What’s your mental image of the Mississippi River? If it’s a huge river filled with paddle boats playing Jazz music, it’s probably similar to most American’s thoughts on the Mighty Mississippi. However, at the headwaters, the “mighty” river is anything but huge—it’s a nicely flowing stream, only knee deep, and two people could probably stand in the water and touch both banks. We tried spanning it with eight people, and found we couldn’t—the river was too narrow! The headwaters themselves are located in Itasca State Park, a placid little park in central Minnesota, and a short (800-ft) leads to the headwaters themselves. This location is a favorite for swimming, wading, and generally gawking at the fact that a river so small could drain the entire US from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies!
To get to Itasca State Park, from the town of St. Cloud, take US-10 North for approximately 33 miles (mileage will depend on where in St. Cloud you start). Then keep left onto ramp, and drive an additional 55 miles on US-10. In the town of Wadena, turn Right onto US-71 and head north. After 55 miles, turn Left onto SR-200 and drive 6.5 miles. You will pass the south and east entrances to Itasca State Park. Turn left into the north entrance, and follow the signs to the Mississippi Headwaters. You will need to turn Right at the T and then take an almost immediate Left into the parking lot. This is a large parking lot, but it would probably be full on a summer weekend. We visited on a Monday in August, and it was very busy; I couldn’t get over how popular the Headwaters were. When we had visited early in the morning in late August several years earlier, we had the place to ourselves. Granted, we couldn’t even figure out how to pay on that trip as they were building a visitor center at the headwaters, but, hey, it was cool then and it’s still cool now!
We got to the parking area around 4:00pm and headed over to the visitor center. A huge relief map outside shows the Mississippi River as it flows from here to the Gulf of Mexico, some 2,552 miles away. It’s quite interesting, and even had some real water flowing down it…I don’t think that was intentional, though. 🙂 Anyway, there are restrooms in the visitor center (the doors are outside of the center itself, under the huge porch-like area), and a water fountain with a spicket on your left if you’re facing the parking area. The trail to the Headwaters begins to the right of the visitor center. Alternatively, you could take the trail next to the drinking fountain, and simply go across the bridge instead of taking the trail to the right near the signboard. Either way, I’d guess it’s about 800-ft. one way to the Headwaters. The trail isn’t ADA-accessible, but you could probably get a stroller down it, or a wheelchair if you really tried. I’m not going to suggest it, though.
I suggest you take the trail to the right of the visitor center (not the one that goes past the drinking fountain). Take this straight ahead, cross the bridge over the Mississippi River (steps lead down to the water’s edge if you want to get a closer look), and then follow the dirt trail to the sandy, open area right next to the Headwaters of the Mississippi River. A log sign here tells you that you are here, and a little about the river. Here, the water flows out of a lake, over some stones, into a pool-like area, and then into the stream itself. The pool-like area is a favorite for swimming, especially for children between about 4-15, although I saw people of almost all ages swimming and/or wading. The water level fluctuates, but both times when I was there in August, it was around knee deep in the river and the pool-like area. One fact I found interesting is that along its entire length, the river only drops 1,475 feet, which, if you do the math, is only about 1.7 feet a mile!
A favorite thing to do is to walk across the stones over the entrance to the Mississippi River. The rocks may be more or less under water depending on the river levels. I recall the rocks being less under the water the first time we were there than they were the second time. The rocks themselves are slippery, and a few are tippy: I slipped and got a very wet foot and pant leg the first time I tried to cross! The second time, it was warmer (there was frost on the ground from the heavy dew the first time we visited), so I just walked across in my bare feet, and didn’t slip or fall in at all. Go figure. If you decide to wade more in the lake (Lake Itasca), be aware that it gets quite deep fast. I saw teens swimming in water over or nearly over their heads not very far from the rocks. I think they might have been joking that it was quite that deep, but it was much deeper than I wanted to get while wading.
Another fun thing is just downriver from the sandy area. Walk down the boardwalk a little ways (past the log-bridge across the river) and then have every member but one of your party wade in and hold hands straddling the river. Have the one member of your group who didn’t wade in take your picture from the boardwalk. Take one of you all just standing there, and then another of everybody doing the can-can. We put a picture of us doing that in our Christmas letter one year, and people are still talking about it, more than 5 years later!
When you’re done having fun in the river, walk back to the parking area, either by the way you came, or by walking down the boardwalk. This latter trail will bring you out next to the drinking fountain (don’t turn left onto the trail that forks off after the bridge over the “Mighty” Mississippi).
Itasca State Park also offers camping and various hiking trails. I didn’t check most of these out, but I’m sure they’d be nice if you wanted a serene walk through the woods. I did hike up to the Observation Tower, which if you have the time is worth the short hike.
Round Trip Trail Length: About a 0.3 mile (1,600 ft) loop
Facilities: Visitor center, restrooms, and running water at parking area
Fees: $5 per vehicle fee to enter Itasca State Park
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
Friday Fri May 26 10%
Partly cloudy. Lows overnight in the upper 40s.
Saturday Sat May 27 20%
Considerable clouds early. Some decrease in clouds later in the day. A stray shower or thunderstorm is possible. High around 75F. Winds WSW at 10 to 20 mph.
Sunday Sun May 28 40%
Chance of a Thunderstorm
Partly cloudy early. Scattered thunderstorms developing in the afternoon. High 67F. Winds WNW at 15 to 25 mph. Chance of rain 40%.
Monday Mon May 29 50%
Chance of Rain
Showers in the morning, then cloudy in the afternoon. High 56F. Winds NW at 15 to 25 mph. Chance of rain 50%.
Tuesday Tue May 30 10%
Cloudy. High 57F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph.