Dates: August 20-22, 2015
Overall Score: 4.42 (out of 5)
Summary: This massive 32,500 acre state park is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been, camping or otherwise. It is the second oldest state park in America (behind Niagara Falls) and the oldest and 3rd most visited state park in Minnesota. Its rolling landscape, created by glaciers thousands of years ago, conceals over 100 lakes within maple, oak, birch, pine, and spruce forests.
Recreation/Amenities: 4.8 – This park has something for everyone. We’ll begin with what it’s best known for…the Headwaters of the Mississippi River. Yes, the world’s third-longest river starts its 2,552-mile journey as a small wilderness stream that can be walked across. So we walked across it. Near the headwaters there is also an outstanding Great River Road interpretive center, museum and gift shop (more on the Great River Road in our next blog). There are 49 miles of hiking trails (we hiked about 5 miles of them). Recommend the 2-mile Dr. Roberts Trail, a loop trail with a few moderate hills along the east arm of Lake Itasca. The .5-mile, out and back Bohall Trail to the secluded Bohall Lake is also terrific. I can only imagine what it would be like to backpack for several days along the lakes and trails of the southern and western portions of the park. Additionally, there are 16 miles of paved biking trails, 28 miles of cross country skiing trails, 31 miles of snowmobile trails, and an 8-mile loop wilderness trail that can be done via car or bike. There’s also fishing, boat rentals (all varieties), a tour/excursion boat, a historic lodge and restaurant (order the Southern Pasta), and giant pines throughout the park. Note: The modest .2 deduction is due to a lack of equestrian or dirt bike trails.
Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 – electric only, with dump station. Water sources (spigots) are located throughout the camping area, but not at individual campsites. Free W-Fi, but only if your campsite is close enough to the bathroom/shower building.
Local Vicinity Things to Do: 4.5 – There are enough things to do in the park that there’s no reason to leave it. However, Park Rapids is 20 miles south. It features shopping, fishing, golfing, stage entertainment, and family music and comedy shows. Basically, the entire area in and around the park has hardwood and pine forests (for wildlife watching, camping, fishing, hiking/biking) and is also a winter playground with a vast network of snowmobiling and cross-country skiing trails.
Cleanliness: 4.6 – well-maintained campsite and facilities.
Intangibles: 4.7 …..
Pros – a good variety of campsites—some more secluded in the woods, some more open by the lake, etc. There’s a climbable 100-foot tall fire tower for a panoramic view of the Lake Itasca watershed. Good balance between hiking, biking, skiing, boating, and driving to explore the park. Contains the largest white pine tree in Minnesota…113 feet tall and 14.5 feet around. Be sure to stop at the Preacher’s Grove and walk under the giant red pines along Lake Itasca.
Cons – nitpicky, but at rush hour/check-in time, there were 6 or 7 campers backed up waiting to check-in. The check-in staff was competent and friendly, but the process took some time. There are lots of mosquitos (except in winter), especially at certain times of day (near dusk) and on certain trails (for us, that was the Blowdown Trail). So apply liberal amounts of bug repellant.
If you want to travel the entire length of the iconic Mississippi River (and we do, and we are)…it all begins at the headwaters in beautiful Itasca State Park. It was named a National Natural Landmark in 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Put this one on your bucket list!
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