Northern Minnesota’s Great River Road

Photo by Alyssa Ebel

Road trip north to the Mississippi Headwaters

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The Mississippi River gets its start in Minnesota, and its headwaters at Itasca State Park are a must-see destination. This route follows the Great River Road north from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, tracing the Mississippi as it arcs across northern Minnesota. There are lots of interesting historic sites and scenic parks along the way.

Day 1: Twin Cities to Brainerd

Heading northwest from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, stop at Elk River to visit the Oliver H. Kelley Farm, operated as an 1860s working farmstead by the Minnesota Historical Society. The farm features the family home, barn, farm animals, fields and gardens. Depending on the season and the day, you may see plowing, butter churning and other traditional farm activities.

From here, follow the Great River Road signs on the roads that make up this scenic route along the Mississippi River. St. Cloud is a bustling city along the river, but for a peaceful stroll, be sure to stop at the extensive Munsinger and Clemens Gardens along the riverbank across from downtown. Just outside of Little Falls is the boyhood summer home of famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh; the interpretive center here tells the story of his life and historic flight across the Atlantic. The Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley highlights Minnesota’s soldiers, from frontier outposts to the present. From here, head north to Brainerd.

Day 2: Brainerd and Grand Rapids to Bemidji

The Brainerd Lakes area has been a vacation destination for more than a century, popular now for its fishing, golfing, biking and lakeside resorts. If you have some time to spend here, you will find a variety of outdoor recreation to entertain you. Brainerd and the villages of Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Crosslake and Crosby also have lots of little shops and restaurants.

From Brainerd, the Great River Road follows a series of scenic back roads along the Mississippi. The next city along the route is Grand Rapids, where you can visit the childhood home of singer and actor Judy Garland. Just outside of town on the Mississippi is the Forest History Center, a recreated logging camp where interpreters portray the lives of lumberjacks. Then, head west along the route, where the Mississippi passes through a series of lakes: Winnibigoshish, Cass and Bemidji. There are many resorts and campgrounds on lakeshores in these north woods.

Day 3: Bemidji to Lake Itasca

Bemidji is the first city on the Mississippi. Along the lakeshore in town stand the iconic statues of legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe, the Blue Ox. Stroll along the “art walk” downtown, which features several sculptures and murals, and during the summer, take in a performance at the Chief Theatre. Browse antique and gift shops, galleries and a woolen mills outlet.

From Bemidji, it’s about a 25-mile drive south through the woods to Itasca State Park, where the mighty Mississippi begins its journey as a small wilderness stream at Lake Itasca. This scenic park offers plenty to see and do. You can walk across the headwaters, by bridge or on stones. Interpretive displays tell the interesting stories of this park’s history, and a variety of naturalist programs are offered. Take a boat excursion on the lake, rent a boat yourself, or rent a bike to enjoy the park’s trail. Wilderness Drive loops through the park, and there are miles of hiking trails in the forest. For overnight accommodations, the park has lodge rooms, cabins and a hostel, as well as a large campground (book reservations for all well in advance).

Trip Extenders: Itasca State Park and Cycling

Plan an extra couple of days at Lake Itasca to enjoy all this beautiful park offers. And cyclists: bring your bike along on this trip and plan extra time to explore the paved trails, including the Paul Bunyan State Trail between Brainerd and Bemidji.

This itinerary is compliments of Explore Minnesota.

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