Lake Itasca – The Source of the Mississippi

In the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” it takes a lot for one single lake to stand out above the rest. Lake Itasca isn’t the largest or the deepest, but it is the source of the Mississippi River, and as a lake, that’s something you can really hang your hat on. The Mississippi is the longest river in the US and the fourth longest in the world, so seeing where this mighty river has it’s humble beginnings is a sight to behold.

Itasca State Park

Founded in 1891, Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park. It is located about a four hour drive north of Minneapolis so it isn’t particularly accessible from any major urban area. Despite being so remote, the park still attracts thousands of visitors who come to see where the Mississippi begins it’s 2,552-mile journey south.

lake itasca

The Headwaters of the Mississippi

The lake was officially identified as the river’s primary source by Henry Schoolcraft in 1832 and before that, the nearby Cass Lake was widely believed to have been the source. The name “Itasca” is a combination of the Latin words “veritas” (truth) and “caput” (head).

The main event of the state park is having the opportunity to stand on the rock dam where the Mississippi River trickles out of the side of Lake Itasca and wading in the river when it is little more than a stream. When we arrived at the north end of the lake, the area was swarming with little kids playing in the water, but the crowd started to thin out shortly thereafter. Having crossed the Mississippi by car multiple times, it was fascinating to see how such a massive river begins as a bubbling brook flowing out of the side of a lake in northern Minnesota.

lake itasca
The Mississippi starts out as a trickle

Apparently the rock dam that visitors love to walk across is a man-made feature installed in 1930’s. This was a bit disappointing to learn, but it really doesn’t adulterate the experience all that much.

Other Things to do in the Park

Obviously the headwaters of the Mississippi is what makes the park such a popular attraction, but the rest of the park is also quite beautiful. There are plenty of other ways to spend time in the park besides just splashing around in the Mississippi Stream.

  • Observe the surrounding area from the fire tower
  • Kayaking/Canoeing in Lake Itasca or one if the many other lakes in the park
  • Fishing
  • Hiking
  • Camping


Check out the next stop on our road trip: Yellowstone


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