Discover Lake Itasca, the Incredible Source of the Mississippi River

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Updated: May 28, 2022
Image Credit WhiteFieldPhoto/Shutterstock.com
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If you want to impress your friends by telling them you have crossed the mighty Mississippi, you will probably want to visit Lake Itasca in Minnesota. This small glacial lake feeds the 2,340 miles of water that travels down the Mississippi River. How can a lake that small end up pouring thousands of gallons of water into the Gulf of Mexico? How far across is the Mississippi River at the headwaters? Can you swim across the Mississippi River? Is there good fishing in Lake Itasca? What about bird watching? Let’s find out about Lake Itasca.

Where is Lake Itasca?

Lake Itasca is in Clearwater County, which is in northwest Minnesota. It is about a 3 ½ hour drive from Minneapolis, and 2 hours northeast of Fargo, ND. The Itasca State Park was built around the lake and was the first state park in Minnesota in 1891. Surprisingly, the headwaters of the Mississippi River begins at the northern end of the lake. Due to the elevation, it runs out of the northwest corner of the lake and heads toward Minneapolis.

How Big is Lake Itasca?

lake itasca
Lake Itasca is a 1.8 square miles lake in northwest Minnesota. It is the incredible source of the Mississippi River!

WhiteFieldPhoto/Shutterstock.com

Lake Itasca is 1.8 square miles and has a unique shape. It is T-shaped with the top of the T tilting to the left side. It is not a very deep lake with the deepest area being around 40 feet deep. The average depth is 20-35 feet. There is 14.3 miles of shoreline along this irregular-shaped lake.

How did Lake Itasca begin?

The history of Lake Itasca goes back more than 10,000 years. According to the University of Minnesota Itasca Field Station, the landscape of Itasca was formed by glaciers that retreated and left large mounds of rocks and sediment (these are called Moraines). This left a basin that filled with water and flows northwest to the carved-out area that is now the Mississippi River. The explorer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, is credited with finding the lake in 1832. It is common for visitors to get their picture taken in front of the official headwaters post which has been there since the 1930s.  

What fills Lake Itasca?

Fifty percent of the water that flows into Lake Itasca is from natural springs. The springs, along with rainfall, fill the Lake and maintain the continuous flow of the Mississippi River.

How far across is the Mississippi River at the headwaters?

Most of the headwaters are 20-30 feet, but one section of the river is only 18-feet wide across. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Mississippi River starts as “a mere 18-foot wide knee-deep river in Itasca State Park”.

Can you swim across it?

lake itasca 2
You can use a rock dam to walk across Lake Itasca.

Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

You should not try to swim across the Mississippi River. The currents are too strong and it is not safe. At the headwaters, you can take your shoes and socks off, and wade across the river. There is also a rock dam you can walk across and a pedestrian bridge. The first half-mile of the river is slow-moving and people will float down this section on inner tubes, but exit before the river gets too fast.

Can you walk across it?

Yes. You can walk across the river at the headwaters area of the Itasca State Park. It is only knee-deep most of the year and the bottom is sandy with small pebbles. If you don’t want to get your feet wet, you can walk across a small bridge.

Is Lake Itasca a good place to go fishing?

Musky or Muskellunge
Lake Itasca is a good lake for fishing with walleye, bluegills, and crappie.

iStock.com/FedBul

Yes! The lake is stocked with walleye, one of Minnesota angler’s favorites. There are two public water access points on the lake, so bring your boat for some good fishing. You can rent boats at Itasca Sports or you can fish from the fishing pier. Fish you can find in Lake Itasca include:

What kind of birds are around Lake Itasca?

Birds that look like ducks: Common Loon
You can find loons in Lake Itasca along with a variety of other waterfowl.

iStock.com/BrianLasenby

If you prefer to bird watch you can go hiking on the miles of trails throughout the park. You can keep your eye out for the following birds in and around Lake Itasca:

Can you go camping at Lake Itasca?

Yes. There are 200 campsites in the park as well as a lodge, the historic Douglas Lodge. There is the Bear Paw Campground near the south end of the park and the Pine Ridge campground near the northeast corner. The Pine Ridge sites are closer to the playground and swimming beach, so something to consider if you are traveling with children. The Bear Paw Campground has 6 cabins for rent as well. Itasca Sports is right near the Pine Ridge campground which offers boat rentals like kayaks, paddleboats, stand up paddle boards, and pontoons.

How long does it take a raindrop to flow from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico?

It takes a raindrop approximately 90 days to flow down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. If you are visiting Lake Itasca, take a look at the water and mark your calendar for 90 days later to remind yourself that that same water is now flowing into the Gulf!

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness and suggesting actions we can all do to help wildlife. As a former elementary school teacher I have a love for learning and teaching. My goal is to get kids fired-up about animals. Learning about the animals we share this earth with makes life better. When I am not writing I am living the good life with my husband and six kids (we are down to two that are still at home...and our giant labradoodle, Tango!).

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