Lake Itasca, Minnesota, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - Midwest - Minnesota - Northwest -

Also known as:  Elk Lake, Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan

The headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River originate at 1,162-acre Lake Itasca. Wild and impressive, this beautiful lake is surrounded entirely by Itasca State Park. What isn’t well known, however, is that Lake Itasca isn’t a natural body of water. The original beginnings of the major river were a series of small ponds within a large swamp. The site of the lake was first visited in 1804 by a fur trader named William Morrison. Local Ojibway told him the name was Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan, meaning Elk Lake. Elk Lake it was until noted explorer Henry Schoolcraft arrived a few years later to declare the lake the actual headwaters of the Mississippi. He renamed it with a combination of the Latin words ‘veritas’ for ‘truth’ and ‘caput’ for ‘head’-Itasca. Somehow, most later visitors assumed this to be a name garnered from the local natives. Whatever-the name stuck!

It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that a group of loggers decided that the Mississippi headwaters deserved a more impressive lake and dammed the outlet with logs. This caused the water to back up and inundated some of the surrounding swampland. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps took on the chore of improving the lake even more. They drained much of the surrounding swamp, bulldozed the outlet channel into a regular watercourse, and installed a low-head concrete dam to further regulate the lake levels. To improve the dam area for recreation and to make it all appear untouched by human hands, they added a course of rocks atop the submerged concrete weir allowing for visitors to wade across the dam. To this day, visitors enjoy the stepping stones to cross the man-made rapids at the head of the Mississippi.

Because the lake was originally wet marshland, the shoreline in many areas is poorly defined. Wetlands merge with the water in many areas. The surrounding lands are heavily wooded, and the protected status allows for all sorts of native birds and animals to enjoy Lake Itasca’s bounty. Lake Itasca State Park is considered one of the top five state parks in the United States, according to Outside Magazine. There are certainly plenty of natural outdoor activities to be enjoyed in the 50-square-mile park. A boat ramp along the north arm of the lake provides year-round access. Shaped like an inverted ‘Y’, the lake gives plenty of room for boating and fishing along its three arms. One large island is named after explorer Schoolcraft. A large acreage along the west side of the lake is designated the Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary State Natural Area and invites nature lovers to enjoy the old-growth forest and natural marshlands remaining here. The surrounding area and many lakes are home to deer, waterfowl, loons and birds of prey.

A swimming beach is available, complete with picnic shelters, playground and volleyball courts. Canoeing, kayaking, boating and sailing all take place here. Even more visitors take one of the two-hour boat tours of the lake offered at the historic Douglas Lodge along the shore. Those who wish to paddle their own canoe but don’t have one with them can rent canoes, sit-on kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, pontoons, fishing boats, rowboats and accessories. The same facility on the northern shore rents bicycles, tandem bikes and electric-assist bikes to use on the many bike trails in the area and acts as camp store for the park.

Fishermen have plenty of angling enjoyment awaiting at Lake Itasca as they attempt to catch yellow perch, walleye, black crappie, northern pike, bluegill, rock bass and largemouth bass. Fishing is free for Minnesota residents, but out-of-state visitors need a Minnesota fishing license. A seasonal permit or daily admission fee is charged to enter the park, but with over 100 small lakes to fish, many anglers feel it an entirely reasonable cost. The sports rental facility also rents fishing tackle and sells bait.

Two main campgrounds are located within Lake Itasca State Park. Pine Ridge Campground offers year-round camping while Bear Paw Campground is limited to the summer season. Both have picnic tables, fire rings, shower facilities, water, some electrical hook-ups and restrooms. Eleven backpack campsites are available year-round. Two group campgrounds are open only in summer. Historic Douglas Lodge offers a variety of lodgings to overnight visitors, with camping cabins, lodge suites and a clubhouse. The appeal of the trails in the park is a year-round attraction, so several of the lodging facilities are open all winter. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling all delight cold weather sports participants within the park. Sections of the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest surround the park and offer several state forest campsites,

Jacob V Brower Visitor Center acts as headquarters for Lake Itasca visitors. The Center holds exhibits and meeting facilities, acts as a winter warming center for cross-country skiers, and heads several of the hiking and biking trails. The University of Minnesota has campus facilities along the shore in the form of the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories. Field research has gone on here since 1909, and the facility holds offices, laboratories, classrooms, computer lab, cabins for student and faculty housing, food service and recreation facilities. Roads circle the lake, allowing those with cars to access the Visitors Center and several historic sites surrounding the lake.

No private homes are located along Lake Itasca, but civilization isn’t faraway. The small town of Park Rapids is a few miles south of the lake and offers the usual services visitors and campers may need. A number of guest cabin resorts and small motels and inns provide lodging in the area outside of the park. Nearby, a commercial zipline and family fun facility accommodates those who feel the need for more organized adventure and entertainment. Lake Itasca can be reached from Duluth by car in about three hours and is nearly four hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul. There is no real estate available directly on Lake Itasca, but the entire surrounding area is full of residential lakes where the perfect cottage can be found for sale. So, pack up the hiking boots and the fishing rod and come visit Lake Itasca. Come wade across the Mississippi at its source.

Things to do at Lake Itasca

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Beach
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Cross-Country Skiing
  • Snowmobiling
  • Snowshoeing
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • State Park
  • State Forest
  • Playground

Fish species found at Lake Itasca

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Crappie
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Northern Pike
  • Perch
  • Pike
  • Sunfish
  • Walleye
  • Yellow Perch

Lake Itasca Photo Gallery

Lake Itasca Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed

Surface Area: 1,162 acres

Shoreline Length: 13 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 1,475 feet

Average Depth: 30 feet

Maximum Depth: 40 feet

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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