Mississippi River State Water Trail: Lake Itasca to Cass Lake

Mississippi River Trail

At Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River begins its 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. From Lake Itasca to Cass Lake, the river is surrounded by wilderness and does not have dangerous rapids, making it excellent for beginning paddlers. There are no major rapids, but cattails and wild rice choke the river upstream of Lake Irving by July. About rapids classes.

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Mississippi River Water Trail sections and maps:

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Local contact

River location map
Order map

Clearwater and Beltrami Counties, north central Minnesota
Contact DNR Parks and Trails Northwest Regional Office: (218) 308-2372.

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River character

The Mississippi fluctuates from swamp to fast water between Coffee Pot and Pine Point Landing. The river falls an average of four feet per mile. Riffles or rapids are encountered at the confluence of tributaries or where the river cuts through hilly forests. The area of greatest fall is east of Bemidji above and below the impoundment that has created Stump Lake. Eight miles below Lake Bemidji is a hydroelectric dam which must be portaged.


The Mississippi River lies on the western edge of the Itasca moraine, a large landform created by glaciers 10,000 years ago. White and red pine, oaks, maples, birch and aspen grow on the moraine's well-drained, sandy soils. Wet, organic soils of the plains support coniferous swamp forests, covered in black spruce, northern white cedar and tamarack. The steep banks rise to 60 feet in places, topped by jack pine and red pine. There are beaver dams in this area and intermittent rapids excellent for novice canoeists.

Huge areas of cattail marsh and occasional tamarack and spruce stands continue to Iron Bridge Landing. The primary attraction between Iron Bridge Landing and Lake Bemidji is the wetland forest which forms a dense canopy over a meandering stretch above Lake Irving. As you approach Bemidji, the river's banks are more defined, and you will begin to see farms and homes along the river.

Fish and wildlife

The large diversity of plant life supports 242 kinds of birds, 23 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 57 species of mammals. These include warblers who migrate to Central America each year, common tern, bufflehead, beaver, eastern hog-nosed snake, and the pine martin, which only recently has returned to this area. Also seen are the bald eagle and other birds of concern, predators such as the red-shouldered hawk, and water birds such as the sandhill crane and Wilson's phalarope.


The first white man to see the river was Hernando DeSoto in 1541; however, it was not until 1832 that Henry Schoolcraft discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca. Today much of the river's upper reaches remain in a wilderness condition, much the same as in Schoolcraft's time.