Itasca State Park Family Adventure

Outdoor Family Adventure at the Headwaters of the Mississippi

A group of kids sits on the wooden walkway that crosses the Mississippi River and dangle their toes in the water.Looking for a family-friendly vacation? Introduce your family to the joy of outdoor adventure at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota's Itasca State Park. Spend adventurous days stepping across the headwaters of the Mississippi and canoeing on Lake Itasca. Climb the 100-foot fire tower, take a refreshing swim, and attend a MN DNR Ranger-led interpretive program. Itasca State Park is a kid-friendly vacation spot with a wealth of features and activities that will keep the whole family happy. Enjoy games and fun throughout the day, and wind down in the evening with s'mores around the campfire and night hikes under the stars.

Sample Itinerary

DAY 1: Your trip starts in the early afternoon at the Elk Lake campsite in Itasca State Park. (Note: Some groups may camp at nearby Camp Courage North.) Learn how to set up camp, go over safety issues, and begin to explore the park. After dinner get to know your trip mates and make s'mores around the campfire.

DAY 2: After breakfast, drive to the outlet of Lake Itasca and step across the headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi. Spend some time at extensive visitor center of Minnesota's oldest state park. After lunch, learn about canoeing and go for a paddle on Elk Lake. Take a swim in the lake before dinner. In the evening, attend an entertaining State Park interpretive program on the early explorers.

DAY 3: Day three is filled with options. Pick between a day-long canoe trip from Elk Lake to Lake Itasca, tour historic Douglas Lodge, visit the 100-foot tall fire tower, spend time fishing, or take a hike through the pines. There are structured activities for the children throughout the day and evening.

DAY 4: Spend the morning relaxing and enjoying your favorite camp activities. Take one last paddle, hike, or swim. After lunch, pack up for the trip home. Your trip officially ends around lunchtime. Those using WI's van transportation can expect to return to Minneapolis in the evening.

Travel, Terrain, Etc...

TERRAIN/ROUTE CHOICES: Minnesota's Itasca State Park is located in a classic Northwoods environment. Enjoy mature forests of old growth pine and birch surrounding clear, pristine lakes. Itasca State Park offers a wide range of day activity options that are perfect for family vacations. Hiking trails vary from very easy to moderately difficult.

TYPE OF TRAVEL/DISTANCE: An average day's activities consist of hiking, canoeing and exploring the immediate area. You will travel in a 24-foot Voyageur canoe, which holds 6-9 paddlers and 1 boat captain. They are fast and stable boats, designed specifically for big water, and have enough space for young children to sit comfortably with an adult. Canoe outings are typically 1-3 hours long.

WEATHER: Temperatures in the summer range from 40 F to 95 F. Rainfall can vary and you should expect the possibility of rain.

YOUR GROUP: The group size ranges from 15 to 28 participants, plus 3 or more Wilderness Inquiry staff. Each group consists of people of various ages, backgrounds, and abilities, including people with disabilities. Itasca is a kid-friendly vacation that lends itself to quality family outdoor adventures. Our trips are cooperative in nature. WI staff will assist you in whatever areas you need, however most people pitch in where they can.

ACCOMMODATIONS: At night you will sleep in a comfortable 4 person tent with 3-4 people (other arrangements can be made). The campsite has a hand pump for water, toilets, and a screened shelter building.

MEALS: Enjoy preparing meals together using fresh, healthy ingredients for bountiful dishes. Rise to the smell of freshly brewed coffee to enjoy with your breakfast and pack trail lunches with hearty snacks before heading off to explore. In the evening, we’ll prepare our dinner together over stoves and campfires and then finish with s’mores. If you have special dietary restrictions be sure to list them on your registration.

EQUIPMENT AND CLOTHING: Wilderness Inquiry will provide all group equipment. You will need to provide your personal gear as outlined in the packing list. If you are new to outdoor activities, you do not need to spend a lot of money. Wilderness Inquiry can usually arrange for you to borrow most items.

A note about the itinerary: Our trips are real adventures in the outdoors. While we'll make every effort to follow the itinerary listed here, elements may change due to weather or reasons beyond our control.
Itasca State Park lies on the western edge of the boreal forest in north central Minnesota between the cities of Park Rapids and Bemidji. Within its 32,000 acres lie the headwaters of the 2,552-mile-long Mississippi River. Itasca State Park became Minnesota’s first state park in 1891.

Henry Schoolcraft, the first white explorer to recognize Lake Itasca as the head of the Mississippi, named the lake on his 1832 voyage of exploration guided by Anishinabe (Ojibway) people. Schoolcraft combined parts of two Latin words, veritas (truth) and caput (head), to form the name Itasca, meaning the true head of the Mississippi River.

Itasca State Park today includes over 100 lakes in addition to Lake Itasca. The park contains groves of towering old pines like Preachers Grove, a 2,000-acre Wilderness Sanctuary (designated as a National Natural Landmark), and Native American burial mounds at the Itasca Indian Cemetery. The Bison Kill Site along Wilderness Drive in the park gives visitors more history about this period. Visitors can walk across the Mississippi River on stones as the stream leaves Lake Itasca.

In the late 1800s, Jacob V. Brower, historian, anthropologist and land surveyor, came to the park region to settle the dispute of the actual location of the Mississippi Headwaters. Brower saw this region being quickly transformed by logging, and resolved to protect some of the pine forests for future generations. Brower’s tireless efforts to save the remaining pine forest surrounding Lake Itasca led the state legislature to establish Itasca as Minnesota’s first state park on April 20, 1891, by a margin of only one vote. Through his conservation work and the continuing efforts of others throughout the decades, the splendor of Itasca has been maintained.

Like the rest of northern Minnesota, Itasca’s present landscape resulted from burial under and gouging by glacial ice for thousands of years. Unlike northeastern Minnesota, which lay covered in ice until about 10,000 years ago, Itasca lay under the Wadena Lobe in the last ice age. The Wadena Lobe retreated from the Itasca area about 20,000 years ago, giving it a longer human history and an independent natural and geographical history.

Itasca’s topography remains more subtle than that found to the east or south. In those areas, glaciers gouged out the massive basins that gave form to the Great Lakes, and left records of its melting in the high bluffs along the Mississippi. The lakes and rivers of Itasca State Park formed from ice masses left behind after the glaciers retreated, buried under glacial debris. As the climate changed and temperatures increased, the ice melted, leaving behind a watery chain of lakes, streams, and shallow basins. Many of these lakes and chains slowly dried up over the years, leaving swampy areas scattered throughout the park.

The land itself is a glacial moraine left during the last ice age. A moraine is a mound of sand, gravel and other debris left behind as a glacier melts and recedes. Itasca also has many mounds or ‘knobs,’ deposits of silt left by melting glaciers or by streams flowing under the glacier while it was still active.

Several different habitats mingle within this section of the boreal forest, including bogs, grasslands, hardwood stands, coniferous forest, and a mixed forest. Maples, firs, pines, aspen, and birch dominate the forest within the park. Wildlife includes beaver, woodchucks, snowshoe hares, squirrels (red, gray, and fox), chipmunks, pocket gopher, raccoon, black bear, coyote, red and gray fox, porcupine, bobcat, deer, wolves, and moose. An array of birdlife also inhabits the park, including common loons, bald eagles, wood warblers, hawks, and woodpeckers.

Itasca State Park offers a terrific kid-friendly family camping vacation. Fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, and horseback riding can all be found in Itasca. This destination will give you lasting memories.

Frequently Asked Questions:

 What is the minimum age for kids on your family trips?

There is no minimum age requirement to participate on a WI trip. For a paddling trip, we require participants to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times when on the water for safety. The smallest PFD we provide for children requires a minimum weight of 30 pounds. A child smaller than this weight limit would need to provide their own PFD or would be unable to participate on the trip. For most family trips, children should be able to sit comfortably in a canoe or kayak for 1+ hour at a time. This should guide whether or not a child would be a good fit on any particular trip.

For a non-family trip, youth under the age of 18 must attend with an adult family member or friend who is over the age of 18.

 Is there a discount on family trips?

Yes. All youth participants under the age of 18 pay 50% less than the adult rate on all family trips. Adult fees are typically lower than on our "adult" trips to the same destination to help family affordability. Click here to see a list of our available family trips.

 Will age-appropriate activities be offered for children on a family trip?

Absolutely. Your trip leaders will offer age-appropriate activities for children at different points during the trip.

 Will I actually be able to walk across the MIssissippi River headwaters?

Absolutely! This is a real highlight of the trip. The headwaters are shallow and easily stepped across.

For more information, visit these links:

Minnesota DNR - Official Itasca State Park Page

Bemidji Visitors and Convention Bureau Homepage

Mississippi Headwaters Board - About the River

Learn about the benefits of taking your children camping

2017 DatesFeeRegistration
8/24-8/27/17  Gateway Trip $245 ($125 Youth)Register Now


This trip officially begins at Itasca State Park in the Elk Lake group campsite on the afternoon of the first day of the trip. By car, it is 4 hours northwest of Minneapolis, and 3 hours due west of Duluth, MN. You can use your own transportation or take WI’s van transportation from Minneapolis. Most people meet us in Minneapolis early in the morning of the first day of the trip. If you drive your own vehicle to Itasca State Park, you will need to purchase an entrance pass and you may need to use your vehicle throughout the remainder of the trip. Entrance passes are about $5.00 per day or $25 for an annual pass. Detailed meeting place instructions will be sent to you when you are confirmed for the trip.

Want to Ride With Us?
We typically provide transportation for this trip from the following places (make your selection when you register):

Quick Trip Facts:

  • 4 days, 3 nights
  • Children under 18 go for 1/2 price
  • 3 to 6 Wilderness Inquiry Staff
  • All meals and snacks included
  • Tents and camping gear provided
  • 24-foot Voyageur canoes
  • Bathroom and shower facilities
  • Toys, games, activities
  • Shuttle transportation
  • Adaptive gear as needed
Register Now!
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