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Trip to Itasca State Park near Park Rapids, MN

We have good memories of our last trip to Itasca State Park, when our son Aaron was in elementary school, and were looking forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the park. We arrived on Weds., July 4, just 2 days after a wicked storm had blown through the area and knocked down a huge number of trees and caused some damage to park facilities (see my earlier post for photos of the storm damage).

Lay of the land

Itasca is a park of many superlatives,  including:

  • first and oldest state park in Minnesota, established on April 20, 1891
  • second-largest state park (following St. Croix), covering some 32,000 acres and encompassing more than 100 lakes
  • most popular for overnight stays, with more than 82,000 in 2011 (more than twice as many overnight stays as Whitewater State Park, number 2 on the list)
  • third-most popular for visits, with nearly 417,000 in 2011 (after Fort Snelling and Gooseberry Falls)

There are a total of 223 campsites in the Bear Paw and Pine Ridge campgrounds, 160 of which have electricity.

Shower and bathroom facilities were fine in the Pine Ridge campground where we stayed.

Interesting features and things to see

From 300-year-old red pines in Preacher’s Grove to the headwaters of the Mississippi to Wilderness Drive (with stops at one of the tallest white pines in the state, and the former tallest red pine) to Old Timer’s Cabin to Wegmann’s Store to Indian burial mounds, Itasca delivers on many different levels.

One of the great attractions of Itasca is the wide variety of things to do and see. There is an extensive paved bike trail system and bikes for rent, a nice swimming beach, hiking trails, and motorized boats and pontoons for rent, as well as canoes, kayaks and paddle boats. There also are tours of Lake Itasca on a launch.

I’m a big fan of the rustic style of National Park architecture, and Itasca offers some beautiful examples. The Douglas Lodge (pictured above) is a gem, and the Forest Inn is a nice example of log and stone construction, even though it doesn’t offer the full range of services it once did. The Jacob V. Brower visitor center is very nicely done and quite informative — well worth a visit.

The good

  • Beautiful scenery
  • Wide variety of activities available
  • Nice indoor options if the weather turns bad: visitor center, Douglas Lodge, headwaters center

The not so good

  • Because Itasca is so popular, there can be crowds at the more popular attractions: the Mississippi Headwaters was a mob scene when we visited
  • We had coffee at the Douglas Lodge restaurant one day, and dinner the next. Service was on the slow side, and the food was very average
  • Campsites in the Oak Loop of the Pine Ridge campground where we stayed are fairly close together, but I’ve probably whined about that enough already in another post

Tips and recommendations

If you’re tenting it, I would strongly recommend the Pine Ridge campground over Bear Paw — especially the Pine Loop, or the Poplar Loop if you don’t mind hoofing it to the showers and restrooms. As mentioned above, save the Jacob V. Brower visitor center and Douglas Lodge for rainy days.

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