Snowshoeing and Winter Hiking in Itasca State Park

Alex and I started 2018 off with an extended, bitterly-cold weekend at Itasca State Park.

Established in 1891, Itasca is the oldest park in the Minnesota state park system. The park is 33,235 acres and home to the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. Winter offerings include trails (cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, winter hiking), snowshoe rentals, interpretive displays and programs, historic sites, ice fishing, camping (hike-in, drive-in), and lodging (suites, Mississippi Headwaters Hostel).

In true Andrea-and-Alex fashion, we rolled into the park in the dead of night (6:30 PM — hey, sunset is around 5:00 PM right now) and there were no staff to check in with.

After winding our way and almost driving on a ski trail, we eventually parked in an empty parking lot between two six-plexes. I went to get the keys to our suite (I had secured the combination to the key box from the visitor center a couple days before). I found our suite and ventured into the porch area… and could not find the key box. After scanning the door area, a sign pointed me in the right direction. I punched in the code and pulled down the latch… and nothing. Did I not remember the code correctly? I tried a button that said “clear” (which also did nothing) and tried punching the code in again, except the first number was not registering. After a while, it somehow opened. Jackpot! Keys to let us into our weekend abode.

I grabbed the keys, and the lock fell on the ground. I tried putting it back, but the latch wouldn’t work again. It was -11°F, and there I was… in a thin hooded sweatshirt, leggings, boots and fingerless gloves… fighting with a key box. A voice of reason (or survival) eventually told me to put the lock down and figure it out inside the suite.

After unloading the car, we checked out our home for the weekend. It was very cozy! The suite had beautiful wood paneling and wood furniture that completed that “up north” feel. The main room contained a kitchenette, TV, chair and love seat. The kitchenette had more than I expected (there was a dishwasher!), and we accidentally brought more than we needed. A door off of the kitchenette led to a large bathroom accessible for people with disabilities (not all of the suites are accessible). Another door next to the bathroom led to the bedroom, which contained the usual luxuries (bed, dresser, desk) plus an additional sink. Bedding and towels were provided, but there were no extra pillows/blankets or basic toiletries (other than hand and dish soap), and the windows in the main room could not be fully covered, so anybody walking by could potentially peer in.

Our attention quickly turned to dinner and the TV. We do not have cable at home so it is always a treat when we do not have to adjust rabbit ears. Plus, it was a smart TV!

Except it was a little too smart for us. We found the menu and channel schedule, but it would not let us select or scroll. After about 10-15 minutes, Alex figured out how to restart the cable box, and voila! We were in business.

Brats were dinner by default since the other meat options were still frozen. Once the links were sizzling, Alex realized we forgot something major: ketchup and mustard. So, I added some shredded cheese to mine, and Alex added shredded cheese and sour cream to his. Mine was acceptable, and I wouldn’t mind it again. Alex ate his, but it was not an experience he’d recommend.

Breakfast the next morning was another experience. I soaked Backpacker’s Pantry Huevos Rancheros in water for about 15 minutes. Then, I added more water with Harmony Valley Camp Cuisine Breakfast Sausage, and let it sit for another 15 minutes. After cooking for about 10 minutes, the end result was put in tortillas. I envisioned the eggs and sausage rehydrating separately, but after, I realized that (duh) they mixed together and rehydrated into their own tasty, but different, concoction.


After filling our stomachs, we layered up and decided to attempt a round-trip trek on snowshoes to and from the Mississippi headwaters. The 6+ miles started fabulously. Although the high was forecasted to be -5°F, there was no wind and it did not feel that cold. We wove along the eastern part of the lake, up and down hills, and stopped occasionally to take photos, take in the serenity, and talk to each other without the crunch-crunch-crunch of the snowshoes.

The tranquility was amazing. We’d stop and literally hear nothing, and we did not see a single person on the trail. It felt like we had the whole park to ourselves.

About 1.5 hours into the hike, my 33-going-on-80-year-old body started to hate me. PAINFULLY. Both hips hurt with every step. We made it to one of the campgrounds and continued without the snowshoes on our feet. We walked around the campground (and saw where we stayed this past July — see the end of this blog post about that trip), and then I started going downhill quickly. My energy was completely zapped (I’d only consumed one protein bar and a few sips of water on our trek), plus an old low-back injury was starting to flare up and a chill began to spread over me.

We decided to head back via the main park road. About an hour later, my fingers started to get painfully cold, so Alex traded me his mittens for my gloves. Shortly after, my toes started to get a little cold. Finally, we saw the cabins near our home base and took a ski trail as a short cut (both hips protesting with every step again).

I warmed up quickly in the suite, after changing, showering and savoring the hot chocolate and tacos-in-a-bag Alex made. We were outside for almost 5 hours, which was way longer than we probably should have been outdoors considering the forecasted high. This is a good time for a mention about cold-weather hiking preparedness, so check out this great article by REI. Being prepared is essential to avoiding a negative experience at best or hypothermia and frostbite at worst. In addition, blazing ungroomed trails and snowshoeing in general exert more energy than hiking clear turf in milder seasons, so pace yourself at first (which I obviously did not do this trip).

After breakfast the next morning, we drove to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The high was forecasted to be a heat wave at 9°F, but the 20-25 MPH winds made it feel much colder. Even though Lake Itasca had ice thick enough for vehicles to drive on and the area had not seen a temperature above 0°F for days (if not weeks), the infant Mississippi was open and flowing majestically. A sign of life in the heart of a brutal winter.

After some time at the headwaters, we decided to venture along Wilderness Drive, a 10-mile tour of the western portion of the park. After driving about 2 miles, blockades impeded our route with a sign saying it was closed. Oops. So, we returned to the headwaters parking lot and decided to go on the Schoolcraft Trail, which was 2.2 miles roundtrip. The wind was brutal coming off the lake, but the trail meandered through pine stands, which provided some respite.

After, we stopped by a convenience store to get more coffee creamer, cooking oil, and some ice cream (because obviously we need ice cream in all types of weather). Upon returning to our suite, we ate a late lunch of way-too-much soup and bread, which held us over for dinner and beyond, and we ended up not making the chicken we got the cooking oil for. Oops.

I wish the weather would have been warmer during this visit, but that’s January in Minnesota for you.