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, 2,550-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 explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, led by an Ojibwa warrior named Ozaawindib, 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 car) 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.
Accommodations include the rustic Douglas Lodge (866/857-2757, rooms $85-145), as well as a number of other lodges and cabins at varying prices. Just steps from the bike path and beach you’ll find the immaculate, friendly, and bargain-priced HI Mississippi Headwaters Hostel (218/266-3415, starting at $26 per person, plus $28 membership), which has dorms as well as private rooms for four, five, and six people. When not fishing or foraging for your meals, consider the Douglas Lodge Restaurant, where the menu includes regional blueberries, wild rice, and walleye pike.
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.