36750 Main Park Drive, Park Rapids, MN 56470
Where is Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park is located in northern Minnesota. The park is about 28 minutes from Park Rapids on US highway 71. The US State Park has several paved access roads to drive deeper into the park and around Lake Itasca.
Lake Itasca is the official source and headwaters of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi river flows out of Lake Itasca and flows 2,552 miles out to the Gulf of Mexico being the source of tons of American history throughout the journey.
How Big is Itasca State Park
Itasca is a large state park with 32,690 acres to explore, 1,500 acres which are swampland. The park contains the historic Douglas Lodge, over 100 lakes, 31 miles of hiking trails, the Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary, and a large campground with over 200 campsites. 2,000 acres are designated a National Natural Landmark and wilderness sanctuary.
The elevation is 1,558 feet and varies 50 to 100 feet from lake shore to ‘knob’s, or small hills.
Itasca State Park National Park Weather
Weather in northern Minnesota has dramatic seasons with warm summers and cold snowy winters. From May through September temperatures average a high from 65 degrees up to 80 degrees in July. The summer evenings cool down to a low of around 50 degrees. Summer showers are most common in June with an average of 4.8 inches of rain.
From October through November, temperatures start to drop as winter approaches. Fall in the park is beautiful as plentiful oak tree leaves begin to change vibrant fall colors.
From November through March, winter in the area brings cold temperatures and snowfall. With an average of 50 inches of snow during the winter, Itasca state park is able to host snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling. Temperatures are frigid in the winter with an average low temperature in December and January of -5 degrees and a high of 20 degrees. It isn’t until April that temperatures start to rise up into the 40’s and spring approaches.
When did Itasca become a State Park
In 1891 Itasca became Minnesota’s first state park, making it the oldest in the state today and the second oldest in the United States. The land dates back to Indian hunters over 8,000 years ago hunting for bison, deer, and moose with spears.
Larger permanent settlements were developed later leaving back traces of their history we can see today, such as the Itasca Indian Cemetery and their stone, wood, and bone tools located in exhibits inside the visitors’ center.
In 1832, a guide led an explorer to the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca leading to the naming of the area. The name ‘Itasca’ comes from the Latin words for ‘truth’ and ‘head’. In the 1800’s the northern Minnesota region was exploited heavily for logging, overkilling the forests and growth in the area. Jacob V. Brower noticed the negative impact and his efforts to conserve the old growth forests led to the creation of Itasca State Park in 1891.
Things to do in Itasca State Park
The park offers hiking trails, a paved biking path, canoe and kayak rentals, fishing, two visitors centers with historical exhibits, and many historical sites and forest and lake views along the main Wilderness Drive around Lake Itasca. Here at List of Parks we have outlined some fun activities below.
Visit the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center: This museum has historic memorabilia to check out including a birchbark lodge, canvas tent, and more exhibits.
Visit the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwater Center: A must see to understand the historical importance of the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The center includes a restaurant, gift shop, and plaza with exhibits.
Bike the bike trail: A 5.8-mile paved biking trail on the east side of Lake Itasca goes up and down rolling hills through old growth forest starting from Douglas Lodge and ending at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center. Continue biking onto the one-way road to make a 17-mile loop back to the Douglas Lodge. Bikes are available for rent at Itasca Sports Rentals.
Canoe and fish on Lake Itasca: Itasca Sports rents out canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, pontoon boats, and sells all of your fishing gear to catch some walleye, northern pike, bass, and panfish.
Walk across the headwaters: Walk along a line of boulders crossing the start of the Mississippi river flow out of Lake Itasca.
Stay at the Douglas Lodge: A historic lodge built in 1905 has suites, rooms, and cabins available to stay at. The lodge also has a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner from May to October.
Take a narrated boat tour on Chester Charles: A 1.5-hour trip around Lake Itasca provides you with incredible views of the lake and wildlife. A guide narrates the trip telling the park history and how to spot and identify wildlife around the area.
Hike the Old fire tower: Climb to the top of this fire tower for a bird’s eye view of the state park.
When to go to Itasca State Park
Because of the frigid temperatures, summer is the most popular time to visit Itasca State Park offering the most recreation opportunities to enjoy the lakes and trails. The park sees an average of half a million visitors, mainly visiting in the summer from May through August.
The end of September to the middle of October marks fall with the oak tree leaves changing colors. Vibrant yellow and orange leaves light up the landscape around the lakes, making for beautiful sites to see. Visitors can also enjoy more tranquility with less crowds around the lake and get to see the start of fall colors changing. Reserving a campsite or lodging in the park is recommended during summer months as the park gets crowded.
Must-Have things to bring to Itasca State Park
The state park has two visitor centers offer visitors water, food, and maps. Itasca Sports also offers bike, canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals, and fishing gear for sale. However, our State Park Visitors Guide suggests bringing supplies and proper gear to recreate safely in the park.
Proper Hiking Boots: Trails can be muddy in the spring and fall and having proper hiking boots will keep your feet dry and stable on the trails.
Rain gear: Summer rain showers are common especially in July.
Warm layers: Temperatures cool off in the evenings, so ensure you bring warm layers. If visiting in the winter, frigid temperatures require tons of layers and winter gear from head to toe.
Swim gear and sunscreen: On a hot summer day, bring a bathing suit, towel, and sunscreen to enjoy the lakes.
Binoculars: Lots of birds frequent the area and having binoculars will help you get an up-close look in the forest for wildlife.
Bug Spray: The humid, water covered land will make for lots of mosquitos. Bring bug spray and thin layers to help protect your skin from bugs.
Where to stay in Itasca State Park
There are many options to stay in the park from the main Douglas Lodge, to smaller cabins available for rent around the state park.
Douglas Lodge is a historic 1905 lodge on the south shore of Lake Itasca. The lodge offers many rooms, suites, and cabins to stay at. The lodge is popular and books up during the summer, so making a reservation is necessary.
Other lodging in the state park includes group cabins that can hold up to 8 people that require a reservation. The Ozawindib Cabin is located on Lake Ozawindib, north west of Lake Itasca. Bear Paw Cabins are small cabins available to stay at on Lake Itasca. Bear Paw Guesthouse is nearby and is for large groups to rent. There is a hostel located on the north arm of Lake Itasca available for all ages at a cheap price.
Camping in the park is plentiful with 223 drive in campsites. 160 sites have electricity and 11 are rustic hike in sites. Reserving a spot ahead of time as camping in Itasca is popular.
Food Nearby Itasca State Park
Douglas Lodge Restaurant is the only restaurant in the state park and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner during summer months from May 27-October 7th. There is a small café near the gift shop at the headwaters. Just outside of the state park is an American restaurant Knob & Kettle, and burger place called Spike’s.
Airports near Itasca State Park
Grand Forks International Airport, and Hector International Airport are both a 2-hour drive away. The major airport in Minnesota offering the most flights in and out is the Minneapolis- Saint Paul International Airport located 4 hours away. Renting a car and driving to Itasca State Park is recommended to be able to fully explore the park and all of the sites freely.