The Ultimate Guide to Voyageurs National Park
Among the shimmering lakes of Voyageurs National Park, visions of the park's namesakes come to mind: rugged French-Canadian fur transporters who traversed these waters on the U.S.-Canada border in the 18th and 19th centuries. They formed tight bonds with the Ojibwe Tribe in the area, not only trading with them, but also learning their languages and cultural traditions. Ojibwe craftsmen would build their massive, 300-pound canoes with birch and cedar from the same forests now surrounding visitors today.
Despite the folk tales glamorizing the life of the voyageurs, the reality was much different than jaunty young men wearing trademark red toques and sashes. Their livelihoods demanded back-breaking labor, carrying their canoes and as much as 3,500 pounds of goods across long-distance portages. Navigating that same area today, the heaviest load most visitors need to carry is a cooler packed with food, ice and beer (mostly beer).
Water makes up more than one-third of Voyageurs National Park's 218,000 acres, almost completely surrounding the rugged Kabetogama Peninsula. Just like the Voyageurs of old, to get almost anywhere in the park, you're going to need a boat (at least in the warmer months). Many visitors opt to rent houseboats to cruise between the park's four major lakes: Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point. While it takes a little more advance planning, the reward of pristine wilderness, miniscule crowds and incredible fishing makes the journey worthwhile.
And in the early morning hours, before the pleasure boaters pierce the silence with the roar of their motors, it almost feels like you've been transported back in time—to that of the voyageurs.
PLAN To get the most out of this park, you're going to need to either rent a boat from a local outfitter, buy a ticket for a guided tour or bring your own watercraft. (Motorboats are allowed, but not Jet Skis.) If you want to spend several days exploring the park via boat, go over your plan with a ranger and obtain the needed permits in advance before heading out. Houseboat docking sites do fill up fast in summer, so plan to be at your preferred location by afternoon to secure a spot. Lakes can remain ice-covered from November to mid-May, so plan accordingly.
PACK Cell signal is hit-and-miss, so bring an emergency SOS device, like a Garmin inReach. You can also use the Navionics Boating app to download navigational maps in advance. (A trial period is free, so do this right before your trip!) There's one restaurant in the entire park, so stock up on food, as well as a water-filtration system. Pack plenty of layers for chilly nights. And don't forget a swimsuit—you can't be around all that water and not jump in!
DRIVE There are no roads on Kabetogama Peninsula, so plan to park your vehicle at one of the visitors centers for the duration of your stay.
FLY Your first instinct may be to fly into Minneapolis, but Falls International Airport is less than 15 miles from the park entrance, while the Twin Cities are about 300 miles away. Another option is Duluth—closer than MSP but still more than a two-hour drive.
BLIND ASH BAY TRAIL The rocky, 3-mile trail (round-trip) starts near the Ash River Visitor Center (accessible by car), winding through a boreal forest before reaching a beautiful viewpoint of Kabetogama Lake.
LOCATOR LAKE TRAIL You'll need a boat to access this tough, 2-mile trail (one-way). From the shoreside trailhead, the path leads over a ridge and through a forest before reaching Locator Lake. You can return to the trailhead, camp on the lakeshore (with a reservation) or, if you have a kayak or canoe, continue on to three additional lakes, each requiring a portage of a half-mile or less.
CRUISER LAKE TRAIL For a true adventure, tackle this strenuous, 8-mile trail (one-way). Dock your boat at the trailhead on Anderson Bay on the northern side of the Kabetogama Peninsula or Lost Bay on the southern side. From there, the path sends hardy hikers across rocky cliffs and wetlands. On the northern half, the trail connects both to the Anderson Bay Overlook or Beast Lake Trails. Don't expect to see many other hikers on this remote stretch of land, although you might see a moose or three. If you want to make it a multiday affair, be sure to book a backcountry camping permit.
LOOK UP Voyageurs is a dark-sky certified park, so the stargazing is legit, especially when there's not a full moon. With a camera, wide-aperture lens and tripod, you might snag stellar shots of the Milky Way or northern lights.
TAKE A BOAT TOUR If you'd rather let someone else wear the captain's hat, take a guided tour. Boats leave from Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake visitors centers, and tickets are available at Recreation.com. Here are some popular tour routes:
— Little American Island Learn about the area's mining history with a stop at this tiny island which has a short, 0.25-mile wheelchair-accessible walk.
— Grand Tour Cruise past wildlife hot spots, a historic commercial fish camp and an abandoned gold mine on Little American Island.
— Ellsworth Rock Gardens After a short ride across Kabetogama Lake, passengers can join a park ranger for a 0.25-mile tour of the unique rock sculptures. Part of the path is wheelchair-accessible.
— Kettle Falls Hotel Cruise A two-hour cruise ends at the hotel, where you can buy lunch in the dining room. (Packing a meal is also acceptable.) Take a self-guided tour of the grounds and nearby dam.
WINTER WATCH Average temperatures dip below freezing for nearly a third of the year, giving the area the nickname "The Icebox of the Nation." When the lakes freeze, snowmobilers take over, zooming along more than 110 miles of groomed trails. Voyageurs is also one of the best places in the Lower 48 to see the northern lights, which are especially active in winter.
CHECK IN Located inside the park, Kettle Falls Hotel can only be reached by boat or float plane. (With advanced notice, the hotel will ferry you over from the Ash River Visitor Center.) Rooms are rustic, without Wi-Fi, AC or en suite bathrooms. In Ranier (on Rainy Lake), Cantilever is a boutique hotel and distillery. (So you won't have to stumble very far at the end of the night.)
CAMP OUT Nearly all of the official NPS campsites are accessible only by boat and require a reservation. You can find drive-in sites on state- and national-forest properties close to Voyageurs.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS Renting a houseboat in Voyageurs is one of the most fun ways to stay in the park, giving you all the comforts of home while on the water and away from other visitors. Voyagaire offers the most choices and will even help you with resupplies on multiday journeys.
TETTEGOUCHE STATE PARK For visitors driving in from the North Shore area, this Lake Superior shore park offers trails, picturesque waterfalls and inland lakes.
BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE AREA WILDERNESS Located on Voyageurs' eastern border, the interconnected network of lakes known as the Boundary Waters sprawls for 1 million acres across Superior National Forest, ending at Grand Portage National Monument. It's an off-grid and mostly nonmotorized haven for paddlers, with 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and over 2,000 designated campsites.
SMOKEY BEAR PARK This is a favorite of International Falls locals. Grab a photo of a giant statue of the iconic bear, then visit the museum dedicated to another iconic (Chicago) Bear, Bronko Nagurski.