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Itasca State Park is a national treasure

A visit to the Headwaters of the Mississippi at Itasca State Park is on the "bucket list" for many local visitors and international travelers.
Enterprise file photo

Itasca State Park draws over 500,000 visitors each year from all over the world.

Connie Cox has been a park naturalist at Itasca since 1995. She said international travel fluctuates with the economy and where tours are being promoted.

“One year we might get a tour group with people from Japan, Thailand and China, and another year we might get a group from Sweden and Norway,” she said. We also have international travelers coming on their own or in a family group to explore the park.”

The headwaters is a big draw

“Wanting to see the headwaters of the Mississippi River is one of the main reasons people come,” Cox said. “Water is important in people’s lives in many parts of the world and they want to see the beginning of this great river. When people from other countries visit, I have noticed that they have a different understanding of the importance of rivers. We have so much water in Minnesota with our rivers and lakes. Some countries don’t have that luxury. Also some countries are very industrial. When I take an international group up to the headwaters and they see it for the first time, they often comment on how clean it is and how small the beginning of the Mississippi is. Some tell me how industry has led to pollution of the rivers in their country. ”

She said visiting the headwaters is on the “life bucket list” of many visitors.


Visitors are also interested in the history of the park.

“Oftentimes, when travel writers come they want to include the cultural and natural stories surrounding the park,” she said. “That can include the stories of the indigenous people of this area and how Itasca and the Mississippi were named. The connecting thread is always the Mississippi River.”

Other popular attractions

Even local people who haven’t visited Itasca in many years are often surprised at the newer additions to the park.

“The Jacob Brower Visitor Center is one of those,” she said. “One of the comments I hear from both local and international visitors is how much there is to see and do at the park. Camping, climbing the fire tower, miles of hiking trails, biking, kayaking and pontooning. And in the winter, skiing and snowshoeing.”

Copy of 090722.N.PRE.ItascaPontoonKayakers.jpg
Lake Itasca sees a lot of watercraft action as well, with kayaks, pontoons and fishing boats plying its waters.
Enterprise file photo

The park’s busiest season is from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Visitors from around the world

In the past, an interpretive panel featuring great rivers all around the world at the Mary Gibbs center of the Headwaters had a place for visitors to list what countries they were from.

People also sometimes put where they are from when they sign the guest register at the visitor center.

“Looking through those records, there were over 120 countries represented,” Cox said. “The Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Jordan, Japan, Jamaica, Israel, Nigeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Sudan, United Arab Emirate, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam, the Virgin Islands and many more from all parts of the world.”


Sometimes Cox leads tours for international visitors. Others come with a tour group through a travel agency or explore the park on their own.

“Sometimes I work with a translator and other times they understand English,” she said. “One of the biggest groups I gave a tour to was 45 visitors from Sweden. I also have given tours to a group from Russia, a group of school teachers from eastern Europe, and the top military general to the president of Slovenia who came on a special tour with a reciprocal exchange program through the Minnesota National Guard.”

Sometimes travelers come from a university in another country to do research in the park.

“I also often work with international writers who are coming to the U.S. to do a story about the Mississippi River or other aspects of the park such as what visitors can do in different seasons,” she said. “When those run in magazines in that country, that inspires a surge of visitors from that country. We also work with Explore Minnesota on coordinating visits from other parts of the world. Someone came from Italy to do some video footage for a TV show once. A lot of the travel writers focus on the lodging and meals side of the park. They often visit Douglas Lodge in the summertime and write about the tour boat and other recreational activities in the park, such as the bike and boat rentals and fishing.

Madeline, 4, Peter, 6, and William LaBerge, 8, receive a warm be
This Omaha, Neb. family participated in Smokey Bear Day while camping at Itasca State Park.
Enterprise file photo

Travel writers also often feature the hiking trails in the park.

“Hiking is very popular in Europe and they want to explore the longer trails where you can go over 10 miles,” she said. “They want to know about the big hiking loops in the park as well as the North Country Trail that goes through part of the park.”

Cox said that international visitors are not easy to identify.


“Often we don’t know if travelers are international or if they are Americans whose family came from India who have been here for four generations,” she said. “It’s hard to tell. Many people maintain their native language and dress although they are living in this country.”

International visitors come all through the year.

“Looking through our guest registers, we have people from all over the world coming, even in the winter,” she said. “What draws them here to the U.S. we don’t know. Maybe they’re on vacation and this is just one part of their trip. Some come to see the fall colors. Others come here to watch and photograph birds, especially when they are migrating or coming to nest. The loon is one of the most popular birds in the park. They are a symbol of our state, our lakes and our need for clean water.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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