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I am a Denver-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

A Stop at the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi

It’s entirely possible that I was one of only a handful of kids ever to grow up in Minnesota and not go to the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park. At least I don’t ever recall having gone to the park. I know I’ve traveled to Bemidji, Minnesota before to see Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, but I don’t remember a trip to see where the great river begins. So, when I recently found myself in Bemidji, I seized the opportunity to do so.

 

 
It all started with a desire to see Paul and Babe again. I was passing through the area, and figured I’d take a few minutes to see the two giant statues on the western shore of Lake Bemidji (left). The two were built back in 1937 as part of the January Winter Carnival. Together they weight a combined 7.5 tons, with the 18-foot tall Paul making up only a third of that measure.

 

 
My interest was quickly satisfied, and I found myself with a bit of extra time to kill before making the four hour drive down to the Twin Cities. So, I got directions from the visitor’s center, which is right next to the statues, on how to get to the state park to see the headwaters of the Mississippi. I knew the 2,320 mile long river started somewhere in the area since I saw signs on my way into Bemidji, but just wasn’t sure how possible it was to stop for a brief time.
 

 

I found the park easily enough, and stopped to pay my entrance fee. I was surprised how cheap it was to see the park for a day, when the Colorado State Parks are so much more. The annual pass for one is more than double the other, and I just couldn’t believe it – especially with all the beautiful northwoods surrounding me. It seemed impossible that I could enjoy the place to my heart’s content for a full year for only $25, or $5 for a day.
 

I didn’t linger on this thought for too long as the beauty of the forest immediately captured my attention after driving away from the visitor’s center. It felt good to smell the trees and the nearby lake as I zipped along the road en route to my destination. And it was a shame that’s all I was there to see since the place looked absolutely spectacular.
 

 
The Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center at the trailhead offers a nice welcome to visitors with souvenirs and snacks. I ran right on by it, though, since I was so focused on seeing where the Mighty Miss gets here start in my old home state. I was too excited to linger, feeling like akid on Christmas morning with a big gift just through the trees. And that’s really all it is – a short walk on a paved trail through the trees, and then there it is: the Mississippi River headwaters.

I read a while ago that many people are surprised with how narrow the headwaters are. When I arrived, I was actually surprised with how wide they were since it wasn’t just a step over like I thought. Instead it’s a series of rocks that make up a trail to cross it, or a halved log that acts as a bridge. I really thought that I would instead be able to put one foot on each side of the river and watch it run between my legs. It was nothing like that, though. And it wasn’t anywhere near as touristy as I thought, either.

 

 
A few people were playing in or around the water when I arrived, but there was never any more than ten other visitors while I was there. And most people didn’t linger long either, content with only snapping a couple of photos before continuing on their way. I didn’t have much time beyond that available, but I did stop to enjoy the scent of the great outdoors and Lake Itasca, the source of the great river.
 
Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and there are several in Itasca State Park. I regretted only stopping to see one, no matter how great it is. I wanted to spend more time there camping, hiking, and just relaxing a few days away. So while I finally marked myself off as one of a few Minnesotans who hasn’t seen the headwaters before, I see I have a greater task ahead of me now: I need to go back and properly enjoy the oldest state park in Minnesota. And I think that can only be done by curing a bit of northwoods fever I have after a lovely back-highway drive through the area down to the Twin Cities.
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One Comment on “A Stop at the Headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi”

  1. Brent Lofgren April 21, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    I came across your page when searching for a picture of the Paul and Babe statue in Bemidji, because a colleague is looking at a job at Bemidji State, and I mentioned that this is my home area and the I had heard the claim that this is the most photographed outdoor sculpture in the world. Probably not the greatest outdoor artistic achievement, though.
    From my home school district in Crookston, MN, there was, and I think still is, a tradition that sixth graders go on a two-night camping trip at Itasca State Park. This includes history and nature lessons, the world’s tallest Norway Pine (not sure if that’s still there), and this tidbit: The place where we camped is right next to Elk Lake, which flows into Lake Itasca, but only seasonally, so it is not considered the headwaters of the Mississippi. In the climate area, which I now work in, Elk Lake is a goldmine of historical information, because its outflow on only a seasonal basis means that the coarseness of the sediment that settles to the bottom varies by time of year, making the sediment easy to date when you find clues to the annual climate in it, such as ratios of oxygen isotopes in pollen, leaves, etc.
    I think you are nowhere near the only Minnesotan who hadn’t been there. Most Twin Citians think that Stillwater is northern Minnesota and Duluth is the extreme north, whereas in reality nearly half of the area of the state lies north of the east-west line between Duluth and Moorhead.

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