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Balancing Over The Mississippi: Hiking Itasca State Park In Winter

Updated: May 3, 2021

European explorers came north to Minnesota to learn what the indigenous people of the Northwoods had known for thousands of years — that the source of the Misi-ziibi (the great river of life in Ojibwe) is a glacial lake in the northwoods of Minnesota. The mighty Mississippi (as it’s now known), starts as a trickle in Itasca State Park, before continuing its winding route 2,552 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The park’s 33,235 acres of lakes, forests, and historic markers (including a site where Native Americans gathered to hunt bison 8,000 to 7,000 years ago and the burial mounds that hold the remains of these ancient people) are beautiful in every season. But in winter, Itasca State Park projects a sense of quiet majesty.

The glacial lake is frozen over, thick enough to hold ice houses and vehicles in the middle, but paper thin where clear, frigid lake water spills over the rocks and into the river’s humble beginning. The Mississippi River stretches to more than 11 miles wide at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, Minnesota (its widest point). But here at the headwaters, the legendary river is at its narrowest, no more than 30 feet, small enough to be crossed (carefully) by a small log bridge.

Which, of course, is precisely what we do. Our merry band of impromptu hikers grins for a photo, then inches across the log in our oversized boots. (They’re warm for the trails, but wildly unsuitable for an ungainly balance beam routine over the water.) The preschooler in our party reverts to crawling over the slippery parts. He’s the smartest of all of us.

The the summer, crowds of travelers scurry over the slippery rocks with similar care, eager to say they waded in the Mississippi. The marker at the headwaters is one of the most popular photo ops in the region. But it’s a much quieter scene in winter.

In the snow, everything is hushed. The only sound is the contented gurgling of the water, the crunch of boots as hikers approach and the rhythmic swish of cross country skiers taking advantage of the sunshine, blue skies and smooth trail conditions.

Some of the park’s trails and amenities are closed during the winter, but a comprehensive network of skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and winter hiking trails are open all year. They attract outdoor enthusiasts from all over the region. On this picturesque February day, we join their numbers.

We didn’t go terribly far, since my cousin Bo, a last minute addition to our four-generation road trip hadn’t thought to pack boots. But even a quick, half hour hike through the old-growth red and white pine forest was enough to lift my spirits. The park’s founder, Jacob V. Brower fought hard to save this stretch of land from the timber industry that decimated much of the surrounding region. As we glanced at the pines stretching tall over our heads, I breathed silent thanks for his foresight.

“Wow,” squeals my little guy, as he took off at a run along the bridge on the boardwalk of the Headwaters Trail.

“This is so great,” exclaims Bo as our boots crunched along the snow as we briefly explored the School Craft Trail. So much for teenagers being difficult to impress. Bo spends a lot of time outdoors in Minnesota lakes country, so he totally gets how special this place is. We all looked up, taking in the trees, the wind, the stillness.

“This is awesome,” I say to no one in particular. I’m prone to hyperbole when I’m excited but for once, this wasn’t an exaggeration.

We tromped back to my parents and grandmother and we all retired to the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, where there’s a gift shop, restrooms and small museum. We arrived right at the 3:30 p.m. closing time, but the restrooms and the building are open as a warming house until the park closes at 10 p.m.

Fires were blazing in the lodge’s two fireplaces. A trio of women were having a cheerful picnic at one of the wooden tables front of one, a collection of Thermoses and coolers between them, so we claimed the other. We spread out our wet winter clothing to dry a bit, propped up our feet and watched the birds snacking at the bird feeder just outside the window.

A pair of binoculars was handily provided, so we were able to view the accessible, self-guided trail from both the inside and outside of the building. A handful of nature books and guides were stacked neatly on the other side of the lodge to help visitors figure out exactly what kinds of birds were flitting back and forth on the other side of the glass.

We piled back into our car and snaked our way out of the park as sun sank behind the tree line. The youngest in our party drifted off into a deep sleep, as the waning sunlight warmed our faces and the landscape gradually shifted from the dappled light of the forest to rolling prairie to neatly manicured farmland.

A few hours later, we were a world away. But the snow-covered trails were still very much on our minds. By dinner that night, we were already planning our return.

What about you? What do you love about Itasca State Park in the winter? How about during the rest of the year? What is your favorite way to get outdoors in winter? What winter activities would you like to try? What’s your favorite state or provincial park?

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