By Brian Jewell
Surging through the center of the country, the Mississippi River shapes cities and states from north to south and has made a profound impact on the history and culture of the United States. But the origin of this river is in Minnesota, a state known for its abundant water, and true River Road experiences begin in the Gopher State.
Groups that visit Minnesota can follow the Mississippi River all the way from its headwaters in the middle of the state to the state’s southeastern tip, where the river then continues on to Iowa. Attractions along the way, natural and otherwise, make great stops to help your group get to know the area’s history, beauty and modern culture.
Starting in central Minnesota, you can discover the origin of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park, then follow the water to the Grand Rapids region, where lakes and lumberjacks have shaped the local community.
The River Road continues to the Twin Cities area, where the Mall of America has become one of the country’s pre-eminent retail destinations. A short detour takes you to the town of Northfield, where a vintage band festival each summer showcases classic Minnesota music. From there, continue along the river to Wabasha, where the National Eagle Center is dedicated to protecting America’s favorite bird.
Headwaters of the Mississippi
Lake Itasca is a quiet body of water in central Minnesota that plays a big part in our nation’s ecology: A small spring that trickles from the lake forms the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Today, the area is preserved as Itasca State Park.
Groups that visit the park can enjoy the pristine beauty of the lake and the virgin pine forest that surrounds it during a scenic trip on the 11-mile Wilderness Drive through the park, which includes a stop at the starting point of the river. Travelers can get off the coach and walk across a series of small stepping stones that lead from one side of the river to the other, 2,551 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to the scenic drive, visitors can learn more about the river and the park at the local visitors center. Groups can stay overnight in Douglas Lodge, a 1905 building constructed with giant white pines, or take a lake cruise aboard the Chester Charles boat to see wildlife and birds such as eagles, great blue herons and white-tailed deer.
The area around the town of Grand Rapids is known as Minnesota’s 1,000 Grand Lakes Region and is the setting for numerous local legends. The biggest — literally — is Paul Bunyan.
The legendary giant lumberjack Bunyan and his giant ox, Babe, are said to have formed the thousands of lakes in the region when they accidentally stepped into the stream of a leaking water wagon. And although Bunyan might be a mythical figure, Minnesota lumberjacks are not. Grand Rapids’ Forest History Center interprets lumberjack history and lifestyle for visitors complete with costumed guides in a re-created jack camp from the early 1900s.
Another Minnesota legend, Judy Garland, was from Grand Rapids as well. Groups can tour the home where Garland grew up in the 1920s and then visit the Itasca County Museum. The museum is located in a former local high school and features a collection of Garland artifacts and memorabilia.