Where are the Mississippi’s Headwaters?


I am sure it is a question you ask yourself everyday! Most of you will know this answer. I did not until I came to the US. The mighty Mississippi takes its journey down to New Orleans in Itasca Park in Minnesota. It is hard to understand why the park is a State Park instead of a National Park. After all the Mississippi is one of these mystic rivers matching the Danube or the Nile status.


Few facts of the Mighty River:

  • It is the start of the Great River Road crossing 10 states and covering over 2,300 miles that spans the entire length of the river. It is the longest scenic byway of the nation.
  • The river was once the main highway of the Native Americans and later served as a major transportation route for the fur trade in the 18th and 19th century.
  • 40% of all North American waterfowl use the river as a migratory flyway, and 326 bird species (over 1/3 of all species in North America) follow the flyway in their spring and fall migrations.
  • The position of the continental divide and the thick glacial deposits of this region cause the river to flow “downhill” as it leaves Lake Itasca. The river drains north and eastward for over 80 miles before turning south.
  • The average surface speed of the river is 1.2 miles per hour, about one-third as fast as people walk. At this rate, a raindrop falling in Lake Itasca would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days.
  • In the 1930’s the Mississippi River measured 2,552 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Of this total 694 miles are within the State of Minnesota. Today, some authorities record the river as 2,350 miles in length. Straightening of the river’s channel in the 1940’s cut off over 160 miles of bends in the river.
  • The Headwaters post, located at the river’s source, records the original river length before channeling.
  • The old speed record for two people paddling a canoe the length of the Mississippi was 25 days and 11 hours, four times faster than it would take a drop of water. In 2003, a new record of 18 days, 4 hours and 51 minutes was set. That averages to paddling 6 miles-an-hour for 436 hours.
  • The Mississippi River watershed drains 41% of the continental United States.

For the past 10 years, I drove by the park on a regular basis while visiting my boyfriend’s family living just 45 minutes of the North Entrance. This past Easter, I asked him to stop for a small hike.

You will need a pass to enter. Off-season, there are self pay stations to register your vehicle. You can buy a day or yearly pass. The yearly pass is only $25 and gives you access to other state and regional parks in Minnesota. Not a bad investment.


On the North side of the park you will find all the tourist’s information, the path leading to the lake, and the famous rock crossing. A little drive down the road and you will run into rustic rental cabins, a lodge, a restaurant and a gift shop. All are closed at this time of the year. Camping is allowed in the Park but it gets busy in the summer. Campsites reservations are required well in advance.

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The South side has been left as a wilderness area. You will find hiking trails less traveled. Just be prepared for potential wildlife encounters.

If you’ve seen the river in New Orleans it is hard to image what the river looks like 2,350 miles up-north: clear unpolluted water coming out of a Minnesota lake. There is a bike trail around the lake close to 25 miles. If you prefer an easier tour, take one of the boat ride accessible from the lodge area. You can also rent bikes, canoes, paddleboards and boats.

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You can find practical information for your visit to Itasca State Park on the DNR website.

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