I can see why Itasca State Park gets over half a million visitors each year.
Coming from Minneapolis, it’s not too bad of a drive, and it has a number of features that welcome young families and experienced backpackers alike.
While Minnesota’s state parks are all nicely groomed, showcasing respected recreational areas, Itasca seems to encompass and reflect the best of what the state has to offer, including the main attraction: the Mississippi Headwaters.
I took a trip to Itasca State Park for the first time over Father’s Day weekend with my girlfriend, Ashley.
Entering Itasca State Park
The more backpacking trips I can take, the better.
I try at almost every turn to opt for backpacking over camping because it’s a way deeper into the woods and often a quieter stay — not that I have anything against camping.
Itasca State Park has a handful of backpack-in campsites that are away from the main campgrounds, sitting one to five miles away from parking areas in the southern half of park. Campsites B7, B8 and B9 are near Myrtle Lake.
Coming from the Twin Cities, it’s likely you’ll enter the park from the southern entrance.
One of the first things you should know before driving into the park is that it can be awfully tempting to steal glances at the many lakes, trails and seemingly endless number of pines that welcome you to the north.
As you wind your way through the park’s entrance, check in. If you stay in a backpack-in campsite, it’s often the state park wants to sign you in for safety reasons.
After checking in, I grabbed a bundle of firewood from the visitor center and drove to Douglas Lodge to park in a nearby lot.
I parked the car, popped the truck and swung my pack onto my shoulders. We set off.
Backpacking to B8
Itasca State Park offers over 45 miles of hiking trails that wind through the 33,000-acre park, remaining fairly moderate in terms of difficulty.
We watched the forecast all week. Leading up to Friday, it didn’t look good. But then it did. Then, nope, it didn’t again.
It rained Friday on and off. Luckily, it stopped before we got into the park, but the overcast, windless day gave way to the groups of black flies and mosquitoes that live near the many puddles and lakes in the park.
That’s just a part of the game, though. Be prepared for it.
From Douglas Lodge, site B8 was around two miles away. You walk past the lodges, down the gravel road. Then, get on Deer Park Trail.
Deer Park Trail was named by the Civilian Conservation Corps after an “extremely high deer population in the park during the 1930s,” according to the park guide.
Taking this way, it’s a fairly straight shot in, giving you the chance to admire your surroundings without overthinking your route.
Even though the rain seemed to usher in the buzzing insects, the forest couldn’t have been more inviting.
The plant life was slightly overgrown, radiating various shades of green with bright beads of water on the grass, leaves and wildflowers.
On our way, the trails were mostly dirt, before turning into grassy pathways farther in. The landscape changed slightly, too, as we continued down the trail.
The tall pines became more prominent, lining the trail’s edge, still allowing a clear sight into the forest.
A little while down, we came to a point on the trail where we were between two lakes, one being Deer Park Lake. The bushes on both sides had grown tall, with purple, white and yellow wildflowers trying to make a place among the various green plants. The rain helped.
Coming around the slight bend was one of the largest snapping turtles I’ve seen in Minnesota, with a shell well over a foot in length.
Its large black shell stood out in overgrown grass. We approached slowly, trying to avoid disturbing it more than we already had.
Creeping closer, we quickly found that our presence was disturbance enough.
Snapping turtles can become aggressive on land, and as we tried walking along the opposite side of the trail, the turtle prepared its hind legs to lunge, its large jaws lined with my ankles. We backed off again.
The turtle did the same, nesting into the taller grass along its edge of the trail. We approached again, giving it space and made it passed without trouble. This wasn’t our last run-in with turtles this weekend since June is a busy time for laying eggs.
Carrying on, we passed a wooden sign reading “Myrtle Lake” and down the way, there was our site, surrounded by a clear lake and an old growth forest.
Setting Up Camp
The site itself had seen a rough night, seemingly. Garbage was scattered throughout the site, young trees were poorly cut and a fair amount of uncooked rice, among other foods, were left in the fire ring, having failed to burn.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve run into this, which is why I bring it up.
Rain, horse flies, a frightened snapping turtle and a heavy pack do not make for a poor camping experience — but, a clear demonstration of irresponsibility can dampen it.
The first half hour spent in camp was dedicated to cleaning up after those who came before us. We gathered the garbage, food and all else and packed it up so that we could throw it out the next day.
In no way did this ruin our experience at Itasca State Park, but situations like this are good reason to call out at least one way to help make spending time outdoors better for you and the next person: Everything you pack in, you pack out, garbage, food, the works.
After that, we got a fire going without too much trouble from the damp ground and fire ring.
The rest of our time in the campsite was smooth sailing, especially the next day. Saturday, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. The site overlooks the lake, and when the sun is out, the undisturbed surface mirrors overhanging trees, clouds and blue sky.
It’s almost hard to leave the site because there is more than enough to admire there alone. But, Itasca State Park has many attractions, and a weekend isn’t enough time to see all of them, so we spent Saturday with a few things in mind.
The Mississippi Headwaters
There can be a night and day difference when it comes to visiting the headwaters.
Lake Itasca pours over a 12-foot long barrier of large rocks, where visitors hold their arms out to balance as they walk across. The Mississippi flows gently, starting its 2,552-mile journey south. At only a foot deep and clear as day, this area becomes busy as visitors swim, take photos and gather at this historic point in the state of Minnesota.
However, if you come early, before anybody else, the chatter from the visiting crowds is gone. You can hear the wind rustle the trees, while the natural sounds of the flowing water turns from a still lake into a great river.
I recommend both experiences because this monument offers both a tourist attraction and central point of former wilderness.
Once you’ve had your fill of the headwaters, there are many activities to take part in. Down the road is a place to rent kayaks, canoes, bikes and other outdoor gear. Or, you can stay on the lake and fish.
The clouds came in before we could start paddling. Thunder came with them, lightning too.
Rather than get caught out in the storm, we took to the road and drove part of the Wilderness Drive, another of the park’s main attractions.
“This drive takes visitors into the heart of the forests of Itasca,” the park guide said. The 10-mile road gives drivers and cyclists alike a chance to observe wildlife, including bald eagles, gray wolves, white-tail deer, black bears, otters and more. It narrows off to a one way after the first three miles, running north to south.
After that, we stopped to hike along Lake Itasca at different points before heading back. The sky still looked like rain until after we made it back to camp. It cleared as the afternoon came in, giving the sun a chance to stay for a while.
The evening was clear and quiet. We spent some time fishing, but mostly sat around camp after eating dinner, which might not have been the case if we decided to stay in the drive-in campgrounds. But, as the evening cooled off and we let the fire die out, I think our time at B8 was well spent all the same.
About the Park
Jacob V. Brower, a land surveyor and lawyer, went to the region in the late 1800s to settle disputes of the Mississippi River’s source, where he also saw the effects of logging. Brower helped get legislation passed that led to Itasca State Park’s establishment in 1891, keeping the land from being further exposed to logging.
“The key reason for the park’s existence is for the preservation of the old growth red and white pine, as well as the lakes and Mississippi River,” the park’s guide said.
Because of these early actions, 25 percent of northern Minnesota’s old red and white pine growth is retained in the 50 square miles of Itasca State Park, according to the park guide.
Interestingly enough, it seems that the majority of visitors to the park come to see the great Mississippi River’s start, but they are lured back by the rest of the park’s landscape.
“We come for the river, but we return for the pines,” the guide said.