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.