The headwaters of 'America's national river' have a grip on visitors

The Mississippi River's source in northern Minnesota gets some love in a national travel feature.

Don't take it for granted, Minnesota.

A USA Today travel feature appearing in Gannet newspapers around the country this weekend gives some love to the origin of the Mississippi River, which of course is in our fair state.

Writer Gary Garth notes that Itasca State Park is home to more than 100 other lakes ... and to some of Minnesota's oldest and biggest trees. In fact, Itasca became Minnesota's first state park in 1891 mainly to protect the pine groves around the headwaters from loggers.

But it's the place where the Mississippi flows out of Lake Itasca that has "an almost mythic hold" on visitors, Garth writes, and is the biggest reason more than half a million people per year visit the park.

Garth explains that the Mississippi begins by flowing north out of Itasca, through an area that was swampy and choked with weeds until the early 20th Century. That's when workers with the Civilian Conservation Corps cleaned things up, planted some trees, and built a low dam to stabilize the water's flow – topping it with the stones visitors step on to cross the baby river.

Early European explorers weren't 100 percent sure about where the Mississippi started until an Ojibwe leader named Ozawindib guided Henry Schoolcraft to the lake in 1832. Schoolcraft named it by using the middle syllables of the Latin phrase veritas caput, which means true head.

Sure it's November, but Itasca gets visitors year round. You can even book a stay in the Douglas Lodge four season suites.

If you're going this weekend, be sure to wear blaze orange. Itasca is inviting hunters to help with park management by thinning out its sizable herd of whitetail deer.

Even if you're planning a visit in the dead of winter, there's no need to worry that the start of the Mississippi will be covered with ice. The park's lead interpreter, Connie Cox, told USA Today the headwaters stay at 45 degrees, even when the air temperature is as cold as 60 below.

What's up with that?

"The headwaters are a special place," she says.

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