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TVL 'A memory maker'

By Beth Gauper

Knight Ridder Newspapers

It's hard to imagine how the public could adore Itasca State Park any more than it already does.

"It's a memory maker," says Terri Dinesen, manager of Upper Sioux Agency State Park, who was visiting Itasca recently with her husband, Camden State Park manager Bill Dinesen. "It's just one of those mile-marker, gotta-come-back kind of things."

Itasca contains more than a quarter of the state's old-growth pines outside the Boundary Waters. That draws Minnesotans, who tramp through the groves inhaling the heady perfume of pine.

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But they also join the pilgrimage to the source of the Mississippi, which draws people from around the world. A line of boulders marks the point at which the river trickles out of the lake and begins its 2,318-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico, and few schoolchildren from Minnesota or anywhere else can resist picking their way across the boulders so they can shout, "I walked across the Mississippi!"

"I grew up thinking of it as a rite of passage, somewhere between baptism and confirmation," says Gene Merriam, commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.

Itasca is still Minnesota's own resort, the highlight of a summer.

"It's a generational thing," says park manager Mike Kovacovich. "We know of fourth and fifth generations continuing the trek to Itasca."

"Some people stay all week," says naturalist Sandra Lichter. "After a while, you get to know them."

Luckily, it takes just a weekend to see many of Itasca's highlights. Here are the top four:

Explore the headwaters. From Itasca, the river flows north to Lake Bemidji, then heads east through Cass Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish.

"It's hard to convince people the river flows north," Lichter said. "I've actually had people argue with me about it. It's a weird concept."

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Cruise Lake Itasca on the Chester Charles. Don't miss this 11⁄2-hour; trip around the lake, narrated by Kim Coborn, who grew up in the area and pilots the boat named for her grandfather.

Not only is she savvy about nature and park history, but she also has an unerring eye for wildlife, picking out loons, deer, herons and eagles for her passengers to watch.

Ride around the park on a bike. This is the best way to see the park and to get from one place to another.

A twisting and rolling paved bike path follows the East Arm of Lake Itasca, past Douglas Lodge, Preachers Grove and through Bear Paw Campground.

Hike the trails. From the headwaters, the mile-long Schoolcraft Trail follows the other side of the North Arm, ending at Hill Point, where a timber fence protects an Ojibwe cemetery.

The most popular trail is the Dr. Roberts Nature Trail, which starts from the lakeshore at the foot of Douglas Lodge.

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WHEN TO GO: The park is at its best in every season. Hiking is best in fall, when bugs are down and leaves change color. It's just as lovely in winter, when pine boughs are draped in snow and 32 miles of trails are groomed for skiing. In spring, orchids and other wildflowers bloom along trails.

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ACCOMMODATIONS: Lodgings in the park closed early in October, but now is a good time to reserve for next summer and fall. Reservations can be made a year in advance at 1-866-857-2757, toll-free in the United States and Canada, or www.stayatmnparks.com; reservation fee is $8.50.

Campsite reservations in Itasca are among the hardest to get; if you want one for a holiday or a peak summer weekend, be at the phone or computer at 7 a.m. 90 days in advance (after the first day of availability, online reservations can be made 24 hours a day). However, 30 percent of Itasca's campsites are designated first-come, first-served. For details, check www.dnr.state.mn.us/parks.

DINING: Douglas Lodge is a very pleasant place to have a meal. It's best to stick to basics -- the burgers, the salad bar, the roast pork or turkey dinners. For lunch, eat in the cafeteria of the new Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, which serves sandwiches, soups and desserts.

BICYCLE RENTAL: It's $3.50 an hour, $20 day. 1-218-266-2150, www.itascasports.com.

CRUISES: Coborn's Lake Itasca Tours, at 1 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, will resume a daily schedule Memorial Day weekend, going out three times daily in peak season. Fare is $11, $7 for children 4-12. Call 1-218-732-5318, www.cobornscruises.com.

INFORMATION: 1-218-266-2100, www.dnr.state.mn.us

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