Visit Itasca State Park – home of the Mississippi River Headwaters
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
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
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 Pioneer Cemetery
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.
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.
Peace Pipe Vista overlooking Lake Itasca
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
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
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.
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).
Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center at Itasca State Park
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
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).
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
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
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.
- Afton State Park | Hastings, MN (26 miles)
- Banning State Park | Sandstone, MN (97 miles)
- Bear Head Lake State Park | Ely, MN (240 miles)
- Beaver Creek Valley State Park | Caledonia, MN (148 miles)
- Big Stone Lake State Park | Ortonville, MN (186 miles)
- Blue Mounds State Park | Luverne, MN (208 miles)
- Buffalo River State Park | Glyndon, MN (240 miles)
- Camden State Park | Lynd, MN (161 miles)
- Carley State Park | Plainview, MN (88 miles)
- Cascade River State Park | Lutsen, MN (257 miles)
- Charles A. Lindbergh State Park | Little Falls, MN (112 miles)
- Crow Wing State Park | Brainerd, MN (134 miles)
- Father Hennepin State Park | Isle, MN (113 miles)
- Flandrau State Park | New Ulm, MN (93 miles)
- Forestville / Mystery Cave State Park | Preston, MN (115 miles)
- Fort Ridgely State Park | Fairfax, MN (99 miles)
- Fort Snelling State Park | Bloomington / St. Paul, MN (2 miles)
- Franz Jevne State Park | Birchdale, MN (336 miles)
- Frontenac State Park | Frontenac, MN (62 miles)
- George H. Crosby Manitou State Park | Finland, MN (231 miles)
- Glacial Lakes State Park | Starbuck, MN (156 miles)
- Glendalough State Park | Battle Lake, MN (194 miles)
- Gooseberry Falls | Two Harbors, MN (197 miles)
- Grand Portage State Park | Grand Portage, MN (308 miles)
- Great River Bluffs State Park | Winona, MN (136 miles)
- Hayes Lake State Park | Roseau, MN (343 miles)
- Hill Annex Mine State Park | Calumet, MN (197 miles)
- Interstate State Park / Taylors Falls State Park | Taylors Falls, MN (56 miles)
- Itasca State Park | Park Rapids, MN (219 miles)
- Jay Cooke State Park | Thomson, MN (146 miles)
- John A. Latsch State Park | Winona, MN (99 miles)
- Judge C.R. Magney State Park | Grand Marais, MN (282 miles)
- Kilen Woods State Park | Lakefield, MN (153 miles)
- Lac qui Parle State Park | Watson, MN (141 miles)
- Lake Bemidji State Park | Bemidji, MN (230 miles)
- Lake Bronson State Park | Karlstad, MN (409 miles)
- Lake Carlos State Park | Alexandria, MN (152 miles)
- Lake Louise State Park | Le Roy, MN (113 miles)
- Lake Maria State Park | Monticello, MN (60 miles)
- Lake Shetek State Park | Currie, MN (168 miles)
- Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park | Soudan, MN (229 miles)
- McCarthy Beach State Park | Side Lake, MN (227 miles)
- Maplewood State Park | Pelican Rapids, MN (217 miles)
- Mille Lacs Kathio State Park | Onamia, MN (108 miles)
- Minneopa State Park | Mankato, MN (82 miles)
- Monson Lake State Park | Sunburg, MN (141 miles)
- Moose Lake State Park | Moose Lake, MN (116 miles)
- Myre-Big Island State Park | Albert Lea, MN (93 miles)
- Nerstrand Big Woods State Park | Nerstrand, MN (52 miles)
- Old Mill State Park | Argyle, MN (350 miles)
- Rice Lake State Park | Owatonna, MN (70 miles)
- St. Croix State Park | Hinckley, MN (105 miles)
- Sakatah Lake State Park | Waterville, MN (60 miles)
- Savanna Portage State Park | Northeast Aitkin, MN (149 miles)
- Scenic State Park | Bigfork, MN (232 miles)
- Schoolcraft State Park | Deer River, MN (198 miles)
- Sibley State Park | New London, MN (128 miles)
- Split Rock Creek State Park | Jasper, MN (202 miles)
- Split Rock Lighthouse State Park | Two Harbors, MN (204 miles)
- Temperance River State Park | Schroeder, MN (239 miles)
- Tettegouche State Park | Silver Bay, MN (217 miles)
- Upper Sioux Agency State Park | Granite Falls, MN (122 miles)
- Whitewater State Park | Altura, MN (99 miles)
- Wild River State Park | Center City, MN (58 miles)
- William O’Brien State Park | Scandia / Marine on the St. Croix, MN (43 miles)
- Zippel Bay State Park | Williams, MN (345 miles)
Join me on my Minnesota State Parks Staycation Challenge
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.