Mississippi River State Water Trail: Cass Lake to Vermillion River

Mississippi River Trail

At Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River begins its 2,350-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. This segment is part of the Mississippi Headwaters River Trail, which consists of the first 420 miles of the river. From Lake Itasca to Cass Lake, the river is surrounded by wilderness and has no dangerous rapids, making it excellent for the beginning paddler. About rapids classes.

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Mississippi River Water Trail sections and maps:

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Local contact

River location map
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Cass and Itasca Counties, north central Minnesota
Contact DNR Parks and Trails Northeast Regional Office: (218) 328-8980.

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River character

Large lakes are the Mississippi's defining characteristic as it flows east from Bemidji through the town of Cass Lake and towards Grand Rapids. Glaciers created these lakes thousands of years ago. The lakes are a challenge to the river traveler, and can be quite dangerous. Below its confluence with the Leech Lake River, the Mississippi's channel deepens, and the riparian marsh plain doubles in width. The river once created oxbows here, which are now abandoned river segments filling with vegetation.


Conifers dominate the sandy soils of this landscape. Aspen, birch, sugar maple, basswood, red oak, and bur oak are found on richer soils. Unique features are the white sands of the dunes that once surrounded Lake Winnibigoshish, the oxbows of the river channel and the extensive stands of upland pines. Downstream from Lake Winnie watch for white sands on the river's bottom as you near Highway 2. This material is a remnant of ancient sand dunes that formed by wind action on Lake Winnie's southeast shore during a hot and dry period more than 6,000 years ago. The river takes many sharp turns throughout this stretch of the river but gives the user a rich and primitive experience.

Fish and wildlife

The large red and white pines of the upland coniferous forests are favorite roosting places for the bald eagle. The oxbows of the river's channel support many forms of wildlife such as fish, mink, raccoon, otter, wood ducks, mallard and merganser. Meandering almost exclusively through undeveloped marshland, the section is prime waterfowl habitat. Marshes west of Lake Winnibigoshish are particularly important to waterfowl. Backwaters and oxbows filled with strands of wild rice, reed cane and cattails serve as breeding habitat, molting areas, and staging areas for fall migrants. When filled with water during high conditions, such as melting snows in the spring, the oxbows provide protected shelter for spawning fish.

The Minnesota Department of Health has guidelines for consuming fish taken from Minnesota's lakes and rivers. Go to the Fish Consumption Advisory Page to find out more.


Cass Lake, at the upper end of the route, was named by the explorer Henry Schoolcraft to commemorate Lewis Cass, who led an expedition through the region in 1820. The lake had been known to the Chippewa Indians and French fur traders as Red Cedar Lake, because of the many cedar trees growing on an island in the lake.

An excellent side trip is to Cut Foot Sioux Lake on the northeastern side of Lake Winnibigoshish, the location of the Turtle and Snake Indian Mounds. One mound is in the shape of a turtle, about 25 by 30 feet, with the head pointing north; around the mound is a snake with the head and tail meeting and pointing south.

The mounds are a colorful relic of Minnesota Indian history. This region originally belonged to the Dakota but was coveted by the Ojibwe for its rich resources. In 1748 a major battle ending in the defeat of the Ojibwe was fought on the spot where the mounds now stand. To commemorate the victory, the Dakota built the turtle with its head pointing north to signify that the enemy had been driven in that direction.

The Ojibwe, returning later that year, surrounded and massacred the Dakota. The Ojibwe built the snake around the turtle to signify that the Dakota had been surrounded and annihilated. The snake's head pointed south as a warning to other Dakota tribes and as an indication of the future path of Ojibwe conquest.