February 14, 2022

Itasca State Park and the Mighty (Little) Mississippi

As an addendum to my last post entitled “My Bucket List is Overflowing,” I thought I’d share with you that yet another item has been added to our Bucket List.  Last week I received an email from our friend, Kevin, which included a comment that he and his wife, Maddison, had added the Rocky Mountaineer to their list.  Of course, Kevin included a link to the website so that Alan and I would start drooling over the company’s train excursions through the Canadian Rockies.  The domed rail cars of the Rocky Mountaineer offer superb views of the dramatic and magnificent mountain scenery, and several different route options are available.  So, our Bucket List runneth over even more, but this time it’s Kevin’s fault, not mine.

When it comes time to write a post, I am easily distracted by anything even remotely related to RVing – or regular travel, for that matter – so I wasn’t surprised to see that my last post documenting our 2015 trip to Minnesota and Michigan was published more than three months ago.  Today’s post will get me back in the saddle, so to speak, and it details our visit to the headwaters of the Mississippi River – the actual destination around which the entire trip was built.  Yes, it was a Bucket List item and, yes, we decided that it was absolutely, positively worthwhile.  Come along, my friends, and join us on the adventure!

Every story starts somewhere, and the story of the Mighty Mississippi River begins at its source - Lake Itasca in Minnesota.  At its point of origin, the very little Mississippi is only 20 to 30 feet wide and shallow enough to stroll carefully across.  When we think of the Mississippi and its storied history, paddle wheelers and commercial barges come to mind, as do intrepid pioneers struggling at dangerous crossings, determined to settle in the west.  What doesn’t come to mind is a lovely and idyllic setting at a small lake in Itasca State Park and, yet, that’s exactly where the mighty river gets its start.  At the headwaters of the Mississippi, water leaves Lake Itasca at the rate of approximately 45 gallons per second.  By the time the river reaches New Orleans, the average flow rate is 4,488,312 gallons per second.  Don’t believe me?  Check out “Mississippi River Facts” on the National Park Service website – link HERE.  (Keep in mind that one cubic foot of water equals 7.48052 gallons.)  Along the way, the tiny little river transforms itself into the Mighty Mississippi - the second longest river in North America.  (The Missouri River is longer by approximately 100 miles.  Yes, I wanted to know, too.)

The humble beginnings of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca

Alan, our daughter, Kyra (who was 16 at the time), and I made the drive to Itasca State Park from our base camp at Lake Bemidji State Park in just under an hour.  Itasca State Park is a gorgeous park, and I think we could have easily spent two full days enjoying it.  (Note to self: Remember that for next time.)  The three of us drove through the park, rode the bike trail, tried to have lunch at the Douglas Lodge (yes, tried) and visited the headwaters of the Mississippi twice that day.

In addition, we could have enjoyed the swimming beach, hiked on one of the many trails, paddled our kayaks on a quiet lake or taken a boat tour of Lake Itasca.  Fun facts: Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest State Park (established in 1891), includes more than 32,000 acres and contains more than 100 lakes!  The entire state of Minnesota, known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” actually has more than 11,000 of them.

Now, about that lunch . . . According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the Douglas Lodge (which is located within Itasca State Park, along the southern shore of Lake Itasca) was built in 1905 and is the oldest surviving building in the Minnesota State Park system.  That might explain why, when we stopped at the Douglas Lodge for lunch that day, most of the power in the kitchen was out.  Our server was a real gem – a lovely and friendly young woman with a “can do” attitude that just wouldn’t quit (even though the electricity did).  She gamely squeezed a few final soft drinks out of the soda fountain, and moved a microwave to one of the few remaining working outlets in the kitchen just so she could warm up some pastries leftover from breakfast that morning for us.

I have to admit, this was one of the best lunches I never had.  Our young server’s sense of humor kept everyone’s spirits buoyed, and she just about begged us to come back for dinner because she knew we wouldn’t be disappointed.  When we told her we intended to ask for her when we returned later, she delivered the bad news that her shift would be over.  We were ridiculously disappointed, and it was rather odd to feel so strongly about someone we had just met.  We did return for supper, and I will say that our server’s recommendation was spot on.  The chefs at the Lodge favor Minnesota grown ingredients, so expect to see walleye, cheese curds, wild rice and other North Woods specialties on the menu, including regional wines and beers.  We enjoyed a scrumptious meal with entertainment provided by the hummingbirds patronizing the feeder outside our window.  Let me tell you, we’d go back to the Douglas Lodge in a heartbeat.

I highly recommend the walleye - it was delicious!

The Douglas Lodge also offers, well, lodging.  Overnight guests can choose one of several upstairs rooms in the Lodge itself, or suites in the nearby log structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938.  The accommodations are rustic but charming, and I do believe they would offer a traveler a delightful experience.  Especially if the electricity is working.  Wink, wink.

The main part of Douglas Lodge that includes the dining rooms

So, enough about the Lodge, you’re thinking.  What about the headwaters of the Mississippi?  First, allow me to share a practical and important tip.  (Make a note, Laurel!)  If you are the kind of person who enjoys quiet reflection at places like this or is inclined toward capturing scenic and serene photographic images, time your visit to the headwaters carefully.  We were visiting in late July during Kyra’s summer vacation from school.  When we first arrived at the headwaters in the early afternoon, it was more like a sea of humanity than the origin of a river.  Wisely, we returned later in the day around 5:00 p.m. and literally had the entire place to ourselves for about 30 minutes.  If crowds are not to your liking, be sure to plan your visit to the headwaters for early morning or evening.  You will thank me later. 

I "sea" a little too much humanity.

So, what did I think about the one destination around which the entire trip was built?  I LIVE for unusual attractions and experiences like this, and if they're off the beaten path that's fine by me.  So, maybe I’m a bit biased toward this humble little river flowing out of a quiet and scenic lake.

When I stood at the headwaters of the Mississippi, I was thinking about the river at flood stage when we were in St. Louis some years back.  I was thinking about the steamboats and paddle wheelers that plied her waters, the towns that were built because of the resources the river provided and transported, and the many, many people who were born, lived and died on the river, because of the river.  The Mississippi is the stuff of legends, the driving force behind fortunes won and lost, and it remains at the heart of our country even as it divides it.  The experience was magical and the memories are sweet.



  1. Hi, Mary,
    "The face of the water in time became a wonderful book..." Mark Twain. Seeing the starting point for the Mighty Mississippi had to be a fun experience. We saw the early stages of the river in Minneapolis and couldn't fathom how that narrow stream grew to a mile wide in places. Thanks for sharing! Joe

    1. Love the quote, Joe - so appropriate and true! There was a spot in the park where the Mississippi narrowed down to about four feet wide. It sort of felt like knowing someone before they became famous - a bit surreal, actually. We're all so used to seeing the big, wide Mississippi in photos. If you travel the interior roads of Minnesota, you end up crossing the river multiple times due to its meandering course. It got to the point where we were laughing about it. "Look! The Mississippi River. Again!" Thanks for stopping by and enjoy the rest of your travels!

  2. You make Lake Itasca sound and look so appealing! And I appreciate the personal tip about the best time to visit the headwaters. :-) Now I'm going to be busy trying to figure out if there is any way that we can squeeze this into our summer plans. I had everything carefully mapped out, and as you know, it's like a jigsaw puzzle to put together travel plans these days. I've made most of our reservations already. This may mean that Lake Itasca is going to have to go on our list!

    Speaking of lists, the Rocky Mountaineer has recently been added to our bucket list, too. Eric's sister and brother-in-law will be doing a 14-day excursion in August. Although we generally prefer traveling by RV, it looks like an incredible journey! So hopefully someday?

    1. I'm laughing, Laurel, because that's what always happens to me when I read travel blogs. The Oh Wow I Want to Go There Too Syndrome. I don't think anyone has found a cure yet. Meanwhile, I'm tripping over our Bucket List.

      Please, please, please report back on your sister-in-law and brother-in-law's trip on the Rocky Mountaineer! The logistics do deserve some consideration. I'd love to have the RV out west with us and store it somewhere while we're on the train. It seems a shame to go all the way out there and not extend the trip. But, as you said, someday. Enclosed spaces like that while COVID remains a threat don't appeal right now, and I'm guessing you and Eric might feel the same.

      Congratulations on getting most of your reservations in place for your summer trip! It's always such a relief when that's done!

  3. Hi Mary! Thanks for sharing this adventure with us. We live in Portland, Oregon and tow an A-liner trailer. We've camped all along the Oregon coast and never grow tired of the majestic views.
    In regards to the Rocky Mountaineer, we took the California Zephyr which starts in Emeryville. Ca. near Berkeley all across the United States in a sleeping car. Then, we changed trains at Chicago Union Station and took the Lakeshore Limited to New York! One of the greatest trips going through the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountain ranges. You see all the little towns that make up this great country of ours. Put this one on your list and go when you feel ready. We are fortunate that the coast or mountains are just an hour away if we want to go on a camping get away. So much to see and explore here in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks again, Russ in Portland

    1. Hi, Russ! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to introduce yourself and comment. We have friends who traveled cross-country by train twice and said they were two of the best trips they've ever taken. I do agree that it's a wonderful way to see this grand and glorious country of ours. Okay, so I'll admit to being a wee bit envious of your location. Alan and I absolutely love the Oregon coast. In fact, we had planned a return trip in 2020 that was derailed by COVID. (Sorry, couldn't let that reference to rail travel go by.) You certainly do have plenty of magnificent places to camp in your state alone, never mind the entire Pacific Northwest. Enjoy all of your upcoming adventures!

  4. Okay, I'm hooked, too, on the Mountaineer. Please send first class tickets as soon as possible; a real friend would do that. And I enjoyed revisiting the headwaters of the Mississippi (I had seen a TV show about a couple of guys who traveled the entire length in a small boat--very interesting. You've got a little while on the tickets; it's a bit too cold up there right now. Nice piece, Mary.

    1. Wow! A boat trip down the entire length of the Mississippi - that must have been a memorable adventure. Kind of like a Route 66 trip in liquid form! Mike, I AM a real friend. I already booked you and Sandy for a mid-August trip on the Rocky Mountaineer. Your tickets are on the way. I just hope they don't get lost in the mail. That would be such a shame.

    2. Yeah, that would really be surprising, wouldn't it? Ha Ha!


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