Tree in Itasca State Park over looking Lake Itasca
Itasca State Park is one of the best MN state parks for hiking, boating, fishing and camping – it’s also home to Lake Itasca and the Mississippi River Headwaters

Visit Itasca State Park – home of the Mississippi River Headwaters

Path in the forest Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park and the second oldest in the U.S. The first is Niagara Falls State Park in New York.

Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park and the second oldest in the United States. And with more than 32,500 acres, it’s the second largest state park (second only to St. Croix State Park in Hinckley, Minn., which is 33,895 acres). Located about four hours northwest of the Twin Cities, Itasca State Park is home to the Mississippi River Headwaters, 45 miles of hiking trails, really tall and really old pine trees (200+ years old), a 100-ft. fire tower you can climb, historical sites, camping, fishing, boating and so much more.* With so much to explore, it’s one of the best MN state parks.

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Itasca State Park Historical Sites

Itasca State Park path in the woods
Itasca State Park in Minnesota not only offers a lot of outdoor adventures, it’s also full of history – making it one of the best MN state parks.

Established in 1891 to protect the forests and waters around the Mississippi River Headwaters, Itasca State Park attracts about 500,000 visitors annually. I’m all about history, and Itasca State Park has a lot of stories to tell. It was named as a National Natural Landmark in 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places eight years later.

And getting that state park historic designation was not easy. It only passed by one vote. Very grateful that every vote counts so we can all enjoy the breathtaking beauty and virgin red pine forests of Itasca State Park.

Itasca State Park was originally formed by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. While Lake Itasca is well-known as the source of the Mississippi River (a lot of controversy on that topic I’ll save for another time), the park actually contains more than 150 lakes – most of them concealed under the dense forest.

Here are just a few of the top historical and archaeological points of interest and things to do at Itasca State Park – ranked as one of the top MN state parks.

Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center at Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park Visitor Center Sign
Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center at Itasca State Park is a must-stop – loaded with all kinds of cool exhibits.

Make the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center your first stop. Here’s where you can get all your Itasca State Park information and maps and look over the educational and historical exhibits. You’ll also find a gift shop, vending machines and restrooms here.

Itasca State Park Visitor Center Interior
Inside Itasca State Park’s visitor center.

Itasca State Park Pioneer Cemetery

Pioneer Cemetery Sign
One of the historical stops at Itasca State Park is the Pioneer Cemetery, established in 1898.

Minimal information is available for the Pioneer Cemetery in Itasca State Park – many times only the date of death recorded on the grave markers is known. One exception is the cemetery’s founder, William McMullen, who owned a small ranch and resort in Itasca. As fate would have it, he became the second of only 14 people buried in Pioneer Cemetery – the same year it was established in 1898.

Old cemetery in the woods
Pioneer Cemetery is the final resting place for 14 early settlers.

According to the Pioneer Cemetery interpretative sign, McMullen and his friend Nelson Rust were illegally deer hunting in Itasca State Park. Records indicate that Rust mistook McMullen’s white scarf for a white-tailed deer and shot and killed his friend. While he claimed it was an accident, Rust was tried for murder and acquitted – although McMullen’s friends were not convinced it was an accident.

Path in the woods
One of the gravesites at Pioneer State Park at Itasca State Park.

Peace Pipe Vista overlooking Lake Itasca

Platform in the woods to view Lake Itasca in Minnesota
You’ll find Peace Pipe Vista at Itasca State Park between Pioneer Cemetery and Preachers Grove.

Not sure about the historical significance of Peace Pipe Vista, but it does offer a pretty trail among the trees and a viewing platform overlooking Lake Itasca. Peace Pipe Vista at Itasca State Park is located between Pioneer Cemetery and Preachers Grove

Itasca State Park Preachers Grove

Tall red pine trees looking up at sky
You’ll find beautiful towering pine trees at Preachers Grove in Itasca State Park – some as old as 280 years old.

Preachers Grove in Itasca State Park is a beautiful area of 280-year-old pine trees, which began growing after a major forest fire in the 1710s. I found it interesting to learn that red pines depend on fires to reproduce. Since the development of forest fire prevention, it’s necessary to intentionally start fires in red pine forests (called prescribed burnings) to remove shrubbery and open the tree canopy so sun can reach the ground. Otherwise, the red pines would be fighting for survival among other trees such as spruce, fir, maple and basswood

Itasca State Park Bison Kill Site

This area within Itasca State Park dates back 8,000 years in what’s known as the Early Eastern Archaic period. The Itasca Bison Kill Site gets its name from the fossil remains of extinct bison found in this area.

Native American burial mounds at Itasca State Park

It was a little disturbing to learn that 800-year-old Native American burial mounds were partially excavated in the late 1800s at Itasca State Park. Fast forward about a century and the Native American (or Woodland people) remains were reburied in 10 burial mounds. These Native American grave sites are now protected by law and local nations provide direction on its maintenance.

Great cardio workout and beautiful views at Itasca State Park’s 100-ft. Aiton Heights Fire Tower

Fire tower in the woods
Climbing Aiton Heights Fire Tower at Itasca State Park was one of my highlights.

Highly recommend climbing the historic 100-ft. Aiton Heights Fire Tower for some great views of Itasca State Park above the tree canopy. You’ll find several interpretative signs on the way up, which explains all the different strata or layers.

This fire tower was a different experience from my first fire tower climb at St. Croix State Park. Aiton Heights Fire Tower only allows six people at a time, is a little shaky and becomes very narrow at the top. But the views are still worth the wait and the climb.

And worth hiking through masses of mosquitoes. I wish I had known about Aunt Fannie’s DEET-free mosquito repellent wipes when I hiked at Lake Itasca State Park. I started using Aunt Fannie’s products this year and absolutely love them. I haven’t had a single mosquito bite this summer where I’ve applied these wipes. Please note that If you choose to click on the link and purchase any of Aunt Fannie’s products (some other cool chemical-free products for pests and for cleaning), I may receive compensation as part of their Refer-A-Friend program. I only recommend products and services I use or would consider using myself.

View of trees and sunset
Incredible views from the top of Aiton Heights Fire Tower at Itasca State Park.

Aiton Heights Fire Tower was one of six observation towers in Itasca. Initially, they were used to help survey crew calculate distances and elevations. Later, they were used to spot fires. Aiton Heights Fire Tower is one of only six decommissioned fire towers still standing in Minnesota (five of which you can climb when open – fire towers are currently closed due to the pandemic).

View from fire tower looking over trees
Another view on the way up to the top of Aiton Fire Tower in Itasca State Park.

Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center at Itasca State Park

Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center
Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center is a must-stop to learn more about the namesake’s role in protecting Itasca State Park’s pine trees.

You’ll definitely want to spend some time at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center before taking the short trail to the Mississippi Headwaters – the top thing to do at Itasca State Park.

Mary Gibbs was a force of nature fighting to protect nature. The first female park commissioner in North America, Gibbs stood up to loggers (even threatened her with a gun) to protect the park’s pine trees in 1903 – demanding that they lower the level of the water that had been dammed. They backed down and obeyed.

You’ll find several natural and historical exhibits under the portico outside the Mary Gribbs Mississippi Headwaters Center – a self-guided history tour from 8,000 years ago to the 17th century. Note that while this interpretative center at Itasca State Park is open, the gift shop is currently closed due to the pandemic. The Headwaters Cafe recently opened for walk-up window service only.

Walk across the Mississippi River Headwaters

Mississippi River Source sign
The Mississippi River starts at Itasca State Park. The headwaters are so shallow you can actually wade across.

Before I get into the really cool stuff about the Mississippi River Headwaters – where you can actually walk or wade across where the great might river begins – a word of caution.

On the backside of the Itasca State Park map that you can download or obtain from the visitor center, heed that very first visitor tip: The headwaters rocks are slippery, use caution.

Yes, I may or may not have heeded and I may or may not have fallen into the Mississippi River. I didn’t want to get wet, but I ended up soaked (and fortunately no serious injuries other than a couple of bruises).

Mississippi River Headwaters Sign
Itasca State Park – Mississippi River Headwaters

Many people are surprised to learn the Mississippi River’s origins begin in Minnesota in Itasca State Park. And while the actual starting point had some contentious debate back in the day, the 2,552-mile-long Mississippi River begins its journey running out of Lake Itasca. It’s only about 20 feet wide and no more than knee-deep so you can wade across.

Pay no attention to the kids scrambling easily from rock to rock. Wade across.

For a sneak peek of the Mississippi River headwaters, check out Itasca State Park’s webcam.

More than 30 hiking trails at Itasca State Park

Hiking trail in the forest with steps
You’ll find more 30 hiking trails at Itasca State Park – the second largest state park in Minnesota.

You’ll find more than 30 hiking trails at Itasca State Park to get away from it all. Trail difficulty levels are easy to moderate for the most part (at least the ones we explored). Itasca State Park trail distances range from 80 feet to 9.4 miles.

To help plan your hiking adventures at Itasca State Park, view and download the map from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website.

Take the scenic route on Wilderness Drive

While Itasca State Park offers 45 miles of hiking trails, you can also bike on a 16-mile paved and off-road paved trail or take a scenic drive along the 10-mile Wilderness Drive to reach many of the historical and nature sites. You’ll find more than 20 interpretive signs that provide you background on the top things to do at Itasca State Park.

Other top things to do at Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park is one of my favorite Minnesota state parks – a perfect destination for camping, fishing, hiking and more.

Here are a few other top things to do at Itasca State Park – the third most-visited state park in Minnesota. Fortunately, there’s enough space for ample social distancing to get away from it all.

  • Camping – cabins, tents, lodge, yurt, RVs, etc. (reservations required)
  • Fishing – many fishing opportunities on the 1.8 square miles of Lake Itasca throughout the year – even ice fishing
  • Boat tours – narrated history and wildlife tour on a two-story 141-passenger excursion boat
  • I Can! Programs – learn new outdoor skills such as camping, paddling, mountain biking, fishing, archery
  • Free Junior Park Naturalist Program – an opportunity for kids ages 7 to 12 to learn and earn patches

Minnesota state park planning tips

Before you visit any of the 66 Minnesota state parks such as Itasca State Park, check out these helpful state park online resources provided on the Minnesota DNR website.*

  • Minnesota State Parks and Trails Hiking Club – check out this website page to learn more about the hiking club trails you’ll find at Minnesota state parks and recreational areas
  • Minnesota State Parks and Trails Passport Club – join this fun program, get stamped, journal and earn rewards for free camping
  • Minnesota LakeFinder – data for more than 4,500 of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers   
  • Minnesota ParkFinder – find one of the Minnesota state parks by map or alphabetically, take virtual tours and purchase your daily or annual vehicle permits online    
  • Minnesota River levels – find a Minnesota water trail by a pdf or interactive map or alphabetically and also check river levels and conditions
  • Minnesota Fall Color Finder – find when and where Minnesota is peaking during fall foliage leaf-peeping season
  • Minnesota snow depth and trail conditions – a great resource when planning a ski trip or snowmobile outing in Minnesota
  • Minnesota boating – a helpful resource identifying thousands of trailer and carry-in water accesses for boaters – canoes, kayaks, pontoons, speed boats, etc.
  • Minnesota GeoPDF maps – I am directionally challenged so love this feature when visiting the Minnesota state parks. And sometimes the state parks are pretty remote without any service. You’ll need internet access to download the maps initially before you visit the Minnesota state parks; however, they will function without mobile device or internet service once installed. Types of maps include Minnesota DNR recreation base map, most Minnesota state parks, OHV and snowmobile trails, hiking and water trails, some Minnesota state forests, trout stream angling, Minnesota water and boating access.

*Please check the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website for the latest seasonal updates.

Best Minnesota state parks near me

How far away is the best Minnesota state park near you? Most likely within 50 miles or less if you’re in Minnesota. Here is a list of all 66 Minnesota state parks with distances from the Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport.

Join me on my Minnesota State Parks Staycation Challenge

View from a fire tower overlooking tree canopy

If you’re planning to stay closer to home this summer, join me on a State Parks Staycation Challenge. I’ve now been to 10 of the 66 Minnesota state parks. So I’m challenging myself to see as many state parks as I can in 2020. If you’d like to join me on my Minnesota State Parks Staycation Challenge (or create one for your state), check out my post for details.

Not from Minnesota? Then check out some other top state parks in the U.S. according to a network of travel bloggers.

What to pack on a day hike

And before you head out to do some day hiking at Minnesota state parks, check out my favorite hiking products to bring along. And this list makes for a great gift guide for day hikers.

For those who are directionally challenged or don’t know weeds from flowers, check out my favorite day hiking apps.

Pin it for later – Top things to do at Itasca State Park

Pin it for later: Top things to do at Itasca State Park – part of my Best State Parks in Minnesota

Related posts: Top things to do in Minnesota

Tall trees in Minnesota
Take the Minnesota State Parks Challenge
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A local’s guide to the most scenic drive in Minnesota: The North Shore along Lake Superior
Lighthouse on cliff in autumn fall
Best places to visit in Minnesota for fall foliage
Things to do in Minnesota
A local’s guide to the best lakes in Minnesota
Best lakes in Minnesota
A local’s guide to the best of the best lakes in the land of 10,000 lakes – Minnesota


Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller


  1. Loving your posts about Minnesota and surrounds. Especially the national parks! Love to visit and explore. especially those peace pipe views. hehehe we could smoke a peace pipe there!

      1. O can see why it was designated a historical park. I love hiking so its great that it has so many trails to choose from but those who have to drive are still able to see some of the sights

  2. This park looks like a great place to explore with plenty of activities! I’d love to climb that fire tower and see the views from the top! It’s also nice that there’s a wide variety of hiking opportunities for all levels.

  3. What a great state park! I had no idea the Mississippi River headwaters were in Minnesota! Love the fact about the red pines and the controlled fires. 🙂

    Really interesting post!

  4. I’m learning so much about Minnesota just from reading your blogs Karen! Itasca looks like the perfect place for a staycation and with clearly so much to explore. It’s also great that there are a range of activities for the whole family to join in too.

  5. I’m loving your State Park Challange, such a fabulous idea! The Fire Tower in Itasca will definitely give you a workout… but the views look like they’re worth it!

  6. What a beautiful state park! I’d love to explore this area. How cool would it be to see where the Mississippi River starts! Love the trails and the history, and the views from the fire tower are awesome! Great pictures!

    1. That was super cool to see where the river gets its start – pretty symbolic on how great things have humble beginnings and you have to start somewhere.

  7. It’s a shame how McMullen was killed. So sad. I love the peace pipe vista, so beautiful. In fact, every view seems to be so beautiful from the Mississippi headwaters to the view atop the fire tower. What a great state park to visit.

  8. This looks like an amazing Park! This is exactly the type of place we love to explore; it’s definitely going on our bucket list! Thanks for sharing!

  9. This state park seems to have a lot of different things to do. I like that there’s a visitors center with a lot of information, and I love the fire tower. Would love to climb it and see the view.

  10. I love your Minnesota posts! This looks like a great place. Confession: I didn’t know the Mississippi River started in Minnesota!

    1. Thank you…I’m all about history and discovering how little I know about the state I’ve lived in for the past 27 years.

    1. Not many crowds when we hit below zero degrees in January and February. I’m not a fan of winter so don’t advise it unless you love the cold. Summer months are the busiest; beginning of October is a great time to visit especially because of the fall foliage and fewer crowds.

  11. Minnesota looks like a great state to enjoy the outdoors! I’ve really only been to the Mall of America, so I guess I’ve got some more to explore.

  12. What a gorgeous park! I amazed at how much history there is to learn about each park. These are not just here for recreation, but for people to learn the history of their state. I look forward to reading more.

    1. Thanks. I’m learning so much about our state’s history while enjoying the beautiful scenery of our state parks in Minnesota.

  13. What an awesome resource for this park! Next time I’m there I must visit Preacher’s Grove and climb the fire tower. The climb sounds a bit scary but the views you photographed are fantastic! Sorry to hear you took a tumble while crossing the headwaters–I swear it was easier years ago, or maybe I was just younger haha 😉

  14. Seeing all these gorgeous outdoors photos reminds me I need to get hiking more! I’d love to climb that fire tower – looks like you can get some great views and shots up there!!

  15. Loved the memories this post brought back. I used to live in Bemidji and remember finding the novelty of jumping across the source of the Mississippi at Itasca. Thanks for sharing.

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