Mississippi River Headwaters

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About the Mississippi River headwaters

The mighty Mississippi River begins its winding journey to the Gulf of Mexico as a mere 18-foot wide knee-deep river in Itasca State Park. From here the river flows north to Bemidji, where it turns east, and then south near Grand Rapids. It will flow a total of 694 miles before working its way out of Minnesota.

Within the park, people enjoy walking or floating on inner tubes the first half mile of the river, which meanders at a slow 1.2 miles per hour during the warm summer months. In the winter, you can still see the water flowing over the rocks, as warmer spring water keeps the area ice free.

Taking your picture next to the iconic headwaters post is a must when you visit the park! The historic marker dates back to the 1930s, and indicates the Mississippi River's total mileage at 2,552 miles. Since then the river's course has been shortened and altered by flooding and channeling. Every summer canoeists leave Lake Itasca to begin their river adventures, with hopes of reaching the Gulf of Mexico over 2,318 miles away.

Visitors also enjoy wading across the shallow 18-inch deep water, crossing from the east side to the west side, where a rock dam indicates the end of Lake Itasca and the beginning of this mighty river.

The river's channel appears much as it did when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was led to the source by Ojibwe guide Ozawindib in 1832. Water ripples across a sandy gravel bottom through a channel lined with cattails, tamarack trees, and sedge. Wildflowers bloom throughout the summer, including the tiny blossoms of sweet bedstraw, the pinkish-purple clusters of Joe-Pye weed, and the orange trumpet-shaped flowers of Spotted-touch-me-not. A variety of birds such as warblers, kingfishers, and waterfowl can be seen and heard as you follow a wooden boardwalk along the first section of the river.

Historic photos





1940s - 1950s


1960s - 1980s


2000 - 2005


2010 - 2020


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