Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota might not be the most widely-known destination in the National Park Service (NPS), but it's definitely one worth visiting - especially if you love water and communing with nature. Receiving fewer than a quarter-million visitors each year, this off-the-beaten-path destination provides a true opportunity to enjoy the beauty of nature without the crowds and frenzy associated with visiting the more popular national parks.
About Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park is located about 300 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. It takes about five hours to drive to the park from the Twin Cities following I-35 and Highway 53. If you are traveling from Duluth, Minnesota, expect your drive to take about three hours on Highway 53. If you are heading south from Winnipeg, Manitoba, the drive will take about four hours.
Alyssa Ebel, who works in public relations with Explore Minnesota, states, "Straddling the Minnesota-Canadian border, this remote 218,000-acre natural wonder is the largest freshwater-based national park in the United States." It is missing two things that you'll find at most other National Parks - entrance fees and roads. There is no charge to visit this park, and the park's roads stop at its three visitor's centers which are the best places to begin your exploration of the park.
Once you park at a visitor's center, you'll need to leave your vehicle behind. Leaving your car behind doesn't mean that you're on foot the whole way, though. Ebel explains, "Since there are no roads, travelers traverse the four large lakes (Kabetogama, Namakan, Rainy and Sand) and 26 interior lakes that cover 40 percent of the park itself." She urges, "Even if you don't have a boat, don't let that deter you from visiting. You can take a National Park Service tour boat or even paddle with a ranger to get out on the water." Privately-operated water taxis are also available.
Top Activities and Attractions
According to Ebel, some of the biggest benefits of visiting this park are "to experience peace, solitude and rejuvenation; view incredible night skies; and experience a variety of summer and winter recreation." There are plenty of things to do here.
The NPS operates a number of guided tours that provide visitors with opportunities to learn about the park from a knowledgeable tour guide in a personal way. The El Monte RV blog recommends the park's ranger-led boat tours to learn about the park's history and unique features. Tour options include seasonal boat rides, canoe outings and hikes departing from one of the park's visitor's centers. The Kettle Falls Cruise is a great guided tour option. It includes three-and-a-half hours on Lake Kabetogama, broken up by two hours off the boat, during which you'll be able to tour and eat at the Historic Kettle Falls Hotel as well as check out the dam.
With its proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the park is a paradise for those who enjoy canoeing and kayaking, from beginners to expert paddlers. Paddling.net indicates that autumn is a great time to paddle in the park, as the fall scenery is spectacular and the peak tourist season is over. According to Canoeing.com, "the interior lakes are reserved only for canoes," making for an ultimate opportunity to commune with nature. If you paddle the full distance, you may find yourself paddling as many as 85 miles, which can be done in about a week. You can purchase or rent gear from a number of local outfitters. Canoe rentals are also available in the park.
Hiking enthusiasts are sure to enjoy the numerous hiking trails in the park, with routes ranging from easy hikes appropriate for beginners to strenuous hikes that even experienced hikers will find challenging. There are 11 trails near one of the visitor's centers (meaning that you can access them by car), and six trails that can be accessed only by water. Recreation.gov indicates that there are more than 52 miles of hiking trails in the park. When hiking in the park, be sure to dress for the weather and wear good walking shoes. You should also take along water, sunscreen, a hat, and insect repellant.
Bring your boat to enjoy the park's lakes. You can also rent a boat or even a houseboat for an all-in-one vacation escape. Fishing is allowed, though you must get a fishing license and follow all Minnesota fishing regulations. Park regulations require the use of artificial bait. Jet skis are not permitted. Motor boats and row boats can be rented in the park. Local companies like Ash Trail Lodge, Ebels and Voyagaire also rent various types of boats that can be used in the park. The L.L. Bean blog points out that it's important to have the skills necessary to navigate the lakes before setting out in a boat.
Visitor Destination Sites
Within Voyageurs, there are 13 visitor destinations, some of which have historic buildings (such as Ingersoll Estate and I.W. Stevens Pine Cove Resort) that the NPS is preserving for future generations. The unique and lovely Ellsworth Rock Gardens is a must-see, but you should really make time to see all 13 of these sites. They are beautiful and fun to visit, and also provide a great way to become more informed about the park's historical significance. As with everything within the park's boundaries, these landmarks can be accessed only by water.
The freezing winters Minnesota is known for, make way for winter sports opportunities within the park, typically starting in late December. Ebel states, "In winter, visitors enjoy ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling on more than 110 miles of groomed trails." She adds, "From January to March, plowed roads over the lakes allow cars to access the park's interior. Plowed ice roads are a popular form of winter transportation on Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake, and are open when the ice is thick enough for safe use. Anglers use the road to get out on the lake for ice fishing, but it's an interesting scenic winter drive for anyone."
Where to Stay
- Kettle Falls Hotel - Accessible by water only, Kettle Falls Hotel is the only non-camping option within the park. Built in 1910, the hotel now has a place on the National Register of Historic places. The NPS renovated the property in 1987. It has 12 rooms and three shared bathrooms. There are also several villas, each with a private bathroom and some with kitchenettes. Pets are allowed in the villas for an additional fee. There is a full restaurant and saloon on the property and it's open May through September. Reservations are a must, and you must pay a deposit when reserving your room. Park visitors can rent boats, canoes and kayaks at the hotel.
- Camping: Voyageurs National Park has more than 270 campsites, all of which are accessible by water only. These include both frontcountry and backcountry tent sites. RV camping is not allowed in the park. During the off-season (September 16 - May 14), all campsites are $10 per night. During the rest of the year, campers must also pay an amenity fee, which ranges from $16 to $35 per night depending on size and type of campsite. All sites can be reserved. Ebel describes, "All of these secluded lakeside sites offer outstanding amenities for your national park experience." She notes that no matter where you are camping in the park, you'll never see another campsite.
- Houseboats - If you rent a houseboat, you 'll be able to enjoy boat camping in the park for the same fee as tent campsites. According to Ebel, "Unique to this water-based national park, houseboating is a very popular way to traverse and lodge in the park with all of the comforts of home. Voyageurs National Park offers some of the best houseboating in the Midwest." There are numerous positive reviews of houseboating vacations in the park on FamilyVacationCritic.com, with comments like "most relaxing vacation I have been on in years," "highly recommend," and "cannot wait to go back."
There are a number of accommodation options outside the park.
Whether you prefer primitive camping or are looking for a comfortable RV site, there are great options near the park. Examples include:
- Woodenfrog State Forest Campground: If you're looking for drive-in primitive camping close to the park, Ebel recommends Woodenfrog State Forest Campground. Campsites cannot be reserved here. Each site has a picnic table and a fire ring and campers have access to vault toilets. Potable water is available as well, but that is it for amenities. A reviewer on Trekaroo describes it as a "fantastic" place for primitive camping and raves about the day-use area for outdoor activities.
- Pine Aire Resort: Located on Lake, Kabetogama, this resort offers daily and seasonal full-hookup campsites. Guests have access to a full bathhouse. Dock space can be rented for an additional fee. Pets are allowed. The resort also has rental cabins and a lodge. Boat rentals are available on-site and you can purchase food, supplies and souvenirs at the lodge. A review on RVParkReviews.com describes the campground as a "homey, relaxed atmosphere with no frills," and notes the place has friendly owners.
There are several water-oriented cabin resorts within ten miles of the park, including:
- Park Point Resort: Here, you can stay in a cabin on Lake Kabetogama. Each cabin has a full kitchen (complete with a microwave and coffee maker), comfortable beds, a large deck (with a grill) that overlooks the lake and dock space. In-cabin Wi-Fi and DIRECTV are also provided. Pets are allowed (fee required). TripAdvisor reviewers rave about the resort's facilities and location.
- Northern Lights Resort & Outfitting: Also on Lake Kabetogama, this resort offers both traditional cabins and full-size vacation homes. Each has comfortable sleeping quarters and living quarters, including a full kitchen area. Some properties are directly on the lake while others have a lake view. Each has a deck or porch, allowing guests to make the most of the beautiful scenery. Pets are allowed in some accommodations, with an additional fee.
According to Expedia, America's Best Value Inn & Suites International Falls and Days Inn International Falls are the two highest-rated hotels near the park. Each is located less than five miles away from the park and provides a comfortable home base for your trip if you prefer a traditional hotel rather than camping or staying in a cabin.
Outside the Park
Recreational activities are plentiful in the communities surrounding the park. For example, in Nearby International Falls, Rainy Lake and Ranier, you can enjoy:
- Shopping for antiques and souvenirs in charming resort towns
- Touring the Koochiching Historical & Bronco Nagurski Museums
- Visiting the giant Smokey Bear Statue
- Dining at a variety of family-friendly establishments
Explore the Beauty of Minnesota
Ebel points out that Minnesota "is home to a total of six national park sites." The other five are St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, North Country Scenic Trail, Pipestone National Monument and Grand Portage National Monument. Once you've explored Voyageurs National Park, you're sure to fall in love with Minnesota's unique beauty and develop an urge to visit the state's other national parks and additional attractions in this region of northern Minnesota.