommend the relatively easy trail which begins at the Mississippi Headwaters Area and follows Lake Itasca south to the Visitor Center. If you brought the snowmobile along behind the Sprinter, you'll find trails circling the perimeter of the park that can be ridden for miles to cities like Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, and Walker.
Snowshoeing is also a popular wintertime activity in the park, and there are several trails groomed just for this purpose. Popular routes include Mary Lake Trail and LaSalle Trail. Snowshoes can be rented from the park if you don't have your own pair. There is a warming area as well as restrooms located in the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, which is open daily throughout the peak winter season.
If you prefer to stay cozy in the camper, consider checking out the Wilderness Drive, a short, scenic drive that passes through the pristine forests of Itasca State Park. The fall is the perfect time to visit, with the fall foliage in full swing. If you're lucky, you may see various wildlife, as the name suggests, like bears, herons, deer, or beavers. If you're driving a large vehicle, do so with caution. The road is one lane for most of the way, with plenty of sharp turns.
Almost 50 miles of trails crisscross the park. Some highlights include the Dr. Roberts Trail. At the gift shop, visitors can purchase ranger-guided hikes to take along this trail. The orchids are quite pretty in spring and summer. There are also several wheelchair-accessible trails, one of which spans a charming boardwalk that connects Douglas Lodge and the Old Timers’ Cabin.
If you come to Itasca State Park for an RV vacation during the warm weather months, a photo op at one of the state’s largest white pine trees is pretty much mandatory—the tree is about 112 feet high. The Minnesota record red pine is also nearby. This three-hundred-year-old tree is a staggering 120 feet tall.
The Bison Kill Site is a special place. As mentioned, Stone Age hunters came to this area to ambush game animals. The Bison Kill Site, which is between Lake Itasca and Elk Lake, commemorates these hunting activities. Because the park has been around for over 100 years, the Bison Kill Site is almost completely unspoiled. You can almost picture bands of hunters crouching undercover and quietly waiting for the best moment to hurl their stone-tipped spears. You can also drive past this area in the campervan while exploring the Wilderness Drive.
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 Visitor Center bear 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, a swimming area, a fishing area, and a lovely gift shop. There is plenty of parking near the Mississippi Headwaters area, so feel free to park the motorhome nearby and learn about the park's history before heading to your campground.
As mentioned, Itasca State Park summers get warm, so you won't want to forget to pack your bathing suit along in the Airstream. A dip in a cold lake is the best way to beat the heat. Swimming is allowed on Lake Itasca, and 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, a picnic area, and a volleyball court.
When you're in the Land of 10,000 lakes, fishing is a must. Common catches in these parts include walleye, northern pike, muskie, and bass. There are fishing piers located on Itasca Lake and Ozawindib Lake, or you can drop a line from the water via boat. If you didn't tow your own behind the Class B, you could rent one on-site. Be sure you are up to date on your Minnesota fishing license.