If you are seeking an all-around fun and relaxing destination for your next family getaway, you need look no further than spending a weekend at Itasca State Park. My family decided that we wanted to start visiting more state parks, so we started with Itasca this summer and had a blast!
Located just north of Park Rapids, Itasca is Minnesota’s first state park, and judging from our experience, it must be the crown jewel of the state park system. From the campgrounds to the visitor centers, everything is well-maintained and super clean, people are welcoming and friendly and there are a variety of activities to suit all levels of interest and experience.
There are an abundance of campsites at Itasca State Park but if sleeping in a tent, or even a camper, isn’t your thing, then you’re in luck! Itasca offers several different forms of lodging including individual cabins, lodge rooms, group camps and even a hostel.
We stayed at the Bear Paw Campground, which is the closest campground to Lake Itasca with some sites enjoying a nice view of the lake. Our home for the weekend was Bear Paw’s Cart-In Campground, which offers tent sites a short walk from where you park your car, giving your experience a more authentic camping feel with the luxury of a real bathroom nearby. Did I mention how clean the bathrooms were? It didn’t seem to matter what time of the day it was, they were always clean as a whistle. (How do they do that?!) The other thing we noticed is that most people were very respectful of the campground’s established quiet hours which are from 10 p.m. to 8 am. This was probably due to the fact the campground was filled with families. Everywhere you looked, there were kids running around or riding their bikes. Campfire wood can be obtained from the campground host, who is also available to answer questions and address concerns.
To get the most out of your visit to Itasca State Park, my recommended first stop is the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center. This impressive and beautiful building provides a great overview of all there is to see and do at the park. There are many educational and interactive exhibits covering the park’s history, people and natural environment. These displays are interesting for both adults and kids and of course staff is available to answer all of your questions. I was pleasantly surprised the Visitor Center includes several cozy, comfortable seating areas where families can just sit, unwind and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. My daughter and I relaxed on one of the oversized couches while my husband saved the day by biking in the rain to retrieve our vehicle. My hero!
Close to the Visitor Center is the Douglas Lodge area which includes many historic log buildings from the park’s earliest years. In addition to lodge rooms, Douglas Lodge has it’s own cozy lounge area plus a restaurant. I am pleased to report that the food at Douglas Lodge is really good! My husband considered his burger to be one of the best he’s had, I thoroughly enjoyed my smoked whitefish salad and our daughter got her kids menu spaghetti just the way she likes it: sauce and meatballs on the side, please. While you’re in the area, take time to visit the nearby Forest Inn Gift Shop to pick out a memento of your trip or check out the fishing pier down at the lake.
The driving force for creating Itasca State Park was to preserve the lakes and forests around the headwaters of the Mississippi River. No trip to the Park would be complete without taking off your shoes and wading across the very start of the mighty Mississippi at Lake Itasca. The gentle flow of the river makes this area a perfect place for little ones to play but be aware that the large rocks that separate Lake Itasca from the river can be quite slippery. Personally, I wish I had worn my water shoes while wading across the river as it is a bit pebbly and I am a huge tenderfoot!
The most impressive part of Itasca State Park for our family was the wonderful bicycle trail. Rolling along nearly six miles of the most popular areas of the park, you can visit most major attractions via this wide and gentle trail. If you don’t feel like hauling your bicycles to the park, simply rent them from Itasca Sports, which also has boats, paddle boards, canoes, kayaks and other supplies available. One thing we experienced while biking is that many people were so entranced with their surroundings they failed to remember that there might be people biking around the next wooded curve, so remind your kids to take it easy on those blind corners. We had a couple of near misses!
People interested in learning more about the park will find a variety of interpretive programs covering the plants, animals, people and history of Itasca State Park. We happened to be at the park during the dedication of the new lakeside amphitheater and enjoyed music, ice cream, and nature displays. A “Voyageur” showed up to teach about his life and both my husband and daughter were invited onstage to assist in this informative and entertaining presentation!
When everyone is ready for a break (or you just need to get your littles to nap) hit the road and head to Wilderness Drive, a 10-mile tour through the more natural areas of the park. You’ll see beautiful lakes and forests and gain access to a variety of trails and landmarks, including examples of the largest pine trees in our state.
Even More Adventure Awaits
Since we only had two days, we didn’t get to experience all Itasca State Park has to offer. There are opportunities to fish, visit historical sites and museums, tour Lake Itasca on a cruise boat and of course explore miles and miles of hiking trails. It’s a good thing there’s more to do because we had such a good time we will definitely be going back!
Ready to put Itasca on your must-visit list? Learn more about Itasca State Park and get planning!