Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

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The Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji, Minnesota, make up the headwaters of this mighty river. Two state parks reside in the area. Although Itasca State Park is much better known, Lake Bemidji State Park provides its own natural beauty. Follow along for many reasons why you should visit the area while in Minnesota. Although you may want to visit the North Shore first, there are many places in the rest of the North to visit as well. And please do!

Do you want to go back to the overall Northern Minnesota post? Or do you want to visit the “100+ Reasons to Love Minnesota” post?”

Table of Contents for Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Lake Itasca – Part of Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Lake Itasca forms the source of the Mississippi near Bemidji. In 1832, geographer Henry R. Schoolcraft discovered the source of the Mississippi. The river flows from Lake Itasca.

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Another Minnesota state park retains his name.

Although disagreements continue about the “true source,” geologists generally accept Schoolcraft’s findings. Schoolcraft renamed the lake “Itasca,” a combination of the Latin words Veritas (truth) and Caput (head).

However, Mississippi comes from the Ojibway word “Misi-ziibi,” meaning “Great River.” The river acquired many other nicknames over the years: The Father of Waters, The Big Muddy, Old Man River, The Mighty Mississippi, etc. You’ll find much more in my series about the Great River Road.

Itasca State Park – Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Of course, the state created the park to commemorate the source of the Mississippi. However, the park also contains a fire tower and old growth forest. Besides the Mississippi, the campgrounds at the park account for nearly 10% of the camping nights in the state, making it the most popular camping park. While some of that is due to the Mississippi Headwaters, it’s a beautiful park and well worth visiting.

Here’s a link to a Great River Road trip. Of course, please don’t skip Minnesota to drive that highway.

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However, on second thought, Minnesota does contain about 300 miles of the Great River Road. So, if you wander off down the GRR, go ahead!

Lake Bemidji State Park

This park features a unique ecosystem, a bog walk, and an eagle/osprey viewing.

Ok, I visited there. Instead of telling you about it here, I created a post mainly about the Bog Area. There is a 1,200-foot boardwalk through the bog to Big Bog Lake. Of course, here’s the link!

Tell me if you enjoy the post. However, I really want you to tell me about your visit to the park!

LaSalle Lake State Recreation Area

This one’s a State Recreation Area. The area has mainly hiking and boating.

In addition, they provide a few campsites, picnic areas, fishing, and a unique ecosystem.

Oh, that’s right, they also have snowshoeing in the winter (obviously in the winter.) Unlikely for anyone to use snowshoes in the summer!

Sorry, I didn’t get any pictures of the unique ecosystem. Maybe another time!


City of Bemidji – Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Due to several factors, the City of Bemidji receives designation as part of the Mississippi Headwaters. Of course, the main reasons are: It’s close to Lake Itasca, Lake Bemidji is the first major Lake on the Mississippi, and it’s the largest city in the area. Of course, it’s located “downriver as you can’t go “Upriver” from the source!”

After Duluth and Hibbing, Bemidji maintains the third largest population in northern Minnesota, although it’s only a thousand fewer than Hibbing. Bemidji State University, a student population of about 6,500, calls the area home. The university offers 70+ undergrad programs and eight graduate programs. The university competes in Division II athletics. However, they play hockey at the Division I level! Interestingly, although Minnesota has only two universities that play Division I athletics in all sports, four additional universities play Division I hockey. But then, it is Minnesota!

Bemidji’s healthcare scene features a trauma center with an air ambulance and, generally, services for the surrounding area. (I tell you this in case you aren’t careful enough in the state parks and recreation areas!)

Here are some pictures from the area.

By the way, Lake Itasca, the Mississippi River source, lies about 30 miles southwest of Bemidji. Interestingly, that means the Mississippi flows northeast before winding around to head south again about five miles or so after leaving Lake Bemidji.

Lake Bemidji

Lake Bemidji

As you follow the Mississippi River from its source, Bemidji becomes the first major lake you will encounter. Therefore, Lake Bemidji lays claim to the city of Bemidji, Lake Bemidji State Park, and one of the long-time classic Minnesota Resorts. Ruttgers Birchmont Lodge started in 1915 with a few cabins along the lake. The area contains a sandy beach, which is excellent for swimming.

Personal note: My wife’s family holds a summer gathering at Ruttgers. That event initially happened in 2016, following about fifteen years at Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. That’s in the West Central post that’s coming later.

The lake also provides for fishing, boating, water skiing, and more watersports. Since other streams feed into Lake Bemidji, the Mississippi exits the lake much larger than it entered. Although one can take a boat upstream toward the source, you must have a small boat to get very far! However, larger boats make the trips downstream quite easily. As you go downstream, you will find more lakes, and after about 5 miles or so, you will find the northernmost point on the river. From there, the river turns toward the south and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Headwaters Science Center

The Mississippi Headwaters Science Center is a Bemidji museum. The museum is dedicated to educating visitors about the Mississippi River and its surrounding ecosystem. It features interactive exhibits, live animals, and educational programs exploring the Mississippi River watershed’s natural and cultural history. The center is a popular destination for families, school groups, and nature enthusiasts who want to learn more about the ecology and geology of the region.

It’s a great place to see when visiting the area because of the broad overview of the geography of the headwaters area.

Great River Road

Great River Road

By the way, some of the drives near the source became a part of the Great River Road. Since the late 1930s, the Federal Highway Administration considers the collection of roads on both sides of the river a National Scenic Byway. Also, in 2021, the “Road” achieved All-American Road status!

Here’s a link to more about the Great River Road. But that’s about the Great River Road in general. Here’s the link to the first section around Lake Itasca.

Attractions to take in while visiting

Additionally, here are more things to do in Bemidji:

  • Visit the Headwaters Science Center (see above)
  • View Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox on the shores of Lake Bemidji (picture above)
  • Attend a performance at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse
  • Go on a Bemidji Sculpture Walk
  • See a hockey game or a concert at the Sanford Center
  • In the winter, spend a day at the Buena Vista Ski Area
  • Visit the Beltrami County Historical Center
  • See a race at the Bemidji Speedway
  • Pay your respects at the Freedom Defenders Veterans Memorial. Read the post about the memorial.


Bemidji’s economy consists of tourism, education, and healthcare. Of course, retail, including shopping, bars, and restaurants, serves locals and visitors to the area.

Bemidji’s healthcare scene features a trauma center with an air ambulance and, generally, services for the surrounding area. Since Sanford Health provides multiple services, with links to Sanford in Fargo, so they are well prepared to manage the healthcare needs of visitors and residents. Sanford became the largest healthcare provider between Duluth and the western Minnesota border. With all the tourism, that ER gets busy in the summer!

Paul Bunyan folklore

By the way, Bemidji and several other communities in other states claim the birthplace of Paul Bunyan! Paul Bunyan’s “girlfriend” (Lucette Diana Kensack) stands in nearby Hackensack, MN. The Paul and Babe statues stand the test of time. After building them in 1957, the city maintains them. By the way, Bemidji and several other communities in other states claim the birthplace of Paul Bunyan!

It’s also rumored that the lakes in Minnesota are Paul’s and Babe’s footprints! A story attributed to him is: Bystander to Paul: What was your largest logging job? Paul: The Sahara Forest. Bystander: But that’s a desert. Paul: It is now!

Although Bemidji became the first, there are now 11 statues of Paul in Minnesota!

Summary and Conclusions – Headwaters Mississippi River & Bemidji

Again, the major draw here is the source of the Mississippi. However, Itasca State Park is one of the most visited parks in Minnesota, and Bemidji became a major draw over the years with the college, the Headwaters Science Center, and other attractions. By the way, you’ll see a few things with “Headwaters” in the title!

While visiting northern Minnesota, this area becomes one of the main attractions.

Classic Rock Recollection

“Rock ‘n’ Roll is Alive (And it Lives in Minneapolis)” by Prince

Rock is alive (rock ‘n’ roll is alive!)

Rock’ n’ roll’s alive and lives in Minneapolis
Rock’ n’ roll’s alive and lives in Minneapolis

From all over the world the people came
Even the President flies in to worship a thing called fame
Red, white, blue boy, girls, tonight everyone’s the same
Some people say it’s dyin’, but we don’t wanna play that game

Written by: Prince, Michael Bland, Lloyd Sonny Thompson, Tommy Elm, Morris K. Hayes

#lakeitasca #Mississippiheadwaters #headwaterssciencecenter #headwaters