The Great River Road

The GRR begins here among the cattails and tall pines, in the park that protects the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. The small, clear brook tumbling out of the north end of Lake Itasca will eventually carry runoff from nearly two-thirds of the United States and enough silt to make the muddy plume at the river’s mouth visible from space. But at its headwaters, 2,320-odd meandering miles from the Gulf of Mexico, you can wade across the Mississippi, and the water is still so clean and clear you can see the bottom.

The Mississippi’s humble beginnings were the object of chest-thumping adventurers and the subject of not-so-scholarly debate for decades before an Ojibwa warrior named Ozaawindib led explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft here. He determined this lake to be the true source of the nation’s most legendary river in 1832. Schoolcraft’s story, the tale of the battle to protect the park against logging, and lots of other Mississippi facts are found at the Visitor Center (218/699-7251, year-round, $5 per group) just inside the park’s north entrance. Skeptics will also find out why professional geographers don’t consider the two smaller lakes and the five creeks that feed Itasca competition for the headwaters title.

The fact that the lakeshore has been “improved” from its naturally marshy state, the surrounding old-growth pine forest—the most extensive stand of virgin timber left in the state—and outdoorsy amenities such as paved bike trails, boat launches, and a café near the “official headwaters,” all contribute to Itasca’s popularity. Bike and boat rentals (218/266-2150) are available spring through fall.

If you’re not fishing or foraging for your meals, consider the restaurant at the rustic Douglas Lodge (866/857-2757, rooms $85 and up). The menu features regional blueberries, wild rice, and walleye pike. It’s also a good place to spend the night. There are a number of other lodges and cabins at varying prices.

No matter when or how long you visit Lake Itasca, or anywhere in Minnesota, really, be sure to pack plenty of potent repellent for ticks and mosquitoes.

Maps of the Great River Road in Minnesota

Map of the Great River Road through Northern Minnesota.
Map of the GRR through Northern Minnesota.
Map of the Great River Road through Southern Minnesota.
Map of the GRR through Southern Minnesota.

Related Travel Guides for The Great River Road