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Minnesota’s Great River Road

Following the river — the Mississippi River, that is — amounts to mighty memorable Minnesota experiences.

Starting at the top, groups wade across the river’s headwaters — it doesn’t take more than a minute — then head south to learn more about how logging the pines along it nearly decimated Minnesota’s woodlands. Near the site of a frontier fort, visitors explore how Minnesotans have contributed to the country’s defense. In the Twin Cities, travelers learn how the river powered the economy at a riverfront park and museum that overlooks the river’s only falls.

The trip ends on a playful note, at one of the most acclaimed toy stores in the country.

Itasca State Park

Park Rapids

In Connie Cox’s opinion, Ponce de Leon missed the boat. Had he ventured far north to what is now Minnesota, he would have discovered waters as magical as those he found in St. Augustine, at the humble spot where Lake Itasca spills out and the Mississippi River begins.

“When you watch everyone from little kids to 95-year-olds and see the delight in their faces as they step into the Mississippi where it is the infant river — we really do have the Fountain of Youth,” said Cox, lead interpretive naturalist, who’s been a fixture at Itasca State Park for the last 24 years.

There’s much to do and see in this 33,000-acre state park that preserves, protects and promotes the mighty river’s meager start. There are boat rides on the lake, meals at a historic lodge, guided nature hikes with eagles soaring above and baby turtles snapping below, even overnight stays in cabins crafted by the CCC. But the Mississippi headwaters is what everyone wants to see most. If you want to see it yourself, hop on the park’s website; a live cam captures the headwaters and people wading across them.

Depending on the season, the headwaters’ crossing can be ankle to knee deep. Either way, “you can go from the east side to the west side of the United States in the blink of an eye,” Cox said. “There are stories that if you make a wish, your wish will come true in 90 days — that’s how long it takes a drop of water leaving Lake Itasca to reach the Gulf of Mexico.”

For many, the Mississippi’s less-than-mighty beginnings are a surprise. “Most of our visitors have experienced the river south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, where it is quite large,” said Cox. “Many will say to me on a tour, ‘What was the name of that crick we just went by?’ and I’ll say, ‘That was the Mississippi River.’ Their response is always, ‘It is so small.’ But I tell everybody, ‘All great things have simple beginnings.’”

Forest History Center

Grand Rapids

A re-created 1901 logging camp gets a lot of attention at the Forest History Center.

Costumed interpreters wield axes, guide teams of draft horses and fell trees. The camp itself is accurate, built using actual plans drawn for an early 20th-century camp.

But as fascinating as the lumberjacks’ lives seem, their work devastated forests not only in Minnesota, but throughout the Eastern and Southern U.S. The Forest History Center, created in 1978, has since been telling the story of what happened after logging decimated nearly 80% of our forests.

“We tell the story of clear-cutting back in the 1900-01 winter, when there were very few regulations regarding lumbering in Minnesota,” said site manager Jeff Johns.

That story “makes a good segue” for what happened next as the need for forest management and conservation was realized “so that we have enough forest resources to serve posterity,” said Johns.

A visitors center with 10,000 square feet of exhibits tells many of those stories, from the contributions of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and environmentalist John Muir to the impact of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and state forestry efforts.

Typically, groups are integrated into one of the five scheduled tours the center offers daily. Like many Minnesota attractions, its hours and days of operation change with the season, but group tours can always be scheduled.

The center sits on 170 acres next to the Mississippi River, which was used to float logs south to lumber mills. The surrounding lands remind visitors of how beauty and diversity are gained by protecting and conserving forests, said Johns.

“We have managed and unmanaged forest, grasslands and wetlands,” he said. “Wildlife abounds in this setting. There are bald eagles, bobcats, bear, beaver, otter, 100 species of migratory birds. Even though we are almost dead center in Grand Rapids, it is a very wild place.”

Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley

Little Falls

Old Fort Ripley stood guard on the new frontier for almost 30 years.

Now, those lands next to the Mississippi River and many more — some 53,000 acres in total — are a military training center for branches of the military and various state agencies. Called Camp Ripley, the facility also serves as a protected area for golden eagles, deer and other wildlife and is the home of a museum dedicated to Minnesota’s military veterans.

Through permanent and temporary exhibits that make good use of its 80,000 artifacts, many donated by Minnesota citizens, the Minnesota Military Museum employs personal stories to show the impact of war. Its permanent exhibit “America at War” looks at battles fought since Minnesota’s statehood in 1858, including the contributions of early forts, like Fort Ripley, which protected settlers. A collection of rifles, revolvers and other weaponry from the Revolutionary War to modern times is displayed in the Arms Room.

Six models of the Jeep illustrate the importance of this four-wheeled warhorse and Minnesota’s role in its development. Special exhibits have examined women’s roles in the military, the impact of World War I — including a walk through a re-created trench like the ones used in World War I battlefields — and a special unit of Minnesotans of Norwegian heritage who skied and specialized in mountain warfare. They helped return their home country to freedom after World War II.

Visitors can step inside a rare boxcar used to transport American troops and their horses in France during World War II — a gift from French citizens — or climb into the driver’s seat of a tank turret. In good weather, groups can stroll around the more than 60 vehicles, tanks, aircraft and artillery on display outdoors.

Mississippi Riverfront


Next to modern-day downtown Minneapolis, the Mississippi River takes its only tumble as it travels toward the Gulf of Mexico. That 55-foot drop, known as St. Anthony Falls, set much in motion.

The Dakota people revered it; a Catholic friar named it. Settlers from the northeast harnessed its power, first to mill logs, later to mill flour. “Industrialization on a massive scale” is how Michael Rainville of Meet Minneapolis describes it.

“It is the birthplace of Minnesota,” Rainville said, making the riverfront a must-stop, and there’s far more to see than the expected scenic overlook.

Today’s riverfront teems with activity. Old mill buildings and their ruins have been restored for offices, housing and the centerpiece, the Mill City Museum. There are parks, walking paths and the Stone Arch Bridge, a former railroad bridge turned pedestrian pathway that angles across the Mississippi. In 2020, another park, called Water Works, will open, and in 2021, it will become home to a new group-friendly restaurant run by Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, serving Native American specialties.

But the first stop should be the museum. Its reuse of an old mill building is inventive, from a rooftop with the best views of the river and Stone Arch Bridge to a freight elevator turned into a moving theater called the Flour Power Tower. The audience sits in chairs in the massive elevator, and as it stops on each floor, its doors open onto multimedia tableaus that describe what it was like to work in a flour mill.

The museum also re-creates Gold Medal Flour’s test kitchen, and groups might snag a sample to taste.

“They are sometimes making cakes, lots of breads; it just depends on what interpreters are working on,” said Molly Jessup, a program specialist.

The museum also features a film, “Minneapolis in 19 Minutes,” that was created by a local writer and is a humorous and lighthearted look at the development of the city.

Lark Toys


Everybody — from Oprah and USA Today to Travel + Leisure and Reader’s Digest — raves about Lark Toys: “Best toy store in Minnesota,” “One of the top 10 toy stores in the world!” they proclaim and exclaim.

But to simply call Lark a toy store is like saying Einstein was sort of smart. Lark Toys is also a mini-museum, its Memory Lane lined with vintage Barbie dolls and green plastic army men. And since Lark opened as a toy manufacturer three decades ago, toymaker Tim busily crafts wooden pull toys in his workshop. Outside, miniature golf beckons. Indoors, there’s a carousel, hand-carved from Minnesota basswood over nine years by the store’s founders and ridden by everyone from babies to octogenarians. When five mini llamas on site feel friendly, the toy store can feel like a petting zoo.

Miranda Gray-Burlingame, whose family bought the store just south of Wabasha 12 years ago, says it’s a place to share memories and make new ones.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia and reminiscing and telling stories,” she said. “We are so aware people are carrying around hard stuff all the time. We hold Lark as a place of healing and rejuvenation.”

Group tours roll in to remember younger days, buy toys and books — yes, Lark also has an extensive selection of children’s books, chosen by Kathy Gray, Miranda’s mother — take a whirl on a hand-carved dragon, and enjoy an ice cream cone or lunch at an in-store cafe that gets rave reviews. Lark staff can greet groups and tell them the story of the store’s start before sending them off to explore its 20,000 square feet of merchandise and fun.

Summers are busy with vacationers, and there’s another bump in the fall as leaves turn. Winters are quiet, but the store is open, although in January and February it’s only Friday through Sunday. It’s a perfect beginning or end to a trip north or south on the Great River Road.