Fall Color Scenic Drive – Itaska State Park
In the first week of October, with two other couples, Jo and I took a fall color drive to the headwaters of the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itaska and Itaska State Park. We had previously stopped at St. Croix Falls Interstate Park for a day, where the fall color was just starting to appear. But as we got closer to Cross Lake, MN the colors were more attractive, but modest. However, North of Cross Lake, along Minnesota Highway 371, the color was outstanding; yellows and golds, highlighted by patches of red and orange (see picture below).
The fall color display continued to our arrival at Lake Itaska and the drive through the park.
Where the Mississippi Begins
In an 1805/6 expedition to explore and map Northern Minnesota, Lt. Zebulon Pike identified Upper Red Lake (later to be known as Cass Lake) as the source of the Mighty Mississippi. However controversy remained as the thick forest surrounding Cass Lake prevented exploring streams leading ino the lake. In 1832 explorer Henry Schoolcraft pushed through the brush and followed old trails, with the aid of Ojibwe guide Ozaawindib, to discover the true source of the Mighty Mississippi River at the lake known among the traders and Indians as Lac la Biche. Schoolcraft renamed the lake “Itaska” which is combination of the Latin words for “truth” and “head” (from plaque of Minnesota Historical Society). While Itaska is now generally agreed as the headwaters, some controversy remains due to several streams that run into the lake.
Itaska State Park
In 1891, Lake Itaska and 32,000 acres surrounding the lake became Minnesota’s first state park.
In addition to the beautiful fall colors, the visit to the park provides an interesting history of the discovery of the source of the Mississippi River and natural history of the region. Numerous interpretative exhibits are found in the Mary Gibbs Mary Mississippi Headwaters Center. The walking and boardwalk trail to actual headwaters begins behind the Mary Gibbs center.
Camping, Hiking, and Lodging
The park has an extensive network of hiking and biking trails traveling through virgin forest and by many of the lakes and streams within the park. There are many backcountry backpack camping sites along the park trails. There are two modern campgrounds in the park providing 223 campsites, of which 160 provide electric service. But you don’t need to camp if you want to stay in the park, as there are also several cabins and lodge units within the historic Douglas Lodge available for park visitors.
Recommended Drives to Itaska State Park
If you are coming from the twin cities, take US Hwy 169 and State Highway 16 to Brainard. There pick take Hwy 371 North. If you are coming from the Interstate Park at St. Croix Falls, take MN Hwy 95 West to Hwy 371 and then go North.