Driving the First 100 Miles of the Great River Road

Starting at the headwaters in Itasca State Park

So who’s been to the Mississippi headwaters? Team Minnevangelist traveled there recently for a story, following the Great River Road from Itasca State Park to Bemidji and Grand Rapids, then back to the Twin Cities.

The Great River Road starts about 150 miles south of the Canadian border and ends at the Gulf of Mexico, winding through 10 states en route. It was established in 1939 but was only recently designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration — a title that acknowledges its natural beauty and historic, cultural, and recreational importance.

Downtown Bemidji

Our weekend adventure took us through Chippewa National Forest and Leech Lake Reservation, plus three state parks. At the headwaters in Itasca, we saw plenty of tourists posing for photos and dipping bare feet in the cold lake. For us, the highlight was the Preacher’s Grove, a thicket of red pines three centuries old.

In Lake Bemidji State Park, we followed a boardwalk through a fragile spruce and tamarack bog, looking for pitcher plants and any creature unlucky enough to be mummified beneath the floating mat of sphagnum moss. Of course, we also waved hello to Paul Bunyan and his faithful blue ox Babe in downtown Bemidji, and later posed with the 65-foot muskie at Big Fish Supper Club in Bena. (Alas, it was closed the day we were passing through.)

Lake Bemidji State Park

In Deer River’s petite Schoolcraft State Park, we found a beautiful campsite right on the river; we can’t wait to go back there to roast marshmallows and swat mosquitos.

Edible highlights from our weekend away include the walleye BLT at Good Life Café in Park Rapids; giant dill pickle pistachios from the Bavarian-themed Big Winnie General Store in Bena; and the ham-and-egg breakfast sandwich at Nopo Coffee Co, Italian Stallion pizza at Rapids Brewing Co., and Cornish-style pasties from Pasties Plus, all in Grand Rapids. That last one, by the way, ships to the Twin Cities—and yes, you need more pasties in your life.

Schoolcraft State Park

Good Life Cafe

Big Fish Supper Club

Rapids Brewing Co

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